Ever since Tulsa, Oklahoma, launched America's first bike share back in 2007, more than 94 cities around the country have built similar systems. And one neat thing about this rapid expansion is the subtle innovations that occur as more networks get built.
Case in point: This summer, Cleveland will start rolling out a new bike-share system, known as UHBikes, that will aim for at least 70 stations and 700 bikes by 2020. One twist here is that riders won't have to park their bikes at docking stations. For a small fee, they can leave them anywhere else in the city.
It's, potentially, a convenient option. Here in Washington, DC, one admittedly minor annoyance with bike share involves riding to a station only to find that it's already full of bikes. You have to check the map and pedal off to another free station, hoping that one isn't full. (A few downtown stations in DC offer "corral service," in which employees hang around during rush hour to make sure the racks never fill up.) It's hardly the end of the world, but sometimes it'd be nice to be able to leave your bike anywhere, especially if you're in a hurry.
So how will Cleveland's system work? The city is partnering with Cyclehop and Social Bicycles, using bikes outfitted with GPS trackers and built-in locks that can attach to any bike rack. So if your destination station is full (or if you need to park someplace other than a station), you can simply lock the bike at whatever rack is closest at hand and get on with your day. The system will charge you a fee. Other riders can then use their smartphone apps to find the stray bike and grab it.
CycleHop and Social Bicycles already run similar programs in Phoenix, Tampa, and Beverly Hills, and in practice it's not quite as revolutionary as you'd expect. In Phoenix's Grid Bike Share system, for instance, you have to pay a $2 charge if you lock up your bike away from a docking station and a $20 charge if you park it outside the bike-sharing service area. (You also get a $1 credit if you take an undocked bike and return it to the station.)
In a 2015 interview, Phoenix Grid Bike Share COO John Romero said that riders use the option less than 5 percent of the time — often in cases where an existing station is full and they don't want to bother finding another one. "It’s not universally appealing, but it offers flexibility," he said. (This feature is likely to be most useful in less-dense cities where stations are further apart.)
Now, sure, this isn't any sort of killer app that's going to make or break a bike-share system. As a 2013 analysis by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy found, the success of bike share in a city usually depends on more fundamental factors, such as station density (successful bike shares tend to have 10 to 16 stations in every square kilometer), coverage area (at least 10 square kilometers), number of bikes (at least 10 to 30 bikes per 1,000 people in the coverage area is optimal), and quality of bikes (they, uh, should be nice). If cities don't get those core things right, docking gimmicks won't help.
Still, one of the ways bike-share systems succeed is by becoming more convenient for users, and on that score it looks like Cleveland has been putting thought into small tweaks that could make a difference at the margins. For instance, critics have long pointed out that bike-share systems are only accessible to people with credit cards — which often locks out low-income riders. So Cleveland is exploring a system whereby people could use library cards to access the system.
We'll see if the city succeeds. Cleveland will start small this summer — beginning with 30 stations and 250 bikes in the most densely populated downtown areas — and then try to attract sponsors for an expansion. See Ginger Christ's report in the Plain Dealer for more details.
- A few years ago, Lloyd Alter wrote a neat post in TreeHugger on why some bike-share systems succeed and others fail. Not surprisingly, station density and bike availability are huge.
- Last year, researchers at INSEAD and Chicago Booth tried to model bike-share arrangements that could boost ridership: "The researchers estimate that a 10 percent reduction in travel distance to the bike-share stations can increase system use by 6.7 percent. A 10 percent increase in bike availability can increase system use nearly 12 percent."
- Angie Schmitt has a great post about how cities are trying to make bike-share systems more equitable and accessible to low-income riders. Again, it's often small changes (like offering monthly passes instead of requiring year-long memberships) that can make big differences.
- This recent study looks at why bike share is so much safer than regular biking.