Bike Sharing Shares More Than Bikes

New York Bike Share UseNew York’s bike sharing program has been in service for just over a month now, met with plenty of enthusiasm and criticism alike. I had some colleagues that were skeptics (even fellow bikers) of how often those blue bikes would be touring across the city grid, but the latest statistics are painting a picture of quick acclimation into local culture. At the same time, the greatest value of CitiBike may not just be the bike availability. In the digital age, a system like this has the potential to have a much broader influence on the future of the city.

Biking By the Numbers

For the first 34 days, the results of the bike share program are in and they don’t point to an unused amenity slowly declining into a state of disrepair. According to CitiBike, between opening day on June 2nd and the end of June 31st, there was an impressive 646,605 rides that traversed a combined 1,534,688 miles (that’s about 550 carbon-free, cross country trips between New York and Los Angeles). The service ended the month with 51,772 annual subscribers along with 2,926 24-hour passes and 180 7-day passes. This would point to the vast majority of riders being local subscribers, not tourists.

*As a side note, it will be interesting to see how the usage rate fluctuates over time. The June numbers had an average of around 19,000 rides a day, less than half of the confirmed annual subscriptions. That ratio may close a bit once the bikes have been around for a while.

Data Mining

While the system seems to be off to a good (and safe) start, CitiBike has more to offer in long term value to the city. With a good distribution of stations that the service plans to double across the city, the other thing that CitiBike has is data. Lots of data. Data that tells of how, when and where people want to use the grid. The “QuickStats” that Citi is posting should only be the beginning.

There are plenty of bike proponents in the city and the Bloomberg administration has overseen vast improvements to bike mobility throughout the five boroughs. While arguably the cheapest form of alternative transit to support, there are still repercussions and not only in terms of cost. New bike lanes bring changes to traffic and parking patterns that can have varying degrees of effect on the grid. Bike racks are relatively easy to install, but there’s always the question of where to put them. Before the city spends money on infrastructure, it is also good to have an idea of how much it is really going to be used.

Taking the pulse of bikers in New York City has always had its limitations. With a city so large and no defined method of keeping track of commuters moving in and out by bike, the best that the city can do is try to count cyclists at various points around the city on a few different days of the year. From there, they can extrapolate a fairly reasonable average of who is biking and speculate how they move around the city.

Other forms of alternative transit have much more accurate measurement tools by means of their design. Buses, trains and subways can all count ticket sales and/or entry and exit point to paint a very good picture of how the system is used. Biking has traditionally lacked this kind of usage data–until now. CitiBike has the opportunity to supplement the DOT’s efforts of tracking and responding to the biking population with daily updates of how each of their New Yorker cyclists is navigating the city. Not only are there numbers for how many rides are taken, but given that every transaction has a start and stop point the rough path taken should be able to be extrapolated as well to highlight which streets are used the most for bike traffic.

This kind of insight could be instrumental in helping the city migrate away from a street grid maintained in deference to cars and into one that focuses on the true lifeblood of the cityscape: pedestrians and bikers [see: Rethinking the Urban Grid]. And that’s where the opportunities for real urban sustainability (which means what?) come in. New York’s bike share is touted as a “green” system promoting health and low-carbon transit. That is true, but I would imagine that  most of the early subscribers are not pulled from people that used to drive or take cabs to work. Most were probably subway riders from trains that will be running anyway (albeit helping to alleviate capacity constraints). However, every lane of pavement that is converted from car spaces to one supporting pedestrians and alternative transit is a step towards a more sustainable metropolis.

100% Privately Funded isn’t So Bad

It is also worth noting that CitiBike could be a great example of the potential value in public/private partnerships. I heard a fair amount of scoffing about the fact that the bike sharing system had logos for Citi and Mastercard on them, but what’s with all the naysaying? These companies are footing the entire bill for a system that has no guarantee of working or turning a profit. It’s not a small bill either. Citi reportedly secured naming rights at the price of $41 million, with another $6.5 coming from Mastercard. New Yorkers now have the largest bike sharing program in the U.S. to use as a powerful development tool to direct citywide efforts and make the case for increased bike infrastructure.

On the other hand, I’m not going to try to argue that Citi’s efforts are one big, blue gift to the community. When compared to some other bike sharing systems around the world, New York’s is definitely the most expensive, not only for membership costs, but for penalty fees as well. I found the stats of the bike sharing system in Hangzou, China to be pretty staggering. Comprised of 60,600 bikes (ten times NYC) distributed at 2,200 stations, the service is actually free for residents for trips up to an hour. Then again, blank checks for a communist-government-sponsored system go a long way.

In the mean time, ride on!

UPDATE: As predicted, this great graphic was made by the New Yorker utilizing real-time usage data of CitiBike for one month. The growing and shrinking circles around each station highlight the inflow and outflow of bikes throughout the day. Already we have a growing field of data and the service is only 2 months old!