Bike sharing: An on-demand mobility solution

During the National Bike Summit, and the following day at a special session sponsored by FTA and NACTO, local officials and advocates heard about bike sharing best practices, research, funding opportunities, and updates from existing programs.

Dr. Susan Shaheen from the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at UC-Berkeley previewed her survey of bike sharing programs in North America. She had previously done research on bike sharing worldwide. Dr. Shaheen commented on the tremendous growth in these programs just in the last year. In March 2011 there were six operations in North America. In February 2012, the number of programs had grown to 17, with more ready to launch.

Officials from FHWA and FTA presented information on the possibility of federal funding of bike share programs. Policies are still emerging at these agencies, but both recognize the importance of bike sharing in extending the range and appeal of transit. Local and program officials from cities around the U.S.  shared the wide range of funding structures for program ownership and operation. They can generally be broken into three categories:

  • the public owns the program and also operates it,
  • The public owns the program, but there is a private operator, and
  • A private company both owns and operates the program.

The private owner or operator may be a for-profit or a nonprofit, and there may be an outright ownership or concession arrangement.

Best practices for operation were also discussed. RJ Eldridge, Director of Planning, Toole Design Group, said their research has shown an average density of 4.5 docks per square mile. (Docks, kiosks, or stations are locations where multiple bikes are parked and people can pick up and drop off bikes. Information on the program, membership purchase, maps, and other local information are also available at these locations.) Another presenter commented that most programs have stations within 300 meters of each other. In addition to allowing people to walk to the next location if the racks are empty or full, this makes it easier to redistribute the bikes and lowers operations costs. Some programs are facilitating the integration of bike sharing and transit by using the same smart card for both modes.

Using Capital Bikeshare (Washington DC), the largest bike sharing program in the U.S., as an example, certain patterns of revenue and ridership emerge. Capital Bikeshare is a private-public partnership of Alta Bike Share the District of Columbia DOT, and the city of Arlington, Virginia. It also has many public and corporate sponsors and partners. The program has had 17,000 annual members, 95,000 casual users, and 1.6 million trips since it opened in September 2010. Casual users were both local residents and visitors who purchased daily or 3-day memberships. All data is available to the public via an online dashboard.

Casual users of Capital Bikeshare are a strong revenue source, a fact echoed by representatives of other bike share programs. Annual members quickly learn to use the bikes within the free half-hour window, riding on average 1.5 miles, so they generate little revenue beyond their annual fees. Casual users average 45 minute trips and often keep the bikes for much longer. These trips generate additional fees for usage beyond the first half hour, so make up the bulk of customer revenue.

Staff from Denver B Cycle and Nice Ride (Minneapolis) also shared their experiences with their existing programs. Representatives from Portland (OR), New York City, and San Francisco gave updates on the status of programs about to begin in each location. Each program has a slightly different funding source for the initial program start-up and ongoing operations. Federal, state, and local public funding, as well as advertising, corporate sponsorship, grants, and private investment have all been used.

Jon Orcutt, Policy Director, New York City DOT, commented that many people wondered why New York needed a bike sharing program at all. He answered that question with the desire of all New Yorkers:  “Skip the local and get to the express.” That is, people will use the bike to access fast express bus or subway service without needing to use a local bus. They anticipate the program also being popular in areas being redeveloped that are not currently well-served by transit.

All personnel, whether from the public, nonprofit, or private sector, view bike sharing as an essential part of a multimodal transportation system. They felt bike sharing supports transit and provides an additional mobility option, along with walking, transit, private auto use, taxis, and private bicycle use. One of the biggest barriers to starting a bike sharing program is lack of understanding among the general public and local officials about the need for bike sharing and how it will complement existing transportation choices. However, as bike sharing becomes more common, and as programs succeed, these barriers are disappearing.

The Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center will present a webinar on the research by Toole Design Group on April 26, and the full study will be out in fall 2012.

Update: The presentations from the bike share workshops are now available on the NACTO website