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A Behind the Scenes Look at Bike Sharing

Updated: May 24

Pittsburgh Bike Share was launched earlier this year to bring bike sharing to the city of Pittsburgh. In a span of just 5 months, over 40,000 rides occurred in a city noted for its hilly terrain. How was this possible? I interviewed David White, Executive Director of the non-profit Pittsburgh Bike Share to learn more.

We met at the Pittsburgh Bike Share office which is located a former restaurant supply warehouse in a rapidly gentrifying section of Pittsburgh known as Lawrenceville. ​

Getting Started with Bike Sharing

David White with one of the smart bikes at Pittsburgh Bike Share.

David left his full-time job in February to start Pittsburgh Bike Share whose mission is to expand access to public transit through easy-to-use, affordable active transportation opportunities. He shared with me the start-up story and provided a behind scenes look at bike sharing.

Through the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration, the City of Pittsburgh received funding to purchase 500 bikes. The city then selected a public works contractor to install the stations, secured ad sponsorship and transferred responsibilities for the program to Pittsburgh Bike Share.

The organization is considered a bike operator, meaning they own and operate the equipment. Essentially they are responsible for all aspects of the program: ensuring commuter bikes are available at all 50 stations, re-balancing the bikes, maintaining the bikes, and conducting outreach and education. In the span of three months, David and the team at Pittsburgh Bike Share fulfilled these responsibilities. By the end of May the ride share program was up and running with 12 stations. By mid-July, the number of stations increased to 50.

Managing Logistics

Each day, a team of Field Service Representatives re-balances bikes to ensure each bike station has adequate commuter bikes. They use a Ford cargo van and operate 7 days a week. In the busy summer months the operation runs 12 hours/day, scaling back to 10 hrs/day in the fall. In addition to moving bikes, the teams tries to visit all the stations at least every 2 days.

At each bike station is a kiosk. Riders can register for free and pay "as you go" in 1/2 hour segments. Prices start as low as $2/half-hour. Riders can also buy a standard monthly membership card for $12/month with unlimited 30 minute rides or a premium $20/month for unlimited 60 minute rides. Other options are also available.

Accessing a Commuter Bike

As with many bike rental programs, a rider can access and unlock the bike by interacting with a kiosk located at the bike station. After a rider enters their information they receive a text message with a code to unlock the bike. They enter the code on the keypad on the bike rack.

In addition, since Pittsburgh Bike Share deploys smart commuter bikes, this gives them the ability to unlock the bike from anywhere. Situated at the rear of the bike is a bike rack with a SIM card that communicates to a cellular network. At rest, the bike is locked. When a rider want to use the bike, they swipe their card. The bike communicates with the server to verify if the card matches an active account that has a positive balance. It sends a return message directly to the bike and unlocks it for the rider.

The bike uses a cable lock mechanism which is a permanent fixture on the bike. After the cable is unlocked, the rider can place it in a holster. When its time to park the bike the rider removes the lock from the holster and inserts into the front wheel to immobilize the bike.

Analyzing the Bike Commuter Data

The data for the 40,000 rides is available online. The majority of rides are pay as you go. And 70% of the trips are point-to-point with the remaining 30% of riders returning bikes to the same stations. A reasonable assumption is the point-to-point riders are commuters. Overall, the data shows individuals using the bike share to commute from residential areas of the city to downtown. The single most popular ride is from an area known as the Strip District into town. 

Lessons for the Future of Urban Transportation

Pittsburgh is a very hilly city with a challenging topography. Despite that, between 2000-2010, Pittsburgh witnessed the largest increase in people riding bikes for commuting purposes. Much of this change has occurred due to improvements in bike infrastructure. David also attributes the continued growth to a coalition of community and business leaders, neighborhood participation, and advocacy groups promoting active transportation.

David observed that the United States is more urbanized than at any point in its history. The trends indicate it will become more urban. He posits that a transportation system that relies on single occupancy vehicles is just not going to work. Bicycles, bike sharing and bike commuting are an important part of the future especially for high-density cities. Well said!

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