Bike-Share Is for Short Trips, Not Four-Hour Jaunts

The vast majority of trips on DC's Capital Bikeshare are less than 30 minutes long. Short trips are what makes bike-share tick. Image: ##http://jdantos.wordpress.com/2012/01/18/capital-bikeshare-data-part-2/##JDantos##

One of the stranger threads to come out of yesterday’s announcement that Citigroup will sponsor NYC bike-share is the complaint that it will cost a lot to take long rides on the system. The usually bike-savvy Gothamist ran the headline “CitiBike, NYC’s Bike Share, Will Cost $77 For A Four-Hour Ride,” and bike-commuting Reuters blogger Felix Salmon posted charts showing the expense of taking out Citi Bikes for two hours or 24 hours at a time. (Gothamist doubled down today, posting one of Salmon’s graphs.)

Unless you write for a bike-hating rag like the Post, it’s odd to fixate on the cost of long bike-share trips because, fundamentally, the system is designed to help people make short, utilitarian trips. Bike-share will be great if you want or need to do things like:

  • Bike commute from Baruch Houses and back every day
  • Head to the movies in Cobble Hill from your apartment in Fort Greene
  • Get from MoMA to the High Line on a day of Manhattan sightseeing
  • Shave ten minutes off your trip from Grand Central to your job on the west side

And so on.

In DC, 88 percent of bike-share trips are 30 minutes or less, and the vast majority of trips are made by subscribers who pay $75 per year for an unlimited supply of trips under 30 minutes. They are spending pennies per trip. In London, the average weekday bike-share trip is 17 minutes long, and on the weekend the average is 27 minutes.

In terms of value-per-dollar, the overlooked feature of the NYC pricing system is that subscribers who pay $95 for an annual pass will get 45 minutes per trip before fees kick in — 50 percent more time than subscribers in DC or London.

It’s true that bike-share will be terrible for leisurely, all-day rentals. But this is a feature, not a bug, of the pricing mechanism. Imagine if 50 percent of bike-share trips were four hours long. That would hugely diminish the effectiveness of the system. While all those bikes were tied up by people making recreational jaunts, they’d be unavailable to a far greater number of people who want to use the bikes for transportation. Shorter trips mean more turnover, which makes the system more useful to more people.

  • My concern is the lack of trip-chaining. Chaining still mixes up the bikes around the system and helps if you accidentally got a bike that needs maintenance (it’s happened to me before).

  • I <3 Mike Bikes

    I think the confusion highlights the way New Yorkers in particular view bikes: they are either recreation, a job requirement, or a political statement but they’re never just a tool you use to get from point A to point B. 

    It’s hard for New Yorkers to imagine people using a bike for anything other than riding up and down the Hudson.  Then again, even I, a committed bike commuter, have a hard time imagining people using these bikes for short trips through midtown where there are approximately 0 bike lanes.  

  • J

    @OctaviusIII:disqus In other cities with the same system, there is a 2 minute gap between putting a bike back and taking another one out. It’s just long enough to discourage really long trips (it costs time) and certainly trips outside of the bikeshare area (it costs money), but not enough to totally prevent them or even make them that impractical. People chain trips all the time here in Montreal. I did it this weekend. Not a big deal.

  • IanM

    “…subscribers who pay $95 for an annual pass will get 45 minutes per trip before fees kick in.”

    Ah! You’re right, that was not clear to me at all from the Gothamist coverage (and I don’t think I’m alone). That extra 15 mins could make a lot of difference. Thanks for the follow-up.

    Generally speaking, I’d still caution against drawing too many conclusions from trip-length data from other, much smaller cities, whatever type of transportation you’re talking about. 45 mins sounds just about right, though.

  • Anonymous

    I think Salmon’s plot makes a useful point by highlighting how citibike will be more expensive than comparable systems in other systems for *any* trip length. (OK, maybe a 44-min trip with an annual membership will be cheaper than in other cities.) Do we really want the distinction of having the most expensive bikeshare in the world? London is generally a very expensive city, yet their bike share is much cheaper than ours, especially for casual users.

  • Bostonian

    Boston has a two-minute “lag” period between returning one bike and getting another.  I reached the end of my 30 minute limit in Boston one time, checked my email and voicemail, then grabbed another bike and continued on.  Trip chaining is easy if you have the patience to wait a couple of minutes.

  • Albert

    At the CB8 workshop last month I asked the DOT rep if there would be any enforced time lag between returning one bike and being able to take out another.  She said that there would not be.

  • This confusion happened in DC, too.  Once the system launches, people will figure it out. 

  • Mike

    I was able to use the Washington, DC system on a day pass without any apparent interval between returning a bike and checking out another.  On a few occasions I did it right away.

  • Anonymous

    On a side note, Andrea Bernstein at Transportation Nation reports:

    The Citibank contract was signed only two weeks ago — far later than
    officials had hoped. Without the contract, there wasn’t the upfront
    capital to get the bikes produced. And that, multiple sources confirm,
    was the major reason for the delay in getting the bikes to some
    neighborhoods.

    http://transportationnation.org/2012/05/08/nys-rocky-road-to-a-bikeshare-contract-or-why-the-roll-out-will-take-longer-than-planned/comment-page-1/#comment-130602

  • JDL

    While I agree that the basic pricing idea is correct (short trips for free; long trips cost a lot), I think the sheer size of the fees for rides above 90min are doing them in – $12.00 every half hour? Really? That just causes these scare-facts to be used as talking points against the system.

    Wouldn’t something like $9/hour for every hour past the first one do the trick?

  • Larry Littlefield

    As I noted in the news thread, I agree with the high cost of one-day rentals because of the high transaction costs.  Part of the cost of this is administrative.

    But I hope Alta will target promotional cheaper weeks to certain groups to get people to try it.  Once a person is in the system and has the card to unlock the bikes, it would not cost much more to cconvert them to a yearly contract.

  • Anonymous

    I worry that time-based fees and/or constraints will give bike share users an incentive to run reds, which far too many cyclists do already. Might it be better to offer bikes for multiple hour segments (say, two?) which would give people going to far-flung destinations the opportunity to do so in a law-abiding, even leisurely fashion? That’s not long enough for tourists who might monopolize the fleet for sightseeing, if that’s the fear.

  • Capital Bikeshare has no appreciable lag between rentals (maybe 15 seconds, certainly not enough to be noticeable) for daisy-chaining short trips together, so anyone who wants to avoid the usage fees can do so quite easily, unless they want to take the bike to an area not served by stations.  

    And avoiding that latter situation is exactly what the usage fees are intended to disincent.

  • Anonymous

    @f9b2cb395abd5a101456b3b0a40912e1:disqus , according to citybike’s website, you don’t need an access card or have to “be in the system” for daily or weekly use. In those cases, the terminal gives you a temporary access code. You only get a card if you subscribe to the yearly plan. So what are these transaction costs you refer to? The credit card transaction fee? That should be just a few cents.

    If the high price were mostly due to transaction costs, then buying a weekly pass wouldn’t cost much more than a daily pass.

    IMO, these prices are being set exclusively based on what they think the market will bear. We’ll see how well they guessed.

  • Abie

    Is the city’s contract with Alta bikeshare online? Link?

  • @719abf40db17466f435b85797e887d39:disqus It’s not online. We’re trying to get it from the city.

  • human being

    NYC is not Paris or D.C. and I suspect there will be more twists and turns before this is done.  I don’t trust the way it was done.  Like most bike policy it was done to us, not for us.  City cyclists aren’t clamoring for it because they already have bikes and cycling is not for everyone, so I don’t get what this is about.  I don’t trust a corporation running a bike “share” program in this city with the Mayor’s blessing.  As of now, bicycle policy will be dominated by Alta, not city resident cyclists.  Sometimes the interests will intersect, but often they will not.  I see bicycle insurance, registration and mandatory helmet laws coming soon.  I’m a grown-up who can do without it.  

  • Dennis Hindman

    The bicycle trip in the Netherlands is less than 2 miles. Having the maximum length of time to use a bike, without incuring additional costs, in a bicycle sharing system set at 30 or 45 minutes enables someone else to use the bike after the last user has gone the distance they would have even if they used their own personal bike.

  • Ziggy Freud

    @885f2d7859efdb253a4ab8f43ff25529:disqus , paranoid much?  I know plenty of NYC cyclists, who all own bikes, who are clamoring for this.

  • David

    I’ve used the system in Minneapolis, I liked it.  The bikes there had self-generating lighting systems. (does NYC have that?) My sis there said to buy in early and that people griped there too at first.  She visited here last week and we saw the 9-11 memorial and after a slice we wanted to get back to Grand street and it would have been great to grab a bike from Battery park city and bike home.  As an avid biker, I always do shopping and things on my bike.  Having a share program would offer me the option to take a bike over to an art opening in chelsea, drop it off and bus or cab it home, or bike back without the worry of tending to my bike or biking after some drinks.  People that want a bike for half a day will more likely be served by renting a bike from the various bike rental places.  I do wonder if I could lock these bikes up using my own lock if I run an errand or two, nyc is an odd place and complete drops of bikes at stations may not always be the way to go. I’m gonna buy a $95 pass.  I also like how the new citibikes dispense cash with their built-in atm’s.  ; )

    The helmet issue is a curious one, as I’d rather ride with my helmet.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “City cyclists aren’t clamoring for it because they already have bikes and cycling is not for everyone, so I don’t get what this is about.”

    There is a huge population that would like getting around by bike if they tried it, but are not sufficiently motivated to overcome all the obstacles.  Buying a bike, a major committment.  Finding a place to put it.  Etc.  Properly implemented, this system could breed cyclists.  That’s why I think it should be cheap and easily for metro area residents to try it for a week.

    It could also serve those who live too far away to bike to work in Manhattan (I’m right on the border), but could bike to and from a train station or bus or ferry terminal.

  • Dev

    As a city cyclist who has a bike at home, I certainly am clamoring for this.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been trying to get somewhere (usually on the east side) and realized that the fastest way to get there would be by subway then bike, or that I want to go somewhere that is complicated ride by public transport, but too far to walk.  And I don’t need two hours to do that – if I’m going for a long ride, I’ll take my own bike.  45 minutes seems like plenty of time for the way I see these bikes being most useful.

  • I will definitely be using this when it launches. I recently moved to Jersey City and the Path train is not very extensive. It’s a 25 minute walk from the Path to my workplace, which I’ve been doing so far but I would love to replace that with a 5 minute bike ride instead of walking or doing Path-to-MTA double fare. Also, bikes are not allowed on the Path train during rush hour times. I could foresee a lot of New Jerseyans who commute via the Path using bike share to close up their commuting gap. The $95/year cost is a great deal.

  • Anonymous

    Bike-sharing systems are basically human-powered transit systems, not bike rental businesses. A pricing structure that encourages short trips and high turnover is perfectly appropriate. The bikes themselves are designed for short trips, not long, leisurely tours; they’re heavy and sturdy (which they have to be, considering their intended use), with pretty low and unaggressive gearing.

    A real rental bike is much more fun, and cheaper. But a visitor to the city might want to use a Citibike to ride to a bike shop that rents out bikes for the day.

  • JMS

    Ben, nice work.

  • JMS

    I don’t think it is just New Yorkers who view bikes oddly, I think most of American society does. It will change as more and more people use bikes through bike sharing programs. This is what scares people.

  • Anonymous

    For a better survey of bikeshare costs in different cities, see:

    http://www.blogto.com/city/2012/05/is_toronto_overpaying_for_bixi_bike-sharing/

    NYC will be a huge success, because for the same $95 as Toronto you are getting a system 10 times bigger, with 50% more free ride time.  It’s terrific value, relative to other cities.

  • Andrew

    @iSkyscraper:disqus It’s a terrific deal for frequent users. It’s a pretty awful deal for people who might consider using it once in a while.

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