Real-Time Bike-Share Maps Show America’s Got Some Catching Up to Do

A website developed by __ maps bike-share systems in real times. London's full bike-share stations are represented here by red dots and empty stations by blue dots.
A ## developed by Oliver O'Brien maps bike-share systems in real time. London's full bike-share stations are represented here by red dots and empty stations by blue dots.

A fantastic new visualization of 16 bike-share systems around the world lets you see how people are using public bikes from London to Melbourne. You can watch animated graphics, for example, of bikes getting picked up in one part of town and dropped off in another during rush hour. The site, created by Oliver O’Brien, a researcher at University College London, also lets you compare bike-share usage from city to city.

While a few American cities have made big strides in bike-sharing this year, with Denver, Minneapolis, and Washington D.C. all committing to systems with 500 or more bikes, O’Brien’s site indicates that people aren’t using them very much. These systems occupy a middle ground between totally impractical pilot projects and the more robust bike-share networks that have recently sprouted in major European and Asian cities. For bike-sharing to take off here, improvements like increased station density, better bike infrastructure, and interoperability with transit systems will probably be necessary.

In cities with large-scale systems and densely clustered stations, huge numbers of people get around on shared bikes. For example, as of 1:30 p.m. yesterday afternoon (Eastern Standard Time), 1,342 bikes were checked out from Barcelona’s Bicing system. At the day’s peak point, 2,425 Bicing bikes were in use all at once, out of a total of around 5,000.

In contrast, D.C.’s new Capital Bikeshare program had only 23 bikes out at 1:30, with 50 in use at the day’s peak. Nice Ride in Minneapolis had only five bikes in use, with a high for the day of 26. The two systems had a total of 648 and 588 shared bikes at all of their stations, respectively. Over the course of the day, that adds up to fairly marginal ridership. Denver’s usage rates, too, were quite low.

So what’s standing in the way of American bike-share success? One factor offered by bike-sharing consultant Paul DeMaio is that Americans need some time to get used to bike-sharing. D.C.’s system is just a month old today, he noted, and not even fully built out, while Denver’s opened in the spring and Minneapolis’s in the summer. That said, London’s Barclays Cycle Hire system launched at the end of July, but yesterday had a high of 815 bikes in use at once, according to O’Brien’s site.

“Enough cannot be said about scale,” said Michael Kodransky, a research associate with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. “Station density is key.”

DC's Capital Bike program is far smaller and far less used than leading bike-sharing systems.
At this point, D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare program is far smaller and less-used than leading bike-sharing systems.

The more places to pick up and drop off a shared bike, the closer people can get to their ultimate destinations, and the more useful the system will be for riders.

Paris’s Vélib system has 20,000 bikes at 1,450 stations, with stations an average of 300 meters apart in the city center. As Greater Greater Washington has noted, for D.C. to reach that level of bike-sharing saturation, it would need around 5,400 bikes in its system. That’s an order of magnitude more than what the system provides today.

DeMaio agreed that increased station density would greatly boost bike-sharing ridership and called on government — federal, state, and local — to help fund full-scale programs. The D.C. area applied for a TIGER II grant to add 3,000 more bikes to its bike-share program, he said, but learned yesterday that it wasn’t picked as a winner.

Kodransky also highlighted the importance of interoperability between mass transit and bike-sharing systems. “In Paris, you use the Navigo card on mass transit and then when you get off, you slap it on the bike-sharing station and ride,” he explained. That makes bike-sharing feel as integrated with transit as, say, New York City’s subways and buses.

Finally, Kodransky said that many American cities lack the well-developed bike infrastructure that other cities boast, which keeps people off bikes, shared or otherwise.

Bike-sharing has the potential to be a game-changer for cycling in American cities, if we get it right. But if ridership remains anemic because the system is too spread out, the lack of use will become an arrow in the quiver of bike-share critics. Incremental progress can be made, of course — Capital Bikeshare was preceded by the pilot program SmartBike DC, which only had 10 stations and an average of 77 to 163 total trips per day — but as London is showing right now, starting off big is the best way to prove the concept works.

  • There’s also something to be said about the relative size, density, and non-automotive mode share of cities like Denver and DC versus London and Paris. I wish America had a city which could compete with London and Paris in terms of size, density, and non-automotive mode share. It would be even better if that city were currently making unprecedented, wide-scale improvements to its bicycle infrastructure, and had a generally progressive attitude–a real desire to compete with the great world cities out there. If there was such a city, I’m sure that if it were to roll out a bike-share program on the scale of London or Paris, it would be a huge success, and have huge ramifications on the every day lives of its citizens.

  • MinNY

    Jeff – I agree. If only there was such a city here in this country and that city were to roll out a bike-share program…it should certainly do very well.

    Especially if that city were to finish adding a few more protected bike lanes to connect its neighborhoods across it’s midtown core, rather than having those lanes end at the point of greatest congestion.

    (Hint: Paris City: Pop – 2.5 million. Total Paris Region Pop: 11.5 Million.
    London City: Pop – 6.5 Million. Total London Region Pop: 8 Million.
    New York City: Pop – 8.3 Million Total New York Region Pop: 19 Million.)

  • Steve

    Trying to get an average use figure of the DC bikeshare system by measuring it at 1:30 in the afternoon when everyone is at lunch or at work is a little silly. Yes, we’re going to take some time to get used to it, but every morning the 3 stations I pass near my house are empty, and the 3 near my office are full. And that goes in reverse every afternoon.

    And keep in mind that there significant economies of scale at work here, and a system with low station density and relatively low numbers of bikes just aren’t going to be as useful as a system like Velib where the stations are as common in Paris as a french transit strike.

    Numbers will pick up here in DC, though winter will have some effect on tempering them over the next few months. Look for a huge boom come next Spring.

  • cr

    Don’t forget our neighbors to the north. Montreal’s BIXI system is a smashing success and may be easier for Americans to imagine than European systems. Montreal has the advantage of having a dense network of mixed-use walkable neighborhoods in a 3-mile circle, which SF has but most American cities don’t. And it’s flat. Then again, there’s snow on the ground for half the year there. We should be able to make this work in SF but I agree: start big.

  • J

    A someone living in Montreal who has used the Bixi system regularly, I can say that the spacing of stations is critical. If you are rushing to a meeting and the station where you pick up bikes is empty, having another station 2 blocks away is VERY important. Dense station spacing takes much of the planning out of using the system. In Montreal, I know I can find a station within 2-3 blocks of my destination, no matter where. In DC, the spacing means you absolutely must plan your exact trip, and when things go wrong (and they often do), you’re faced with an extremely stressful situation of finding the location of the nearest station, and rethinking the entire trip. The farther the distance, the more stressful the problem. Finally, the pricing structure add to the stress, since going over the 30 minute limit costs money. The farther the distances between stations, the more likely you’ll go over and get charged.

  • Having only used the Bixi system after November first when many stations go into storage (but many still remain in the downtown, albeit at a bit lower density) I found even this lower density only a marginal pain. Density is key, if you cant provide the density all at once, I think it is ok to spread out a bit but I seem to remember somewhere that one system gives users the option of extending, by 5 minutes, their free time if they clock in at a full station. EG you register a pin or other number at a station that is full, maybe your destination, maybe close to it, and you get an addition extra 5 minutes free to go to the next open station. I think that might work pretty well in a DC type system, where density is not as high as perhaps it should be (do to whatever reason)

  • daniel

    I was nervous before our bixi bikeshare launch, but niceride has been a big success in Minneapolis. We’re not Paris, but we are in the midst of a biking rennesance and Niceride legitimized biking downtown for the mainstream. Rather then being a rebel activity that’s tolerated, biking dt is actually encouraged. I can’t believe how much use the bikes get. I used the bikes over a hundred times this season for many different types of trips, and I’m dreading having to get around with out them when the snow flies.

  • Peter Meitzler

    1) Americans are just as likely to ride when it’s user friendly. Look at all the Americans coming back from Paris with stories of using Velib. Paris—surprise — is a blast to ride in.

    2) DC’s first system was okay but was a limited trial to being with, and you had a 3 hour max time window. But you had to sign up for it in advance to receive the card key. You couldn’t just walk up to a kiosk and swipe an AMEX card like you can in Paris. The new system in DC allows for that. (However, I’d opt for one funded by Clear Channel vs. one by Rio Tinto but that’s another story.)

    3) why aren’t the largest U.S. cities winning the grants? Denver’s B Cycle received a million dollars from the DNC host committee in 2008 for the trial launch. Are the complicated RFPs here and elsewhere slowing it down for the bigger cities?

    4) we could launch bike sharing right now in NYC if private property owners allowed bike sharing stations a bit of a footprint and advertisers could play a role. Imagine retailers with in-store stations (and branded card keys?)? Imagine private parking garages with stations.

    You’ll be waiting a long time for NYC to provide public property sites for bikeshare stations anywhere near the magnitude of Velib. Perhaps if we had won the Olympics bid for 2012, we might have had a greater chance of seeing it here within the next ten years.



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