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Rebalancing Act

July 24, 2013

One of the most remarkable aspects of Citi Bike’s debut is how quickly people worked bike sharing into their rush-hour transportation routines.  That’s a good thing insofar as it provides strong evidence of a pent-up demand for better bike lanes and quiets the critics who predicted that New Yorkers would never choose cycling as anything more than a recreational pursuit.  But it obviously presents a challenge for rebalancing crews, who can’t keep up with the throngs of commuters who arrive at two of the world’s busiest transportation hubs hoping to hop on bikes to complete their journeys.

When Citi Bike launched in May, I wrote that it would be “as convenient (and frustrating) as everything else” and quoted liberally from this great post by David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington.  Now that the biggest complaint about Citi Bike seems to be that there aren’t enough bikes, Alpert’s post seems worth revisiting:

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.

Citi Bike should, of course, do everything it can to keep up with peak demand at the city’s major transit hubs.  That includes rebalancing, but it also will have to include a higher concentration of bikes and stations near Grand Central and Penn Station as well as additional stations within the existing service area so people have place to dock when they ride those bikes to their destinations.

But it may just be a fact that as Citi Bike becomes more of an entrenched part of New York City, the definition of what it is used for evolves along with people’s expectations.  Personally, I happen to find Citi Bike perfect for mid-day meetings or on those nights when a deadline keeps me at the office after 8 PM and I don’t have my own bicycle to ride home.  But I do know that if I absolutely need to be somewhere at the height of the rush hour, I might want to give myself extra time to find a station with an empty dock.

It’s no different than the many calculations New Yorkers make when they choose the best means of getting around.  Take getting to JFK.  If my flight leaves at 6 AM, I typically take a car service and sail along traffic-free streets before the sun rises.  But if the only flight available requires me to get to the airport in the midst of a busy rush hour, you better believe I opt for the LIRR to the Air Train.

One other thought.  Given the clear demand for biking among people who commute into the city from Connecticut, Westchester, and New Jersey, it may also be the case that the desire for people to have a reliable connection from transit hubs to their offices and back again will require the repurposing of additional street space for the parking of personal bikes which can be left overnight.  Though we wouldn’t want to turn into Amsterdam, would we?

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One Comment
  1. James permalink
    July 26, 2013 11:55 pm

    “Personally, I happen to find Citi Bike perfect for mid-day meetings or on those nights when a deadline keeps me at the office after 8 PM and I don’t have my own bicycle to ride home.”

    The bottom line is that in the off-peak hours, you’re still screwed if you live on the end of the zone. For example, I lived on the Southern border of London’s Barclay’s Bike zone, and so I could not find a bike later in the morning to head into Central London, or feel safe taking a bike from Central London to my flat in the evening, as spaces would always be full by evening, and they never removed bikes at night, because they knew there was strong demand in the AM for a full rack of bikes to go back into Central London.

    Bikeshare members who live in Manhattan will always have a much more value-packed CitiBike experience than those living on the eastern edges of Brooklyn and Queens.

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