NACTO: If You Want Bike-Share to Succeed, Put Stations Close Together

There's a strong correlation between bike share station density and how many people use the system. Image: NACTO
There’s a strong correlation between how closely spaced bike-share stations are and how frequently they are used. Image: NACTO

A new study from the National Association of City Transportation Officials [PDF] adds credence to the theory that station density is a key factor in whether a bike-share system will flourish or flop.

More stations per mile, more ridership per bike. Chart: NACTO
More stations per mile, more ridership per bike. Chart: NACTO

In its analysis of bike-share systems across the U.S., NACTO found that stations that are close to other stations see more use. In addition, bike-share systems with higher overall density — New York and Paris are leaders — tend to have higher ridership than more dispersed systems like Minneapolis’s Nice Ride.

Riders from systems around the U.S. report the primary reason they use bike-share is because it is easier or more convenient than available alternatives. But users don’t want to have to travel a long distance searching for a place to pick up or return a bike. So the accessibility of bike stations — and, crucially, accessibility by walking — is a primary determinant of their usefulness.

“Research on transit users finds that most people will walk no more than a 1/2 mile to get to commuter rail, with a large drop-off beyond a 1/4 mile,” the report says. “The distance someone will walk to use a bike appears to be much smaller — about 1,000 feet or 5 minutes walking.”

Furthermore, placing stations close together across a contiguous area offers “exponentially” more destinations than those that are isolated.

NACTO recommends that cities place stations no farther than 1,000 feet apart, anywhere throughout the system. That’s about 28 stations per square mile.

NACTO recommends cities like Minneapolis place "infill" stations in the lighter orange areas to help boost bike share system ridership. Image: NACTO
NACTO recommends cities like Minneapolis place “infill” stations in the lighter orange areas to help boost bike-share system ridership. Image: NACTO

Unfortunately, many cities bow to political pressure to spread stations over a wide geographic area in order to accommodate various constituencies. NACTO says stations tend to be especially spread out in low-income neighborhoods, which contributes to lower usage by lower-income groups overall.

The report advises cities considering bike-share to go big — make ambitious investments in bike stations and place stations close together in a small geographic area — with intent to expand. Vary the size of the stations — the number of bikes per dock — based on expected demand, but not the distance between stations, because the distance people are willing to walk doesn’t change. Finally, for cities that already have bike-share, NACTO says many of them could improve performance by repairing gaps with “infill” stations.

24 thoughts on NACTO: If You Want Bike-Share to Succeed, Put Stations Close Together

  1. Or don’t use stations at all. Social Bicycles offers a bikeshare design that doesn’t require bikes to be docked – this is the system that Santa Monica will use.

    This could create a need to periodically shepherd bikes back to popular locations, but if cities are smart, they can give users credits for doing the shepherding work for them. That might even be possible for bringing broken bikes to bike repair shops that the city contracts with.

  2. They really should plot that first image on the same scale. It is tough to compare cities if that is the intent.

  3. Also, this is a good example of a critical mass situation. If you got to the point where there was a bike share station on every block in Manhattan, you would find the number of uses jump exponentially.

  4. Two things:

    1. Do you have data for Chinese cities? Hangzhou and Wuhan’s systems have recently surpassed Velib in size and scope.

    2. It’s somewhat misleading to say “New York and Paris are leaders.” Velib has more than four times the usage of Citibike, and it’s important to investigate why. Paris has denser station spacing than New York, but not by much. The big difference may be system size: Velib covers the entire city and a few inner suburbs, with a combined population around 50% more than that of Manhattan. So the lesson may be less “denser station spacing” and more “put the damn bikes citywide rather than just in the CBD and a handful of gentrified neighborhoods” (hi, RPA).

  5. In other news, the sky is blue. Anyone who has used the system can tell you how important they be together. Its a shame the decision makers never actually have.

  6. Depends

    the SF peninsula system deployed their stations in a dense manner, but they had few stations meaning the overall coverage was useless – there were few places you would want to ride to from another station. The only time I used Mountain View and RWC’s stations, I rode the bike to a non-dock destination, did my errand, and rode the bike back to the original dock.

    The value in density is that when you get to your destination, you don’t have to walk far from a dock to your final destination. But without enough overall coverage, there aren’t any distances you can cover that make a bike useful.

    If you only have 6 docks like a Mountain View, you might as well just go after specific constituencies, for example putting them at Mountain View Caltrain and then 5 specific job centers 1-2 miles away.

  7. Let’s also not forget that efficient infrastructure for city cycling is critical, too. While the protected bike lanes on the few avenues where they exist are pretty good (a Green Wave would be better), it is the huge car/truck/bus traffic jams that make city cycling inefficient. A painted “sharrow” in the motorist lane doesn’t leave room for a bicycle to pass. On Midtown Manhattan side streets, I spend just as much time walking my Citibike on the sidewalk to get around motorists’ blockages as I do cycling and standing in the roadway sucking in exhaust.

  8. Interesting. Maybe. Curious to see how Chicago’s roll out of additional stations goes. It expands coverage greatly but the expansion will not be as dense as the first roll out.

  9. Yes, this is extremely frustrating and the people running SFBikeshare don’t seem to be listening to the people on the peninsula who want to use the bikes to get from their homes to the downtowns and back, and from town to town, rather than the short distances in the individual downtowns. Most of us would love to see bikes in our neighborhood hubs.

  10. I don’t think BABS was ever intended to be successful in Mountain View, Palo Alto, or Redwood City in terms of ridership — they just put stations there to float the sponsorship possibilities in front of nearby tech firms.

  11. If sponsorship possibilities had been floated, sponsorships would have occurred – of this I have no doubt.

  12. Riding a bike through gridlocked traffic in midtown is a very satisfying feeling! Most of the time, you can filter around cars without too much trouble IME.

  13. The problem is Bike Share is designed for really short trips and lots of those trips are bumping up on to the 30 minute windows. Also, it isn’t quite dense enough to have neighborhood stations.

  14. Another important data point is pricing. Vélib’, the most successful system on the chart by far, is about $32 per year, whereas the most successful US system, CitiBike, is $150 per year. That’s quite a jump.

  15. I wonder how Minneapolis looks when you add in the rate of bike ownership. Guessing a lot of people there don’t use NiceRide because they own their own bike.

  16. Labor costs for rebalancing are the number one operating cost of a bikeshare system. Going to each bike instead of a dock station will end up costing way more.

  17. A big issue with Nice Ride use is bike infra. St Paul is lacking so ridership is lacking so Nice Ride continues to move stations out of St Paul. This further lowers rate of ridership because you now are losing density of stations along with the horrible bike infra. St Paul now has a bike plan so hopefully we can start reversing the trend.

  18. Thus my second paragraph… Car2Go pays users a modest amount of credits to refill gas tanks – and so the gas tanks are never close to empty.

  19. Exactly the reason I didn’t renew my Divvy membership. Too few stations and the city is hell bent on expanding it to far reaching areas, where the stations wl be 1/2 mile apart. Who is going to use those?

  20. Perhaps, but on the SF Peninsula, most downtowns are about 2 miles from each other, and (specifically in Redwood City) many neighborhood nodes are 1-2 miles from downtown which is perfect for short bike trips. However, many people don’t feel it’s safe to park their own bikes downtown for more than a few minutes which makes bike share really attractive.

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