Why Do Some Bike-Share Systems Succeed and Others Fail? The Bike-Sharing Planning Guide Explains

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.

It's not easy to set up a bike share system. Some have been wildly successful; others are disasters and more are disasters waiting to happen. Cities are willing to subsidize transit and fix roads on the taxpayers nickel, but baulk at the idea that bike share systems should be anything but self-supporting. People complain that the bike stands are ugly and that the bikes clog the road, and that all those tourists and novice riders are accidents waiting to happen.

In fact, in most cases the opposite is true. Colin Hughes, The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP)'s Director of National Policy and Project Evaluation says:

Bike-sharing is a model of cost-effectiveness both for users and cities. Using bike share to commute is cheaper than public transit for system members. It is also relatively inexpensive for a city to implement; a well-run system can actually be cash-positive instead of requiring large subsidies. The bottom line is bike share can often move more people at a lower cost and with many more positive benefits to health and environment than other modes.

© ITDP/ Paris has one.

The point is, (Toronto, are you listening?) you have to do it right. The ITDP has just released The Bike Share Planning Guide that looks at systems all over the world, and have figured it out. There are five elements that have to come together to make it work:

  • Station Density: A quality system needs 10-16 stations for every square kilometer, providing an average spacing of approximately 300 meters between stations and a convenient walking distance from each station to any point in between. Lower station densities can reduce usage rates.
  • Bikes per Residents: 10-30 bikes should be available for every 1,000 residents within the coverage area. Larger, denser cities and metropolitan regions with an influx of commuters into the area served by the system should have more bikes available to meet the needs of both commuters and residents. Systems with a lower ratio of bikes to residents may not meet this need during peak demand periods, reducing system usage and reliability.
  • Coverage Area: The minimum area covered by a system should be 10 square kilometers, large enough to contain a significant number of user origins and destinations. Smaller areas may drive down system usage.
  • Quality Bikes: Bikes should be durable, attractive and practical (with a front basket to carry bags, packages or groceries). The bicycles should also have specially designed parts and sizes, which discourages theft and resale.
  • Easy-to-Use Stations: The process of checking out a bicycle should be simple. The payment and authorization technology utilized should have an easy-to-use interface, a fully automated locking system and real-time monitoring of occupancy rates (to track whether more or fewer bikes are needed for each station).

These are also covered in the infographic copied below.


© ITDP/ Guangzhou has one.

The Last Mile problem

In almost any transportation system from pod cars to bike, people are trying to solve the last mile problem, described in Wikipedia as " the difficulty in getting people from a transport hub, especially railway stations, bus depots, and ferry slips, to their final destination."

The ITDP claims that bike-shares can help solve this:

The question of the “last mile” is one that has vexed urban planners for generations. In the suburbs and exurbs where commuter trains bring riders into the urban employment centers, riders often drive to stations that have acres of parking lots. Stations in urban mass transit systems (such as train or bus routes), on the other hand, do not have the acreage for extensive lots. These transit stations are instead better served by well-stocked bike-share stations that allow riders to get from the train or bus station to their final destination without using a car or taking a local bus, reducing commuting times significantly.

© Quartz/ David Yanofsky/ Density matters

“The flexibility of bike share in providing quick, short trips on demand is essential,” added Hughes. “In dense cities like New York and Mexico City, biking is usually the fastest way to get around, often much faster than a car—and that is without even factoring in parking time.”

I questioned this, thinking of the last mile problems in suburban terms, where you are dealing with low-density suburban development. But in fact, dense cities with subways often have a last mile problem too, where the surface streets are crowded and the buses inadequate or crowded. A carefully designed bike share system could bring a lot more people to rapid transit without making them wait for a bus. However then a problem can arise with bikes being used just for commuting, and sit all day at the subway or train station; that's when redistribution comes in, the people who pick up bikes where there are too many and move them to places where there are too few. According to the report,

Redistribution is broadly defined as the rebalancing of bicycles from stations that are near or at capacity to stations that are close to empty. Successful redistribution is critical to the viability of the system from the customer’s perspective, and redistribution is one of the greatest challenges of operating a bike-share system, accounting for as much as 30 percent of operating costs in European systems.

You would think it's a no-brainer.

Toronto's famous mayor, Rob Ford, looks at the city's undersized, underfunded bike share and says “It should be dissolved. It’s a failure.” New York columnists complain that the bike share begrimes the city. In fact, bike shares are reducing pollution, reducing traffic, and making people healthier.

From a planning standpoint, the reasons for implementing a bike share program also center on practical goals of increasing cycling, improving air quality and offering residents an opportunity for physical fitness, benefits that have been quantified. As of November, 2012, for example, Washington, D.C.’s 22,000 bike share members had reduced the number of miles driven (in cars) per year by nearly 4.4 million. And numerous studies have shown that spending twenty minutes every day on a bike has a significant positive impact on mental and physical health.
From a political standpoint, bike share is an exceptionally simple transportation solution to implement because of its low capital costs and short implementation timeline. It is possible to devise and install a complete system in one mayoral term—typically two to four years—which means that the public sees results much more quickly than with most transportation projects.
bike share

© ITDP/ New york has one.

ITDP CEO Walter Hook summarizes it perfectly:

Bike sharing is a post-ownership transport system that is environmentally sustainable, healthy and business-oriented,” said Walter Hook. “It’s the transport of the future.

Get your own copy from ITDP here.