It Is Important To Be Realistic!

Background Reading



Mr.TinDC Follow Capital Bikeshare on the Mall Capital Bikeshare bicycles in the docking station on the National Mall, by the Smithsonian Castle, in Washington, DC.

A new study from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) says people use bikeshare more when a given area has more stations. But the study makes a density recommendation that’s going to be hard to ever meet, and not everyone agrees it’s a good idea in the first place.

NACTO’s report, released April 28th, adds to the growing body of research that says station density is a key factor in a bikeshare system’s success. While that claim isn’t controversial in itself, NACTO’s suggestions regarding station density cause a bit more friction.

NACTO recommends that cities place bikeshare stations no more than 1,000 feet apart—that is, at a density of 28 stations per square mile. This density would put a bikeshare station within a five-minute walk of each resident in a city.

NACTO’s advice, in fact, is that cities should build out their bikeshare systems at a density between that of New York’s Citi Bike (the densest system in the US) and Paris’ Velib (the densest in the world).

The majority of US bikeshare systems are a lot more dispersed than that. Even Chicago, which has received good press for its ambitious Divvy expansion, only plans on a density that’s a fraction of NACTO’s recommendation.

Rides per day and year, and density figures for the world's biggest bikeshare systems. Image from NACTO.

Rides per day and year, and density figures for the world’s biggest bikeshare systems. Image from NACTO.

Rides per day and year, and density figures for the world’s biggest bikeshare systems. Image from NACTO.

Looking at ridership statistics from bikeshare systems across the US, NACTO finds, unsurprisingly, that systems are more successful when they have more stations close together. NACTO says that most bikeshare riders are convenience users, and if a system is not convenient, riders will choose another mobility option.

This has been Washington, DC’s experience. Before Capital Bikeshare, the city experimented with a precursor known as Smart Bike. Run by outdoor advertiser Clear Channel, the system was largely a failure because it had too few stations and bikes.

Today though, Capital Bikeshare is widely seen as a gold standard. Still, the system only has four stations per square mile, and advocates have called for smaller stations, placed more densely.

Bikeshare systems should fit the populations they serve

But 28-stations-per-square-mile dense? That’s a bit radical, and bikeshare expert Paul DeMaio says it should be taken with a grain of salt. “This proposed station density won’t work well in all settings, such as suburban areas, college campuses, or less dense areas,” says DeMaio.

A big issue with NACTO’s recommendation is that it doesn’t factor in population density. (For comparison’s sake, Paris is twice as densely populated as New York City, and five times more densely populated than DC.)

DeMaio maintains that mega-dense station placement can actually have negative effects on a system. “Stations at too high of a density could actually have the unintended consequence of stations cannibalizing trips from the others,” he says. If trips per bike per day is the measure of of a bike share system’s success, as NACTO maintains, more bikes and stations regardless of population density can lead to bikes being underused and stations being inactive.

“Station network density should ideally match the neighborhood density,” DeMaio says.

NACTO says greater station density will not only make bikesharing ubiquitous, but also that it will help jurisdictions address the social equity problems that have beleaguered bikeshare systems. Low-income areas, according to NACTO, are often built out at a lower density than the system as a whole, making bikesharing a less meaningful option for residents of these neighborhoods.

Bikeshare systems could undoubtedly be denser. More convenient, walkable stations, would increase the usefulness of these systems. 28 stations per square mile, though? It’s a worthy goal, but probably unrealistic for most cities.


BikeShare is telling us something. Whether it succeeds is more a reflection of our collective interest in getting places by bike than a reflection of the placement of stations according to an optimum density.

We have spent an incredible amount of time and energy trying to coax people onto bikes. And to some degree it is not working well enough to allow these BikeShare systems to survive in a sustainable fashion.

In fact this problem is systemic with the entirety of Mass Transit. Mass Transit is to some degree here in the United States the refuge of the destitute. No matter how bad you feel it is for automobiles to burn gasoline on the highways getting into town, nothing about the usual automobile experience matches the horrors of undergoing sexual assault on a train.

Mass Transit is both unimaginative and lousy simultaneously. Buses and light rail in cities are a terrible way to have to get around town. The best experience is probably that of being a suburban commuter taking a train into the heart of the city and walking to and from the terminal to one’s office.

But being on a bus a finding feces on the only seat remaining is well, ugly. And nothing really makes ones day like being robbed at gun point on the train platform or while the car is full and a group of thugs enters and steals phones and valuables from everyone.

And as I said before being sexually assaulted is simply beyond the pale. And yet we have all sorts of supposed active transportation advocates begging for more money for these systems knowing full well that nothing will ever change.

They keep mum over these situations because it really makes getting renewed funding for these services just that much more difficult. But nobody is being fooled! If you have a system that is a shambles, everyone knows it.

BikeShare Needs A Well Defined Purpose

BikeShare is a bit like that commercial of years ago when a person is handed a giant banana and wonders what to do with it. In the next frame he sees a giant ape (King Kong) peeking in at his window. And suddenly he realizes what the value of that banana might really be.

BikeShare is exactly like that. Most cities are not doing enough to ‘fill in the blanks‘ for users. At every single one of those stations there should be some means of telling where you can ride from this location. Instead we have apps that show us how many bikes are at which stations. But that is ‘useless‘ information if you really think about it.

We talk about density of stations merely because we are trying to deal with the problem of cost overruns. Nobody riding these bikes wants the terrible overages levied when you do not re-dock them on time.

But what is really missing here is a concrete idea of how to get from here to there. If you approach a station you should be able to look at a map or chart and see all the nearby POIs. And even the ones across town should be obvious in terms of how to get there.

I would think that if you could have BikeShare vehicles with built-in GPS units and punch in various sights to see that would help more people visualize how useful these things really could be.

But instead we are clearly focused on BS things to know. People are fighting with one another over whether the bike lane has a raised surface or is green or blue with PVC bollards. That is a bit like focusing on the color of the buses used in the Mass Transit system but never letting people know which routes go where. That is what people want to know.

They could care less about how inviting a lane is if they have no idea where they can get to from here. In fact it might make sense to consider providing guides for groups that want to travel to see things. Employ some Bicycle Ambassadors who meet at these stations each hour and offer to lead groups of riders to visit various sites.

BikeShare Is The Canary In The Mine

If we cannot get this right, then private bicycle ownership is not going to be able to grow much more on its own.