The Next Brooklyn Bike-Share Expansion Will Be the Thinnest Part of Citi Bike

cb6_bike-share
Citi Bike is coming to the neighborhoods west of Prospect Park, but the stations won’t be spaced conveniently close together. Map via NYC DOT. Click to enlarge.

DOT unveiled its latest Citi Bike expansion map last week, and the stations look significantly more spread out than stations in the rest of the system.

Spread-out stations are a problem for bike-share users because people have to walk farther to make trips, and that costs time. The National Association of City Transportation Officials recommends 28 stations per square mile — and the city’s contract with Citi Bike operator Motivate stipulates the same metric — but NYC DOT has been thinning out stations in its expansion zones. The city wants to cover the geographic area described in the bike-share contract, while Motivate doesn’t want to supply more than the 378 additional stations it’s required to. The result is a less effective system for everyone.

With 62 stations covering the 3.1 square miles of Brooklyn Community Board 6 — which includes Red Hook, Park Slope, and everything in between — the station density works out to 20 per square mile. As Citi Bike expands into Upper Manhattan, western Queens, and more of Brooklyn by 2017, these are the station densities New Yorkers can expect in the absence of a new strategy from DOT and/or Motivate.

DOT officials told the CB 6 committee that more stations can be added after the initial rollout. But it could be a long time before those gaps get filled in. When the current round of expansion wraps up in 2017, there will be a lot of ground to cover with infill stations plus huge pressure to keep expanding outward.

Ironically, the one thing Citi Bike had going for it consistently from the very beginning — a convenient network where a station was always a short walk away — is deteriorating just as everything else comes together. Citi Bike is finally on the rebound thanks to a thorough overhaul of its equipment and software. How long will the good times last if every expansion fails to deliver the convenience bike-share users have come to expect?

  • Simon Phearson

    It’s apparently too much to expect the DOT to make decisions based on what actually gets people to where they want to go, using the modes of their choosing (i.e., “transportation”), as opposed to politics.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    How Long before citibike reaches Sheepshead Bay and Allen Rosen’s Front Yard ?

  • datbeezy

    i don’t know what’s less reasonable, DOT making political decisions or asking citizens to walk an additional 40 meters.

  • Nick Ober

    How is Motivate and the DOT expanding the network at 20 stations/sq mi if their contract stipulates 28 stations/sq mi? Is the deal just not being enforced?

  • JK

    Ben, can you explain Motivate’s business model and what it would take to get them to increase station density in the expanded zone? Jay Walder has said he does not want city subsidies, but if that is the case, what does Motivate want to get up to 28 stations/sq mile?

  • Daniel

    I don’t know how they think such a low density is going to work in Park Slope. Those stations will be empty by 9am and full by 5pm every day. In the evenings their call center will bleed money with angry customers calling about the 3rd or 4th full station they have encountered on a futile multi-mile search for citibike parking.

  • BBnet3000

    It’s possible they’re playing around with what is counted on the land area for the calculation. For instance, instead of the “district boundary” in white above, imagine a polygon drawn between the outermost stations being the “service area” for the purposes of station density.

  • Simon Phearson

    Or maybe two or three times that, depending on dock availability. Or asking them to check dock availability in advance of their initiating a trip, just like they wouldn’t have to do if they were to take a bus, subway, drive, or even bike on their own bike to their location.

    Low density doesn’t just mean that you might have to walk a little bit more. It might mean you have to do so much adjusting and planning that it’s easier to take another mode of transportation – which defeats the purpose of having bikeshare in the first place.

  • ahwr

    Plenty of bus routes are low frequency and they are made more convenient if you check when the bus is going to arrive (bustime, not schedules) before walking to the stop. LIRR and MNR work a whole lot better when you check the schedules before heading to stations. Unless you have a private vehicle it’s something you have to put up with.

    Isn’t limiting the number of docks to make rebalancing much easier, and to make the docks more resilient to spikes in demand? If you split a dock in two and put them in two locations then the new docks might be more convenient, but they’d be less reliable. What’s better, a five minute walk to a dock that has a bike or a two minute walk to a dock that has one less often?

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I’d be delighted to have this density in Oakland, thanks.

  • Mike

    I live in Park Slope, and this level of density suits me fine. I can’t see a single trip that I’d make that wouldn’t be really easy using the current plan.

  • qrt145

    I don’t think it looks that bad. I see relatively few places on that map which don’t have a station within 1,000 feet, which is the official recommendation according to your other article. And I bet that’s a very rough recommendation; it is not like it’s a fundamental physical constant. I’d say 20 is not significantly different from 28 given the uncertainty of such an estimate.

    Also, from a mathematical point of view, there is an issue when you convert a recommendation of “1000-foot distance” into “28 stations per square mile”: you are making an implicit assumption that you are covering an infinite grid with stations. When you have a district with boundaries, particularly water as is the case here, you can have fewer stations per square mile and still satisfy the distance constraint. For an extreme example, imagine a circular island with a 1000-foot radius. That has an area of 0.11 square miles; according to the distance rule it only needs one station (silly for bikeshare, but I’m talking math here), but if you wanted 28 stations per mile it would need 3 stations.

    I certainly wouldn’t mind more stations! But like I said, I don’t think it’s as bad as you say.

  • Jonathan R

    I haven’t been to Park Slope in over a month, but if I recall correctly the population density there is about half to a quarter of midtown Manhattan’s density. I don’t think Park Slope residents have a problem walking a couple hundred meters to buy a quart of milk, so why should the same walk for a bike share be an issue?

    I heartily approve of the fact that there is a kiosk on the Food Co-op block, but I question why there is no kiosk at the Brooklyn Public Library Central Library.

  • Other Barry

    Won’t be easy if you can’t get a bike in the morning or find an empty dock in the afternoon.

  • Mike

    I work 8am to 4pm — I’ll always be among the first going either direction.

  • R

    At the meeting, DOT and Motivate noted that population density is not a factor that goes into bike share station siting. The station density in Brooklyn Heights and Ft. Greene is greater than in this plan for CB6 and those neighborhoods are not significantly more populated than Cobble Hill, Park Slope, Red Hook, etc. NACTO’s density guidelines recommend 28-stations per square mile even in cities like Minneapolis or DC, both of which are far less densely populated than most neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

    The Brooklyn Public Library is in CB2, just over the district line. I have a feeling when the draft plan is presented to that board it will include a station by the library.

  • R

    I’d add that Prospect Park has a population density of 0 – nobody lives there – but there’s a woeful shortage of stations along Prospect Park West. On a nice day or during Celebrate Brooklyn, Citi Bike is going to have some problems.

  • Matthias

    I hope they don’t thin out even more by the time they get up to Harlem. I’m still waiting to see whether it will be convenient for me before I join.

  • stairbob

    Great, so it will only be the other hundred people who are disappointed.

  • setecq

    But for the majority of people who aren’t so fortunate, I’m sure you see how this light load of stations could be problematic.

  • Mike

    It’s not the number of stations, it’s the number of bikes at each station that is the issue here. If each of these stations had 100 docks, would you still think we needed more?

  • Joe R.

    I’d be thrilled with that density of stations where I live. It looks to me like you’re no more than 4 blocks from a bike share station in just about all cases.

  • Simon Phearson

    Sounds like you’ve never done bikeshare. You’re not comparing apples to apples here.

    If I’m trying to get somewhere by bus, I can sit in my apartment, check the bus schedule and bus map, and then plan my trip with a high degree of certainty. In terms of timing, I know how to approximate when the bus’ll be by the nearest stop to me and I know to plan for my actual arrival at my destination to vary with traffic. In terms of stop density, I know that I can basically go to the route and walk a block or two in one direction or another, looking for signs; and that, at my destination, the stops will be close enough that I’ll be able to get off relatively close to my destination. I don’t worry too much that a bus might be overcrowded, because they can carry quite a few people before they will simply take no more.

    The process with citibike is very different. Looking at a system map, I don’t know whether the one bike in the nearest station to me will be there when I get there in five minutes or if it’s only there because it’s malfunctioning. I also don’t know if the one or two docks nearest my destination will be available by the time I get there in half an hour or if they’re only open because they’re malfunctioning. So I can’t just go from stop to stop, as with a bus; I have to plan a whole route from station to station, depending on what I find there. The farther away from one another the stations are, the more time that is likely to involve, and the more I have to plan around it.

    That’s why I often won’t citibike if I am running short on time and have a definite time by which I need to arrive at my destination. I might be able to bike and park within the time that I have, based on what I see before I set out, but without certainty on location and spaced-out stations at either end, I can’t plan on making it. So I take the subway instead.

  • Greg

    I assume # of bike docks should consider population density though, right? In other words, 20 docks outside a skyscraper holding 10,000 people seems way less reasonable than 20 docks outside a row of brownstones holding 100 people.

    I”m really interested in this debate of appropriate station density in brownstone Brooklyn. But sometimes in Midtown the situation just looks laughable.

  • Greg

    You simply have to learn the patterns of the stations. I’m comfortable riding my regular routes because I have enough experience to know which stations will be problematic when, and what backups to use when they’re full/empty.

    It’s not clear to me that will be a substantially different dynamic for the new stations. I of course welcome as much density as we can get. But I’m not sure the new area will feel qualitatively different; I think we have to see the usage patterns to really know.

  • Joe R.

    The parking at your destination issue can be alleviated by adding docks at stations which normally get full during the day. It might be understandable that sometimes you can’t find a bike, but not being able to use the dock nearest your destination is inexcusable from a system design standpoint.

  • Greg

    It’s really unclear to me how to practically solve that problem. Because there’s the sheer matter of raw numbers.

    The station nearest me has 22 docks. Even if they doubled its capacity, that’s just.. another 22 docks. In a city of 8 million people. In a neighborhood of 20,000 people. Maybe 2,000 of them close to that immediate station.

    I think demand is elastic – as the extra capacity comes, more people will use it. Which is a fantastic outcome for bikeshare, of course. But I think it’s going to lead to those extra 22 docks getting filled up just as reliably as the original ones did. And once again the station will be always full.

    I suspect this pattern only breaks at some really large scale, hence my question about how practical it is to really solve the full station problem.

  • Joe R.

    You may be right. Also, I agree demand for bike share is really elastic. It’s easy to see 100 dock stations in a place like Manhattan being full or empty, depending upon time of day.

    One solution is dockless systems, like the one being tested by Social Bicycles: http://www.wnyc.org/story/312077-social-bicycles-brings-tech-forward-bikeshare-hoboken/

    Might not work in NYC where tall buildings will block GPS reception but in general the idea of not depending on docks at least eliminates the issue of not finding parking near your destination.

    Probably there’s some point where the cost of adding docks to attract new users is more than the fees these users generate. That might be a good metric to use when deciding to add docks.

  • Wilfried84

    This already happens in the East Village and the Lower East Side. Even with high station density (I think we need more dock density; more stations wouldn’t hurt), it’s the biggest swath of Manhattan that’s almost devoid of bikes on a weekday, and can be close to completely dockblocked at night. It’s been going on since the system started, though it may have gotten a little better recently. I don’t know how may phone calls about this they get, but I doubt many, since at this point it’s just a fact of life.

  • Simon Phearson

    I’m not a citibike commuter. I commute on my own bike. I take citibike for one-off trips or trips that I do with some regularity but not daily.

    While citibike might be useful and fun for commuting, I don’t think it’s where bikeshare’s real power lies, as an element in a multimodal transportation network. That is to say, if a lot of people are going between bikeshare stations in one area and bikeshare stations in another, we’d probably be better off moving them by bus or train or promoting private bike usage, rather than by trying to fully supply the rush periods with bikes or docks and rebalancing between rushes. The power of bikeshare, I think, lies in moving people from everywhere to everywhere. That way you’re providing another option for people taking trips that aren’t efficiently served by mass transit and minimizing the need to rebalance.

  • Wilfried84

    I work 10am-6pm, traveling from the Lower East Side to Lower Midtown, and getting a bike on either end is a uncertain proposition, so bike share is only marginally useful to me for commuting. I use my own bike, except on rare days when I have particular reason I can’t.

  • JK

    Excellent point, but the high Citibike annual fee and not having a pay per ride option encourages commuting versus spontaneous or ad hoc trips like the ones you describe. (Flat annual fee means people will seek max # rides to get best value.) However, commuting creates the most re-balancing costs and network shortages. I also use my own bike to commute and will let my Citibike membership lapse next year because it is a bad deal when you only take a dozen or so trips a year.

  • Wilfried84

    The Upper East and West Sides have been up and running for a while (although they haven’t finished installing station on the UES). There were concerns raised about low station density there too. Can anyone comment on how bike share is working up there?

  • Mike

    The low gearing is ideal for NYC. People shouldn’t be riding much over 10 mph most places in the city.

  • Joe R.

    That’s nonsense. If you ride at 10 mph, you get stuck at red lights every block or two. Average speed ends up at 4 or 5 mph. Might as well walk. Gearing which limits you to 10 mph is like renting a car with its maximum speed governed to 30 mph.

    The speed limit on NYC surface streets is 25 to 40 mph, depending upon the street. There’s no lower speed limit for bicycles except in the minds of people like you. Higher gearing lets you take advantage of hills or tailwinds or maybe even drafting motor vehicles to keep pace with traffic. Granted, these aren’t fast bikes by any stretch of the imagination, nor do they need to be. Gearing which lets you pedal comfortably at speeds up to maybe 25 mph would be perfectly adequate. You’re not seeing 40+ mph on these bikes you might on a racing bike, hence no need for really tall gearing. A nice 7 or 8 speed hub would give adequate range on both ends.

  • datbeezy

    The Citibike fee is absurdly low. Less than $15/month. That’s not even 15% the cost of a bus pass.

    Additionally, I suspect the rebalancing is a major culprit – as a former Carroll Gardens person who walked to Jay St/Borough Hall and back each day for my commute, I suspect they’ll be a very strong time of day issue. Not only will every bike possible be taken in the morning, they’ll need to get back to CG during midday, then back up to Brooklyn Heights again for the PM commute.

    In any regard, there is diminishing rewards to increasing station density; even a 25% increase in number of stations will have almost no effect on overall network travel distance to a station in the area. We’d be literally talking ones or tens of meters. Of course, the idea that it could be “Even more, if the station is empty” is complete and utter nonsense: they’ll be empty regardless of marginal station density.

  • ahwr

    If I’m trying to get somewhere by bus, I can sit in my apartment, check the bus schedule and bus map, and then plan my trip with a high degree of certainty.

    Sounds like you don’t take the bus much. They don’t stick to schedules. And the right analogy isn’t crowding on a bus, it’s the buses getting all bunched up, so a bus that’s supposed to come every ten minutes can mean a twenty minute wait or longer. You can check bustime to see if a bus is coming soon and try to time getting to the stop when it’s due to arrive. Doesn’t help if you’re short on time though. And you have to do that five minutes before you go to a stop, not something you can do the night before planning your trip. It’s similar to the situation you are complaining bike share users will be in, but transit riders are not. Some high use transit lines are more reliable, but it isn’t generally true. A bus that’s predicted to arrive in five minutes can easily get delayed. If you see that a single bike is at a station that’s not a reliable predictor it will be there in working order in five minutes. If there are two or three at least one should work.

    One way to improve the situation for bus riders who are able to walk it to get rid of many stops. Service at the remaining stops would be more reliable, though accessing them becomes more difficult for some.

    If you only see one bike at a station on a map then there’s a decent chance it won’t be there in five minutes. If there are three or four stations with one bike each there’s a much greater chance that at least one of them will have a bike in five minutes. But you don’t know which one it will be, so you don’t know which one to walk to. Better to group them into a smaller number of stations so you don’t have to guess.

    Bike share station density doesn’t improve reliability, it hurts it.

  • newkai

    I found Citibikes to be quite zippy. 15-18mph (based on some GPS tracking) seems quite easy. They’re not a road bike, but they’re not a clunky beach cruiser either.

  • Simon Phearson

    Again, you’re not comparing apples to apples. You’re right that bunching introduces uncertainty for bus riders; but that’s something I can keep track of and whose impact is easy to control. I took the bus this morning, for instance, and was able to track the arrival of the next bus through the MTA’s mobile website. I have no idea how close to on time it was. But I did know where to go, and where it would drop me off. I didn’t have to unexpectedly walk a quarter of a mile past the nearest bus stop to catch it.

    Densely sited bike stations might be less “reliable” in the way you’ve described, ceteris (in particular the aggregate number of docks) paribus, but at the same time that lack of reliability has less of a cost for users. If I’m in a sparse network, a broken bike or a full set of docks has a much greater impact on me than it would if there are two or more stations relatively near my departure point or ultimate destination.

  • Andrew

    You’re right that bunching introduces uncertainty for bus riders; but that’s something I can keep track of and whose impact is easy to control.

    Not if you’ve left yourself a generous 15 minutes to wait for the bus that runs every 10, only to find that it’s 20 minutes away, and now you’re late to work.

  • HamTech87

    A 2010 pre-Citibike story on the subject, which shows station densities in various cities. fwiw, Montreal was great for me. When my bike wouldn’t work on one station, having the other one nearby saved me a major headache.
    http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2010/07/22/ensuring-the-efficient-workings-of-a-bike-sharing-system/

  • Joe R.

    I’ve never ridden one. I’m just going by some anecdotes. If the gearing allows 15 to 18 mph, then they’re not a bad as I thought. Still, I think these would be better served with a 7 or 8 speed hub in that the gears would be more closely spaced. You could more easily find one which is exactly right for your speed and cadence.

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