Bikeshare Won’t Save Your City

I gave a pechakucha called, um, this (or “Bikeshare Won’t Solve Your Problems,” or some variation) at the Strong Towns summit. Pechakuchas are extremely nerve-wracking, what with the seven-minute business and timed slides and whatnot. The point I most wanted to convey in my talk was that a bikeshare system is not going to be tremendously successful if your plan is to install stations in places that seem attractive to people.

I realize that this is probably the plan for most bikeshare systems in America. I don’t want to slam that. Cities, I think, level up a bit if they have bikeshare, and I’m not just saying that because I run a bikeshare system. Anything, anything, anything that provides an option that’s not driving is a really, really, really great thing.

But. But. There are 119 bikeshare systems in the U.S. There are few cities in the U.S. that are actually enjoyable places to ride a bike. There are few cities in the U.S. that are actually enjoyable places to walk. This means that most municipalities are running bikeshare systems in spite of the physical configurations of their streets and in spite of the ability of their streets to safely and comfortably accommodate humans instead of cars. I would further bet that most municipalities are not tying their bikeshare systems to the rollout of seriously considered, widespread, Vision-Zero/NACTO-approved, safe-streets infrastructure. Striping—or, worse, sharrow-ing—a bike lane here and there doesn’t count. And I would further, further bet that most municipalities launching bikeshare systems don’t have robust public transit networks into which bikeshare trips can link.

D.C. is not going gangbusters with infrastructure installation (because no American city is), but when Capital Bikeshare launched in 2010, D.C. was a better place to bike, and walk, and take transit than most cities in America. So Capital Bikeshare flourished right off the bat, comparatively—it was like dropping a lit match into tinder. I imagine Minneapolis, Portland, and New York also had the benefit of existing networks and infrastructure that pair well with bikeshare. Other bikeshare systems, including my own, are often launched in not-so-bike-friendly environments that aren’t led by people with any sort of plan to make them more bike-friendly. Or, if there’s a plan, there’s no willpower to implement it. (Cleveland does not have what I would consider high-quality bike infrastructure or frequent, reliable transit; there’s also no plan to develop any of that, just to save what we’ve got.) That’s more like dropping an unlit match into a pile of wet wood. You’re years away from even trying to light it, and if you did, it’d fizzle.

This is why I worked so hard to support the opening of Public Square to buses. It is in my interest, as a bikeshare operator, to have frequent and reliable public transportation in Cleveland, and closing Public Square to buses would have disrupted that further. I’m on the Bike Cleveland board because it’s in my interest to advocate for better bike infrastructure and policy. It’s why I’ll show up and testify, partly with my job title and partly as a Cleveland resident, against 14-foot car lanes through one of the densest parts of the city. Bikeshare doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and bikeshare isn’t going to be successful in Cleveland unless several dominos fall. A substantial mode shift away from driving needs to be prioritized by the city and the region, and then, that can only happen by disincentivizing driving and supporting active transportation, financially and through policy. Bikeshare is not going to accomplish this on its own; its mere existence is not going to shoehorn people-friendly planning decisions into a city that does the most to avoid making such decisions. Insofar, I have not exactly been able to compel many of our leaders to view bikeshare as anything but a cool, fun amenity (which means stuff like this happens; where is the sigh emoji).

So that’s about what I was hoping to get across in my pechakucha. Then, serendipitously/about a month after I presented on this, I was alerted to the existence of this study, which I would like to print, frame and hang on the walls of my home, and which provides a handy backbone for this blog post. Some researchers looked at a bunch of bikeshare systems and concluded this point, among others, which speaks directly to my Strong Towns presentation:

Under the assumption that municipalities are already aware of their system’s low performance, this suggest BSS may serve as other than a transportation alternative, such as green washing, urban renewal or pacifying cycling advocates with an easier solution than new cycling infrastructure displacing road lanes or parking.

We have shown that individual users typically use few stations, many stations are weakly connected to the network, changes in system size have little effect and small systems can still have high performance (p. 211).

Municipalities buy into bikeshare because it’s a cool amenity that looks like it makes a difference in modeshare and environmental impacts—not necessarily because it makes a difference in modeshare or environmental impacts. In order to get the good stuff from bikeshare, you need to fully commit to the good stuff around bikeshare. (I do wonder about the comment that “changes in system size have little effect”; there has to be a threshold for that, because we are sort of able to induce greater usage by putting out more bikes and more stations. But my system is a wacky dual-hub configuration, and I think it would benefit from greater density. Oddly placed stations, in addition to known bikeshare killer ~the mandatory helmet law~, probably didn’t help Seattle, either. On page 212, de Chardon, et al say: “density is a measure of coverage quality but also resiliency and reliability of the system,” which makes sense to me.)

With the caveat that “it was expected that cycling infrastructure have a heavier impact but this was likely limited by the lack of quality provided with the [Open Street Map] data” (p. 212):

Cycling infrastructure is showing an effect of 0–20% per additional kilometre per square kilometre. Rail and bus infrastructure were not found to be significant although BSS stations adjacent to rail stations in Boston, Chicago, London, Luxembourg, New York City, San Francisco and Washington are some of the most used stations within their systems (Médard de Chardon et al., 2016) and important feeders for the whole system. It is likely not the number of bus or rail stops that matter but their magnitude of traffic (p. 212).

NACTO has fully declared that infrastructure expands equity in bikeshare, and even though discretionary enforcement has a disproportionate impact on non-white cyclists’ decision to choose to bike for transportation, non-white cyclists—just like white cyclists, particularly women—identify the lack of safe cycling infrastructure as the biggest barrier to riding a bike. Again: Bikeshare is not going to be successful on its own, especially if it’s procured in order to make it look as if a municipality is up to speed on its sustainability goals without being paired with investments in the physical changes to streets that will encourage people to ride bikes.

All of this leads me to what I was doing this time last week: dropping points on a map that I keep for my own reference about where I’d like to put bikeshare stations. As things currently stand, none of these stations will ever exist, because there is zero funding for any additional bikeshare in Cleveland or Cuyahoga County, anywhere. ( erroneously said this week that my system would be expanding based on a press release we sent out this; the press release said nothing about expansion, just that we would be installing the last of the first round of stations in the near future.) If you want more bikeshare, you can help me help the city view bikeshare as an asset and ask your councilperson to request that funding for it be added to the capital budget. Maybe that’ll work. A million, I figure—that’s less than half of what we are likely to spend on a dirt bike track, by the way—would reasonably fill in some of the more egregious gaps in the system.*

Maybe the most important sentence in the de Chardon, et al, paper is this:

Without clear goals, [bikeshare system] adoption hints to their purpose being a symbol of sophistication, equity and sustainability awareness, among others, more than part of a comprehensive public transportation tool (p. 212).

If I could, I’d put handclap emojis in between every single word up there. A few weeks ago, I had a call with a city that is launching a bikeshare system in the next year. We talked a bit about equity, and about the constraints of planning a system that no one is really throwing money at. A thing that I brought up is that I’d really like to have a goal for my system. Not, like, a target number for performance, but a goal (kind of how I’d like the city of Cleveland to have a goal) collectively decided upon by stakeholders. Preferably, this would have been established before I was hired and would have reflected available resources, because now the system exists, and it is what it is, and it’s going to be what it is for some time, and the goal of the bikeshare system that I run is, effectively, to get a bikeshare system in Cleveland. If the goal of the system was to encourage modeshift in Cleveland, or to provide equitable transportation, or to provide last-mile connections from transit, or to provide a neighborhood amenity, the system’s configuration, and even infrastructure would, I think, look entirely different.

It is not my place to speculate publicly on how different my system would look if it were procured and planned with a discrete goal. But because I love a good extended metaphor, I think about hypothetical goals for bikeshare the way I think about setting goals for myself while I’m at the climbing gym. I, generally, climb for exercise and to get some mental puzzling out—not necessarily to complete routes and solve problems. If you climb in a gym, you probably keep going back because you are satisfied by completing routes. I do not care about completing routes, really, because I am the least competitive person on the planet. I do like saying that I solved a problem. But on most days, I’m happy to just use my body and wear myself out. This means that I don’t really advance with climbing in a targeted way, much like a bikeshare system whose only purpose is to exist, and be a bikeshare system, won’t ever quite completely nail access or equity or mode-shift goals.

On the days that I am like, “OK, today I am going to solve this V3 that has been fucking with me for the past week,” I buckle down and solve the damn thing, and then I do it a bunch more times, and then I’m confident enough to try a V4. It’s very different from going to the gym with no particular plan in mind other than to climb around on plastic rocks.

I will defend my preference to do the latter all day. The only person who’s losing out by me not having specified performance goals for climbing is me. But cities inserting bikeshare without specific goals, and without tying that bikeshare system to a broad mobility plan, may not earn the return on their investment that they could.

The study concludes the following, which I think is fascinating:

…We found that system expansions (increasing the number of stations and associated number of bicycles) do not increase system performance. This is a significant finding as influential practitioners promote this ‘network effect’ to policy makers while we have found absolutely no evidence supporting this. Additionally, and unsurprisingly, cycling infrastructure is related to BSS performance. Politically, however, increasing BSS size may be more palatable by decision makers and less contested by the public than a redistribution of public roadways for improved utility cycling infrastructure (p. 212).

Again: It’s easier to expand a bikeshare system than it is to make our roads safer for walking and biking. I would love to expand my system. I do think we need it. I do think that it would boost performance (because, honestly, with the dual-hub thing, the west side and University Circle feel like two different systems). But if by some moonshot that happens, Cleveland is still not going to be a great place to ride a bike.