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The Future of Bike Sharing - Part 2

Last fall, I interviewed the founder of Pittsburgh Bike Share to gain a behind the scenes look at bike sharing. At the time, Pittsburgh Bike Share was only 5 months into operations. ​In this second article on the The Future of Bike Sharing, I checked-in to hear what they have learned after two busy seasons and one winter of operations. Erin Potts, Director of Marketing & Community Outreach shared her perspective on lessons learned as well as the future direction

Growth of Bike Commuting and Bike Sharing in Pittsburgh

The non-profit, Pittsburgh Bike Share operates Healthy Ride, which is the branded name of bike sharing in Pittsburgh. Healthy Ride is sponsored by two healthcare provider systems and uses bikes produced by NextRide.

Erin shared that during the first year of operations Pittsburgh Bike Share had over 90,000 rides with approximately 11.000 monthly rides during the summer. Just under 30% of riders rent and return from the same station thus the majority of rides are one way trips. She noted, "we see a wide variety of usage patterns, although many of the riders are recreational riders." Weekends are the busiest days with the majority of riders exploring the area by bike. A smaller number of riders are using the bike share for their daily commute, even on the coldest days.

South Shore Riverfront Park in PIttsburgh. Source: Wikipedia.

The number of daily commuters is growing as people shift behaviors to riding instead of driving. Greater infrastructure is also critical to the shift continuing. Today, Bike Share Pittsburgh sees the greatest usage by existing infrastructure such as bike lanes and rail trails. For example, South Side Works is the most popular station since it provides access to the riverfront trail system.

The numbers are reflective of the huge surge in ridership in Pittsburgh and across the state of Pennsylvania which has one of the highest adoption rates of bike commuting in the nation.

Top 15 U.S. cities with highest share of bicycle commuters. Pennsylvania has two cities: Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Source: League of American Bicyclists 2014 American Community Survey data report

Erin attributes part of the increase to the increasing number of younger people staying in the area. "To a large extent, the younger demographic is choosing bike riding, car sharing, or uber over traditional car ownership. Additional the non-profit Bike Pittsburgh has done a lot to promote advocacy for bike riding and improving access through infrastructure improvements." For example, one of the streets, Penn Avenue now sees 30,000 bike rides per month.

This connects with the broader trend of declining car ownership among millennials and increased preference for urban areas with biking and pedestrian friendly communities. A recent study from Smart Growth America that details how biking can support economic development.

Erin herself is a good example. She came to Pittsburgh for college and lived in the area for six years and then moved away. Five years later she returned and was amazed at the changes she witnessed on the streets with the increased support for biking, walking and alternative forms of transportation beside the automobile.

Check out Erin's' advice to bike commuters

Flexible Bike Sharing in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh uses a flexible bike share model. They encourage riders to avoid the kiosk altogether since it is not needed. Rather, once a rider has registered online they can communicate directly with the bike, enter in information and go. Riders can use the bike as long as necessary and return it when finished. Unsurprisingly, riders prefer this pay as you go model - it is the most popular form of rental for Bike Share Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh uses NextBike which is a third-generation bike share system with a "smart" bike and "smart" dock.
A disc on the front fork of the bike slides into the Smart Rack as shown. The bike signals to the rack, "I'm back in the dock. End the rental session."
The rider communicates directly with the bike through a phone app. Renting and unlocking a bike can be done in under 30 seconds. The app updates riders on how long the bike has been rented.

An interesting aspect of the flexible bike share technology is the degree of flexibility it provides. For instance, with older technology, riders need to return the bike to a station within a limited time, usually 1/2 hour. With flexible bike share, the rider can park the bike anywhere. So instead of just going from point a to point b, it becomes possible to stop at a grocery store, or grab a cup of coffee during the middle of the ride,

The technology also supports the ability to allow riders to return the bike anywhere instead of a sanctioned location, thus ending the rental session.. Pittsburgh Bike Share is currently not using this return feature and is evaluating how it works for other cities. For instance, Bike Share in Hamilton, Ontario allows riders to return to a regular rack anywhere in the service area for a $1 convenience fee.

Bikes are equipped with locks and can be locked anywhere. If a rider exceeds the initial 1/2 hour, they simply roll into the next period and pay another $2. There is no need to return to a docking station within a set time period; a significant convenience for riders.

Safety of Bike Sharing

I asked Erin if cyclists and motorists are learning to co-exist as ridership increases. Erin commutes to work by bike everyday and from her experience the riding has gotten better and continues to improve as the number of riders proliferates. Erin believes as more people ride, the perception of safety increases as well. ​And research shows that the greater the number or riders, the safer the environment. She cites that bike sharing has been statistically is one of the safest ways to get around, even more so than walking. And data on the national level supports her assertion.

For Erin, "as more riders get around on bikes, it isn't as scary and dangerous as people think, especially for bike sharing riders". Erin speculates that bike share riders are traveling at slower speeds, and are newer to riding on the streets and probably more cautious riders. There has also been research that indicates motorists will give more room to bike share riders. This may be since they are perceived differently than regular cyclists.

Future Plans for Bike Sharing in Pittsburgh

Looking ahead, the team is focused on building awareness and expanding access to bike sharing.

Building Awareness

Increasing awareness means helping people to understand what bike sharing is and explaining how it works. Erin cited figures that on average, they need to connect with someone three times before they are willing to ride the bike. According to Erin, "the beautiful thing about bike share is the visibility of the bikes." Indeed, the more people see others taking a bike share, the more likely they are to try it themselves. Increasing the visibility leads directly to the second area of focus.

Expanding Access

​Expanding access means expanding the area of geographic coverage for bike sharing in Pittsburgh. There are currently 50 stations and 500 bikes. and the number is expected to increase in 2017. This approach makes sense since the usage correlates closely with the density of coverage.

According the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), "bike share usage is predominantly driven by convenience. Thus having more options of places to go will increase ridership overall." This network effect is a well proven model The more bike share stations, the more valuable bike share becomes to each rider. In their report, Walkable Station Spacing is Key to Successful, Equitable Bike Share, NACTO recommends a density of 28 stations per square mile. Said different, people should not have to walk further than 5 minutes to find a bike share station.

The main inhibitor for the Bike Share Pittsburgh team is securing funding sources for building and deploying new stations. Erin stated, "It is within our organization's goals and values to reach under-served communities in Pittsburgh to provide affordable, convenient active transit for everyone in Pittsburgh. Equity is something we take very seriously and hope that Healthy Ride can continue to expand to meet equity needs."

As a non-profit, providing this access is a challenge since the city does not pay for additional infrastructure. Therefore, sponsorship and grants are primary sources of funding to support expansion. In the next part of this series, I'll look at for-profit ventures that are entering the bike share market as well as broader issues in bike share equity.

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