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Bike Sharing: As Convenient (and Frustrating) as Everything Else

May 24, 2013

On the eve of Citi Bike’s launch, here’s a great explanation of bike sharing from someone who’s seen it all before, David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington:

…bike sharing is not the same as bicycling. This is why a lot of people get confused about bikeshare if they aren’t familiar with it. Some New Yorkers expressed shock that a 4-hour ride would rack up $77 in late fees on their Citibike system. As those of us who’ve used bikeshare know, people don’t ride a bikeshare bike for 4 hours, or if they do, they just return it every half hour and reset the clock.

Bike sharing is, in many ways, more like transit: it transports you from fixed stations to other fixed stations. However, it’s also different from transit. Transit has more capacity at peak times when there are more vehicles. It costs money to run a vehicle, so you run it when there’s demand. Therefore, bus lines in particular are far more useful at times when there are a lot of buses. At some times of day, they don’t run at all.

Bike sharing is the opposite. It has a fixed capacity that fills up quickly, but is always available. Bike sharing is most useful off-peak, when the stations aren’t filling up or emptying out so fast. It’s always available at night.

One of the important things to remember is that Citi Bike will not be perfect.  That will be especially true as people get used to the system… and as the system gets used to the people.  But it will also be true many years from now.

My wife, a bike share novice, recently asked me what happens if she tries to return a bike but finds that the station nearest her destination is full.  After I explained how to request an extra 15 minutes from a kiosk in order to find another station with available docks, she responded by saying, “Yeah, but what if I really need to be somewhere?”  She was needling me, of course, but I needled her right back.  “If you really need to be somewhere on time, leave early!”

Subways get delayed, buses skip stops, and taxis get stuck in traffic.  (Sometimes they crash.)  While the problems some people will experience with Citi Bike may be unique to bicycle sharing–no one has to worry about finding an empty taxi dock, for example–they will not be unique to getting around.  Real New Yorkers know how to roll with it when things don’t work out as planned.  In fact, that’s one of bike sharing’s biggest benefits: when the bus is too slow, no taxi is available, and your subway line is suspended in both directions due to an “earlier incident,” the option of having all those blue bikes around will give you one more way to cope with life in the big city.

Enjoy your first week of riding, everyone!  Welcome to the future.

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4 Comments
  1. Albert permalink
    May 24, 2013 10:44 am

    Every time I think I’ve heard all the clever ways to use bike-share—even for people who already have their own bicycles—someone comes up with another one that I’d never thought of: “Bike sharing is most useful off-peak, when the stations aren’t filling up or emptying out so fast. It’s always available at night.” Yet another way for me to make use of the city that I hadn’t considered.

  2. May 24, 2013 7:15 pm

    Good post. As a bike commuter in DC I found our CaBi system not great during rush hour but nice in the off hours. Your wife has a point with the docking question. What do you do when one after another is full? It can be a problem even if you allow extra time. I work from home now and happily my long multimodal commute is a thing of the past. CaBi will be useful when I have occasional need to be in DC for a meeting. I hope to use it to show my out of town sister the sights.

  3. Dmitri F permalink
    May 27, 2013 8:50 am

    The answer to your wife’s question is actually quite simple – before you set off for the next bike dock, take out your Citi Bike app and check the available slots. If there are none, or very few, plan ahead for a possible detour 🙂

    I’ve used bike share in Stockholm for a few years and ever since real time bike info has been made available, bike share became an even more awesome addition to the city. Unfortunately ours only allows you to grab a bike until 10pm and it’s not available during winter. Bummer.

    Use the real time bike dock info and you’ll rarely have problems with full or empty stations.
    Even during rush hour, you can always beat the rush by knowing which stations have bikes and which don’t.

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