Tuesday, November 24, 2015

How do we use bikeshare in the Sun Belt?

The Kinder Institute at Rice University has an interesting report out comparing four Bike-Share Systems in four "Sun Belt" cities.  Three are in Texas (Austin, Houston, Fort Worth), while the other is in Colorado (Denver).  The report's central idea is to get a snapshot of bike share in newer cities with lower density and planning optimized for the automobile -- in contrast to the old urban areas in the Northeast with high density.

The study, which covers the first five months of 2015, notes that most kiosks and most trips are still of the two-way weekday variety (i.e. from one-Kiosk to another), indicating that most users use the system for work trips.  However, there is a greater percentage of users in Houston and Fort Worth -- especially Houston -- who use the systems for round trips (i.e. they start and end at the same Kiosk). I'd be interested to see how this compares with bike share systems in older, denser cities.

The study is a good first stab and thinking about how we use bike share in newer cities, but I do have several additional points to make here, including a criticism or two. 

First it's interesting to note that the broad pattern of trips in these Sunbelt cities still is two-way weekday trips, which indicates that many residents here use the program for similar purposes to those in older cities -- though the report doesn't explicitly compare the two.

Second, I think that the report misses a rather obvious explanation for the differences in trip types between the cities. The authors do suggest several useful variables to explain the differences in usage across kiosks and cities. For example, they note that cities with greater numbers of kiosks have more two-way work trips. Also, the kiosks with more round-trips tend to be located near bike paths or in large parks. Also, Houston allows for a full hour of use before additional surcharges kick in, unlike the traditional pay system which gives a free half hour to the first members.

However, the report misses the idea of density.  Denver's and Austin's systems seem at first glance to be more closely spaced in a tight network, facilitating two-way commuter or errand trips. In contrast Houston and Fort Worth's systems are more spread out, limiting the utility of the system and leading to people treating it like a bike rental than bike share. They don't have any measurements on density, which would be interesting to see as well (maybe a median distance between adjacent kiosks, or a distribution of distances would be a good measure here....)

Density of the network is also rather valuable to total usage, as a National Association of City Transportation Professionals study has noted. So as Houston looks to expand this year, while I hope officials expand the scope of the bike share (please, please come to Rice Village!), I also hope they reinforce its density in its existing footprint (more stations in the Museum District!). This will expand its utility as a short-distance commuting tool.

And it goes without saying that expanding the bicycle infrastructure on the ground (more and better bicycle lanes please...) will help bring more cyclists on to the roads and keep cars moving at more reasonable (and safer) speeds.

But with this gripe aside, the report is a nice initial foray into how bike share works, and has nice nuts-and-bolts data on the use of each kiosk in all the cities and some good basic visualizations of usage in each city's network.

The invaluable Charles Kuffner, as always, has a summary and extensive analysis of a Houston Chronicle article on the subject.  He also makes the trenchant point that while knowing how people use bike share is useful, the fact that they are using it widely is the most important point.

Amen to that.

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