Why Aren’t American Bike-Share Systems Living Up to Their Potential?

This chart shows the performance of the world's bike sharing systems. U.S. systems, by en large, are lagging. Image: ?
U.S. bike-share systems, which tend not to have dense networks of stations, also tend to lag behind other bike-share systems on ridership. Graph: Institute for Transportation and Development Policy

As policy director at the New York City Department of Transportation from 2007 to June, 2014, Jon Orcutt shepherded the nation’s largest bike-share system through the earliest stages of planning, a wide-ranging public engagement process, and, last year, the rollout of hundreds of Citi Bike stations.

That makes Orcutt, formerly of Transportation Alternatives and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a leading U.S. expert on bike-share. In a recent exchange about what some cities are passing off as bike-share, Orcutt told he has some concerns about how bike-share systems are being rolled out in cities around the U.S. Intrigued, I asked him to elaborate in an interview.

Here’s what he had to say about what separates a successful bike-share system from one that’s not meeting its potential:

So you’ve come to some conclusions about how certain bike-shares are functioning?

They’re not my conclusions. There’s a fair amount of research out there now and you can see pretty clearly what some of the variables are. There’s a huge variation across cities, especially in the United States.

Can you summarize the research?

The most useful metric is rides per bike per day. You can compare a system with 600 bikes to 6,000 bikes in different size cities pretty easily. You just see, how many rides is it getting?

I’d say the breaking point internationally is about three-and-a-half or four rides. High performing systems are seeing four rides per day on average or more, and then there’s everybody else. A lot of them in the United States are under two.

That’s based on the research that ITDP, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, put out last year. We try to track that metric very closely day to day in New York.

Which ones in the U.S would be considered in the high-performing range?

Orcutt says bike-share systems need to take advantage of a strong network of on-street bike infrastructure to be truly successful. Graphic: NYC DOT

Uh, New York.

So just New York?

You know, followed by everybody else. Chicago had just gotten on the map when some of this research had come out, so I’m not sure about them.

How many rides does New York get per bike per day?

In the summer, it’s in the range of six. Some months it’s higher and some months it’s lower.

Other cities, what are their numbers like?

The ITDP numbers show Boston around four, D.C. around two and a half, though D.C. can get to four or higher in the summer. You get into some of the smaller cities, they’re down under two — Boulder, Minneapolis. New York’s total rides per bike per day from launch through October is 4.4, including the polar vortex of last winter.

What are the key ingredients to a successful bike-share system? 

I think there’s a number of variables. ITDP looked at station density as a key variable. Some other research — for example a good study issued by NYU last winter — seems to confirm that. But also proximity to transit.

Within New York City DOT when this was coming out, I got some of our guys to take a look at proximity to protected bike lanes just in big cities to see if it was stronger, and it was definitely stronger in New York City than Washington or Chicago.

I think there’s some preconditions to success. If you think of New York versus London, theirs was installed two or three years before us, but we went past their per bike ridership almost immediately because they had no bike network. If you’re going to ask people to jump on these bikes and ride around, you need them to feel safe. That’s another, I think, very important variable.

If you can create a good bike lane network and create a super density of bike-share stations, like the kind of stations where you’re basically coming across them almost every block, it’s a huge recipe for jumpstarting bike transportation in your city and that’s what New York and Paris have shown.

And I think some of the ingredients are missing in some of these other cases.

About four trips per bike per day is the standard for success, says Orcutt. Graphic: ITDP

Why is station density so important?

In a lot of cities they pull out a map and they start plunking down stations by their big attractions. So like, “Here’s city hall, here’s the museum, here’s the famous statue.” And that’s not what generates trips in the city. What generates trips in the city are people’s homes and the places they go everyday. To create a real transportation system it needs to be ubiquitous.

Think about what makes another form of transportation, like a car system. You have thousands of miles of streets in any particular city, information systems built up all around it. They’re so overwhelming you don’t even notice them. Everything from street lighting to street design to regulations and enforcement. And we need to do that with bikes as well if we want to get a lot of people riding them.

The tradeoff there is that you can’t cover the whole city oftentimes in your first deployment. But I think that’s okay, to keep people hungry for something that’s succeeding rather than to have a mediocre performance by spreading things out.

Some of these systems like Boston and Washington, they’re certainly not failures. I just think they have a lot more potential. I think if you see some infill development in those systems, you’ll see a lot more bike traffic in those cities. They also need to do more to foster a system of on-street bike networks.

It seems like a big obstacle would just be the commitment level of the cities.

The main obstacle to doing this stuff really well is whether or not the city is serious about bike transportation. Is there a strategic plan to increase bicycling, not just public bikes but people’s own bikes? And how does bike-share fit into that?

So I think a lot of people are thinking about bike-share as, it’s an important thing to say we have, without really thinking about why that is.

One of the things that’s been missing in the U.S. is a small-city success story and I think there’s one shaping up in Austin, Texas. If you look at them, they’ve completely focused their initial set of stations in a very small area. The city has been doing a good job of adding protected bike lanes and they have a really ambitious network planned.

You mentioned that having a high-performing bike-share system can really expand the share of people biking for transportation. Can you talk about the numbers for some of these cities?

The way we measure biking in New York, I don’t think really captures the full effect of Citi Bike, because we just measure people coming in and out of the central business district, and most of Citi Bike is within the central business district. We did an experiment in the summer of 2013, where we did counts on major avenues, and used the ratio of Citi Bikes in the count to estimate total cycling in the CBD.  We’re having 30-40,000 Citi Bike trips every day in the central business district, with the estimate from that count at 113,000 total bike trips. We’re now coming up on 15 million Citi Bike trips. It’s just been a huge addition to the presence of bikes on the street and the number of bike trips [being made] in the city.

One of the things that happened in New York is it really flipped the conversation from “Why do we have to have these bike lanes?” to “When is Citi Bike coming to my neighborhood?” And the city just announced last month that Citi Bike will double in size over the next few years.

I think there’s a very virtuous dynamic between bike-share and bike lane network expansion, once you have a successful bike-share system.

36 thoughts on Why Aren’t American Bike-Share Systems Living Up to Their Potential?

  1. I’m guessing ITDP just looks at the outer boundaries of the system and doesn’t factor in the rest of NYC when they look at station density. CitiBike is a rather poor performer unless you can afford to live within their service area.

  2. Of course ITDP based its density figures on the bike-share system boundaries. Did you not read the (whole) interview? “The tradeoff there is that you can’t cover the whole city oftentimes in
    your first deployment. But I think that’s okay, to keep people hungry
    for something that’s succeeding rather than to have a mediocre
    performance by spreading things out.”

    You imply that CitiBike doesn’t work for people who don’t live w/i the service area. But residents are just a fraction of occupants. I’m sure a healthy share of usage is by non-residents using the bikes to solve the “last mile” problem or for other travel once they’re in the zone. I admit I don’t know the numbers, however. Does anyone know the % of annual members who live inside/outside the Citibike area (or have any other metric)?

  3. To second that, I don’t live in the service area but I use CitiBike.

    Yes, of course I would use it more if there were a station outside my home. But I still use it.

  4. Something doesn’t seem quite right with the numbers here. According to the first graph, NYC has over 8 rides per bike and day, whereas in the interview and other figure it is less than six. It should also be noted that a correlation of r^2=0.26 is not _that_ strong and it would be worth investigating what the other factors are. One way of doing that would be to look at outliers like Boulder, Barcelona, or Rio de Janeiro.

  5. Yep, as you said, the DNAinfo story could only draw on data from the initial two months. Re your Q, I don’t have an opinion on that.

  6. in general the graph is a bit confusing, because the observations are so wildly different: i.e. Madison, Boulder, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City all on the same graph.

  7. Does Boulder really have a greater transit station density than London? Or are they counting bus stops for Boulder and Tube stops for London?

  8. The graph I’m curious about is not trips-per-bike vs station density, but trips-per-bike vs number of stations.

  9. Yeah, but that’s the point of a graph like that. The way to read it is: If all data points were on the line, then there would be a perfect correlation between station density and trips/day/bike. The fact that a lot of the points are quite far away from the line shows that there is only a weak correlation between the two variables and there must be other factors that can explain difference in trips/day/bike.

  10. He says high performing systems are four or more rides per bike, and Boston seems to have four rides per bike, according to your graph. So why does he say it’s not? Also, DC’s numbers are different in the first and third figures. Is that b/c August is a busy month?

  11. Why the focus on such an imprecise metric like overall rides per bike per day? There could be a lot of variability in a system. For example, with Capital Bikeshare, some areas like downtown D.C. have many stations close together. But stations in Rockville MD, Upper Northwest DC and NE DC are spread farther apart. There is much more usage in downtown DC than in Rockville.

    Plus those Rockville stations were funded under a separate program, one that targets low-income groups to help them get to work centers by bike. Many were skeptical about putting stations in Rockville, at least at this stage. Those stations have had relatively low usage rates.

    But the rides per bike per day doesn’t distinguish between the success of central D.C. and the Rockville stations out in the suburbs. While it’s helpful to have some of these stats, people should be aware of just how limited they can be in terms of usefulness and accuracy.

  12. Our Capital Bikeshare system in the DC region is doing just fine thank you. This is like comparing NYC’s bus or rail system to systems across the country and asking why other cities aren’t doing as well. Come on Jon! We applaud Citibike’s success! When they do good the industry does good. But riders per bike is only one metric. I agree more rides per bike would be a good thing. But most of NYC still doesn’t have bikeshare. In the DC region most of the city and inner core suburbs do have bikeshare. In the DC region we have a publicly owned system. We treat it like transit. As such we have a duty to reach all areas and segments of our population. We chose coverage first. Then density. Capital Bikeshare is changing the DC region for the better. More people are biking. People are making more one-way trip decisions. It is inducing local demand that is good for local businesses. And our strategic plans call for way more stations and density. By all of our metrics bikeshare is flourishing and only poised to get even better. Here’s some reports just from the Arlington portion of the system if you’d like to see for yourself http://www.bikearlington.com/pages/bikesharing/reports-and-analysis/.
    Chris Hamilton, Commuter Service Bureau Chief, Arlington DOT

  13. Austin is a small city? Why not talk about Madison (1/4 the size)? By the metric of rides/bike/day, I think Madison’s system is performing surprisingly well considering its relatively low population density (compared to NYC, London, etc.) and harsh winters. Of course, I’m not sure it’s going gangbusters in terms of cost vs revenues.

    That brings up another thought…I’ve heard several times that bikeshare systems make significantly more money on 24-hour passes than on annual passes. That would imply that (at least from a business perspective) the more successful bikeshare systems are those that attract occasional use by many people rather than regular use by a few people.

  14. At a private conference on this topic in 2013, I had an “argument” with the prevailing discussion. I said that when you define everything as a success, you aren’t learning anything, and you’re not generating useful insights.

    The point about density of stations isn’t new. It was demonstrated with Paris and was confirmed with the experience in Montreal. It was the Paris experience that said to work best, you need about 29 stations per square mile. Of course, that means you need to have dense places. Cities like NYC, Paris, or Montreal have areas where residential districts are close to commercial districts, which is optimum, rather than having a more unbalanced set of origins and destinations (like DC).

    The problem is that most cities are adopting “bike share” to be like other cities that have it, and they don’t have the density conditions or the ability to pay for enough stations to make it work in the way you expect

    But when you aren’t being forward about the positives and negatives concerning success and operation, of course many bike sharing systems are likely to fail–if failure is defined as not many people using the system.

  15. In some ways Arlington has done a better job of clustering coverage to make the system usable than DC has. For example, I live in Shaw – five blocks from the densest part of the city (centered on 14th and P NW). I am within two blocks from new developments with almost 1,000 new
    apartments, 200 hotel rooms, and the city’s largest supermarket online
    within the last year. But, I have to walk four to five blocks in any direction from my house to get to a bikeshare station. Oh, shockingly, they are often empty while stations way out Connecticut Ave get very little use.

    How would utilization be if they had first focused on systematic rollout within high-density areas like within the Florida-U Street or Park Road/Kenyon/Michigan Avenue boundaries? Good question, hopefully we’ll know someday. Maybe there’s some strategy down at the Capital Bikeshare office, but they don’t communicate or explain it. Citibike, by contrast, seems focused on a “less than 1,000 foot walk within the service area” metric and responding to demand. Hence they have more use. If the system were at all usable by daily users, which it isn’t because of the station software disaster, I’m sure they’d have even heavier utilization.

  16. I often find the DC system frustrating. I most often use it for the “last mile”, but find that stations are spaced 1/3 to 1/2 mile apart and that these stations don’t have enough capacity to stave off transportation patterns. Often, the best I can do is ride about 1/2 of that last mile because of full or empty stations.

  17. I don’t hear anybody proposing here a better single metric than daily rides per bike.
    One thing the metric does not capture is the degree to which bikeshare trips are replacing auto trips, transit trips, walking trips or personal bike trips. I’d weigh the first category of trips heavier (and in a crowded transit systems, also the second category) replacing personal biking and walking. Unfortunately, bikeshare systems don’t have these numbers available.

  18. ah, the million dollar question. The problem is that bike share works best in environments that are supportive of sustainable transportation already, in other words, where the proclivity to use transit or walk or bike is already high. So bike share isn’t really that successful in capturing auto trips e.g., the research out of McGill on Montreal.

    As you indicate, in cities where transit systems are at capacity or at least high use (Montreal, Paris, London, to some extent, DC) shifting some trips from transit to bike share improves the experience for the bike users while “extending capacity” for additional riders..

  19. The ITDP chart is puzzling. Consider Denver which appears to have about 3 trips/bicycle/day. In 2013, the Denver program operated 365 days (per its annual report: http://denverbikesharing.org/AnnualReports/DBS_2013_Annual_Report.pdf). It logged 263,110 “rides” (presumably the same as “trips”) or approximately 721 rides per day (curiously, they report 913 rides/day). Regardless of which number is correct, given that the system had 709 bicycles, the metric appears to be closer to 1 (at worst) or 1.29 (at best). It’s safe to assume Denver tallied its number of trips correctly. Given 263,110 and 365 operational days, the number of bikes per day in active operation would need to be about 240 to hit the ratio ITDP reported. I suppose it’s possible that two-thirds of its fleet was not active on average, but that would seem to raise a troubling question or two.

    Similarly, Madison is listed in the chart at slightly more than 2 trips/bicycle/day. In their annual report for 2013 (https://madison.bcycle.com/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=cxx1EMwRz1Q%3D&tabid=461), they list 304 checkouts per day and 290 bicycles active in the system: 1.05 rides/bicycle/day.

  20. Rather than thinking about it in terms of whether bike share “captures auto trips”, bike share makes a car-free lifestyle more attractive. Over time it helps grow the number of people who don’t rely on cars for their daily transport needs. It helps mass/active transit compete with auto-dependence for all the new residents in a city.

  21. Absolutely. Although I’d call it car-lite, which includes car sharing as an element of a sustainable transportation lifestyle. The difference is between car owning (car-centric and car-dependent) and occasionally car using. Car sharing might be harder in really dense cities like NYC or SF, where parking is very difficult. Although car2go launched last month in Brooklyn.

    But the auto trip metric is seemingly important, because bike share was touted as a last mile connector to extend the practicality of transit.

  22. It just occurred to me that there is one major variable that messes with metrics of the first graph: Months of operation/climate. The numbers of Montreal would look much worse if they didn’t shut down the system from November to April; and conversely, Madison would have much better numbers if they didn’t keep their bikes out year round. Taking this into account is absolutely crucial when discussing the rides per bike and day.

  23. Boston’s system doesn’t shut down over the winter – they do limit it to a smaller area, but it doesn’t shut down.

  24. wait – why is Boston surprising? they placed stations in strategic locations where people would be most likely to use them – either big tourist areas (largely along off-street paths) or to replace slower transit options (congested bus routes or a trip that would require multiple transfers). Also Boston Metro has one of the highest total number of metro area bike commuters in the entire country (Somerville and Cambridge are closing in on double digit bike mode share) – so even lack of on-street facilities can be overcome by high volume of bikes in general – especially in the areas that hubway currently serves. The poor state of Boston’s bike network (both in the city and within the region) is definitely preventing higher ridership, though – IMO – Boston’s one of the few major cities in the US with the best potential for reaching double digit bike mode share as they fill out their network.

  25. Very interesting read! I’m from Austin, and I’d have to say that although bike shares are becoming more prominent here, there is definitely a need for more accessible bike lanes. The more bike lanes, the safer future and present cyclists will feel!

    On another note, there is an on-demand bike share app available in Austin called, SPOKEFLY. It provides various bikes to facilitate commutes as well as an easy way for people to make money by listing their unused bikes. By listing a bike within this iOS and Android app, users can experience different styles of bikes (Mountain, road, hybrid, etc), and listers can get bikes out of their garages and into the streets where they belong. Users can also lock up the bikes at available bike racks instead of finding the nearest station like traditional bike shares. Here’s a link to the app for more info: spokefly.com/app

    I’m heading up to New York for New Years so I’ll for sure have to try Citi Bike when I’m there.

    I’m excited to see what comes of the bike share growth in New York, Austin, and the rest of the U.S.

  26. I totally agree! For bike shares to flourish, environments with sustainable transportation are definitely needed. It’s also good to point out that if bike infrastructure is readily available and safe, more people may be willing to use biking as a main form of transportation.

    Haven’t been to New York in a couple of years. I wonder how the bike lanes are over there

  27. I’m curious. How long does it take you to get to a CitiBike station and what is your main use for riding?

  28. I’d say there are a lot of factors: housing/job density, bike infrastructure, weather, etc. For me station density is a huge deal though because if one station is full and its 5 blocks to the next one and then I have to walk back 7 blocks to my destination… not so useful.

  29. One of the differences between the DC system and all the rest of these is that DC actually has 3 separate systems that are branded as one. DC, Alexandria County, and Montgomery County all make separate decisions on where to place stations within their jurisdictions, with separate funding streams for each. DC’s system used to be one of the more highly-used (in terms of rides per bike per day) but has gone down with the expansion of service in the other two jurisdictions.

  30. I wonder what the ridership on San Diego’s system is. Betting it’s easily less than 1 ride per bike.

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