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Archive for May, 2012

Should bike sharing address only “the first and last mile problem”?

May 21, 2012 By: Peter Smith Category: Advocacy

Toyama, Japan bike share


Bike sharing should be as useful to a transportation system — to a city — as it can possibly be, and that means we should use it for short trips, long trips, medium trips, extremely long trips, work trips, pleasure trips, exercise trips, and every possible reason under the sun, imagined and otherwise.

Said another way, public bike share systems (PBSs) should not be thought of as only a complement to an existing transport system — they should be seen as the hopeful and probable replacement of some, most, or all existing motorized components of an existing transport system. To put it more succinctly, walking and biking should be the core components of every transport system on earth — they should represent the #1 and #2 dominant mode shares, respectively.

So, bike share will both complement and compete with transit and every other mode of transport — including walking, private bike biking, busing, training, and driving - studies have already shown this to be true. Needless to say, I disagree with the conception in that blog post that bike sharing should only or primarily be considered a ‘first mile/last mile‘ solution, or that a bike share system is only ‘designed well’ if it fits into an existing transport system. I would say it is true that all motorized transport systems should feel threatened by bikes and bike sharing, but I believe the greater threat to train lovers are BRT and BRT supporters (who are often public transit detractors), people who believe that only in recent years are cities being forced to live within budgets (“in these budget-constrained times”, etc.), and people who believe that public transit belongs below ground (to keep the streets free for cars). But don’t worry — there are some proven ways to make motorized mass transit work.

Why should we encourage the replacement of our existing transport systems with biking (and walking, of course)? Because biking is awesome, for the myriad reasons we know it to be awesome. And regarding competing transportation alternatives, biking is relatively clean and sustainable, incredibly efficient, relatively easy for most people to participate in (if we allow them to), it is ridiculously inexpensive, etc.

In short, it is difficult to imagine a scenario that would make us, as a society, want to unnecessarily constrain the role of the bicycle, and public bike sharing. Yet that’s exactly what we continue to do.

We know the myriad ways that we artificially limit the role of the bicycle — the primary one being that we build physical infrastructure that does not safely and comfortably accommodate cycling, sometimes destroying any infrastructure that could prove to be complementary to biking — but how are we limiting bike sharing?

There are many ways — from artificially-short ‘free period’ time limits (30 minutes, 45 minutes, etc.), to insufficient bike/station supply, to high membership/use costs, to privatizing the systems, to forcing the systems to pay for themselves, etc. But the core problem is not these particular issues, which can all be addressed — the core problem is the conception of bike sharing as a solution to “the first and last mile problem” only.

First, where did this idea come from, that either biking in general or bike share bikes should be used only for the first/last mile of a trip? I actually have no idea. I’d venture to guess that the apparent power of this idea has a lot to do with the existing infrastructure in the US — primarily, almost exclusively, designed for car travel, often times seemingly designed to limit or outright prevent any other mode of travel — and this just puts most Americans into an intellectual straightjacket where they are incapable of imagining such a radically different world — one which does not require a car to take care of one’s daily needs. But that’s just a guess and I think it only really matters as an intellectual exercise — it’s interesting, but not particularly important.

Regardless of the roots of the “limit bike share” idea, to limit biking for whatever reason is a bogus idea — there is nothing to be gained from limiting biking or bike share — unless you’re a member of some type of motorized transport interest group — auto and bus makers primarily, but also trains and motorcycles and another other form of motorized transport. All people and organizations with an interest in maintaining the dominance and continued spectacular growth of motorization have a strong interest in making sure places do not ever become walkable and bikeable. I’m not privy to documents inside General Motors and Ford and TheCityFix and WRI, but I suspect they are more than happy with this idea that bike share should be limited to the first and last mile of trips.

To talk more about these matters I hit up a couple of email lists with all sorts of bike and transport experts, and through a bunch of back and forth and with insights from people who actually know something about bike sharing, I was able to figure out that this conception of bike sharing as a short haul/short trip-only mode was, indeed, dominant, and that it wasn’t just the auto and bus industries (they are different but have a very symbiotic relationship and are sometimes the same company) that conceived as bike share this way but also bonafide ‘bike heads’, sustainable transport people, etc.

I long had a sneaking suspicion that the bus and auto companies were funding bus rapid transit (BRT) public relations outfits, like TheCityFix, and sponsoring videos with folks like Streetfilms, to influence public perception about BRT — particularly transportation advocates, but I never actually thought to myself, “Hmmm….there are other people out there who think biking in general or bike share bikes should only be used for short trips” — it just never occurred to me.

So, what should we do? How should we fix this?

Well, the specific policy prescriptions are besides the point for this post, though I’ll suggest a few in a minute — the main point of this post is that we should get people to think of bike share bikes as being suitable for any type of transport they might wish to pursue — short trips, medium trips, long trips — especially long trips (because they are most likely to replace motorized trips) — exercise trips, joyriding trips, etc.

Once we open up the door to the possibility that bike share bikes are not strictly for short trips, or that they’re not to be used only for work-related utilitarian trips, then a whole new world becomes possible — a world which could legitimately see the bicycle, once again, as a major mode of transport for society — I believe it can, and must, become the  most dominant mode of transport, right after walking.

So, specific policy proscriptions for how to make the most of your bike share system:

  1. Increase the supply of the bikes. If you are running out of bikes at some stations during peak hours, then add more bikes to those stations and at all stations. That’s somewhat obvious. If you have a system driven by profit instead of maximum public benefit, this may be difficult to do, but that importantly helps us to understand why these systems should be under public, not private, control.
  2. Increase the length of the ‘free use’ time periods. Current periods seem to typically range from 30-90 minutes, with 30 and 45 minutes being the most common. Increasing these initial ‘free’ time periods will allow people to start using the bikes for more and longer trips, in part, because they won’t have to rush around, nor feel rushed, and they won’t have to plan their trips out carefully before they take off — they can just hop on and go.
  3. Implement decongestion pricing during peak use periods. Do this instead of applying the same-rate-at-all-times-of-day pricing scheme now in effect (e.g. Free use for 30 or 45 minute periods, various per-30-min penalties thereafter, etc.). Decongestion pricing will probably be necessary for any type of transportation system in place over the next 20+ years, particularly because our transport systems have been so distorted by corporate interests, etc. This goes for roads, public motorized transport like trains and buses, and yes, it is probably even necessary/helpful/useful for non-motorized public transport like public bike share schemes. We can look at a) increasing rates from free to some minimal charge for using a bike during a peak time, b) shortening the free use time limit/period during peak time (e.g. from 45 minutes to 30 minutes), c) decreasing off-peak pricing or increasing off-peak free use time limit/period, etc.
  4. Change the ‘overtime’ pricing scheme to a per-minute charge. Charging based on blocks may be somewhat easier to calculate, but we have computers — we should use them. For example, we can charge 5 cents per minute late instead of $1.50 for the entire 30-minute late block of time. By doing this you will actually encourage people to return bikes after they are late instead of holding onto the bikes since they’ve already been charged for the entire half hour overtime block.
  5. Change the ‘overtime’  pricing scheme to one that is less punitive. Instead just encourage people to return bikes when they are no longer truly needed — so that the bikes may be used by people who do truly need them — do this with a simple overtime pricing scheme — e.g. 1 cent per minute for the first half hour, 2 cents for the second half hour, etc. The idea that a late bicycle rate should rise exponentially until it has cost someone $80 for a 4-hour bike ride only serves to induce anxiety in the public bike share-riding public, which reduces demand for the bikes, which keeps people in/on motorized transport, with all the deleterious effects that brings.

There are myriad other ways to allow public bike share systems to truly become all that they can be — like not handing over your city’s biggest, most important corridors to bus-only road transit systems (BRT) — but these can be figured out by anyone who cares to sit down and think about it for a coupe of minutes. The important thing we need to do is enable people to think about bicycle travel and public bike share systems as something that can be, and should be, the first or second most dominant mode of transport in your city/town.

If and when we do achieve a Japanese-level competency (excellence?) in bike share (I’m assuming they’ll get there), we will have officially taken a significant step towards restoring dignity to so many people who right now are dependent on motorized transport and their local governments to get them from Point A to Point B. We will also be addressing one of the greatest threats to humankind — global warming - not an insignificant matter.

We should strive for excellence in transport. Check out this video from Monocle on what it calls the Top 20 of the world’s transport systems. And yes, bike share (Bicing in Barcelona) made the list, and SF’s planned bike share gets a mention, too.

For a bit more inspiration, check out this video from China — this is only the first few minutes — see the full report here: