Wednesday, December 22, 2010

San Francisco Bike-Share Makes More than a Few Enemies

Last month we took a peek at a bike-sharing pilot project in the works in the San Francisco Bay Area to nearly 1,000 public bikes on the streets of San Fracisco and points south by late 2011.

The system is aiming to replicate the success of European bike-sharing, with automated charging stations and annual, daily, or monthly subscription fees for users, along with hourly rates. Like many of the most famous systems, the first 30 minutes would be free of charge, to encourage riders to use the system for short trips close to home.

The pilot program would begin with about 500 bikes and 50 stations in the San Francisco city center, focusing on the City Center, Tenderloin, Market Street, and Transbay Terminal areas. An additional 400 bikes would go into the urban centers of CalTrain corridor south of the city.

Now that we have a better take on the foundations of this exciting program, it bears asking the dreaded question of all multimodal projects in the US: will people use it? will we look like assholes for thinking this type of bike transit infrastructure was even a good idea?

Is this what San Francisco was going for? So hipster...
In a scathing critique of the San Francisco bike share program, Matthew Roth of SF Streetsblog argues that the city is setting itself up for failure with an inadequate starting number of bikes that won't serve people's needs.

According to Roth, "bicycle sharing program’s greatest assets are ubiquity and ease of use." The Paris Velib program, considered the vanguard of bike-sharing worldwide, began with 750 stations and 10,000 bikes before quickly expanding to 1450 stations and 20,000 bikes, enough to make the stations more than three times as ubiquitous as the city's subway network, also the world's most dense. The Velib program is surprisingly inexpensive to run, even given the city's notorious problem with theft and vandalism of the bikes. User fees pay for the city's expenses of running the program, and the remaining $4.3 million is paid for in advertising space.

With only 50 stations at its inception, San Francisco's system would be the smallest in North America. When DC Bikes opened in the capital two years ago with 120 stations, a spokesman for the District DOT regretted that the system had not opened with more stations: "Knowing what we know now, we would've launched it bigger."

So just how many bikes would San Francisco truly need to have an effective bike-share system?

According to Colin Hughes, a planning grad student at UC Berkeley, exactly 5328 bikes. Colin first suggested that any bike-share system should be thought of as a form of mass transit, like light rail or a bus route. Without regular, intuitively placed stations and high frequency, no one is going to use the damn thing!
The Paris Metro is the densest subway network in the world, with 300 stations within the city. The trains run from about 5 am to midnight, and users might have to wait about 20 minutes for a train in off-peak hours. In comparison, the city also has 1451 bicycle stations - a transit network almost 5 times denser than its subway system. Users can access these bicycle stations 24/7, they can ride them wherever they like, and the cost is free for the first 30 minutes.
Paul DeMaio, one of the world's only "bike-sharing consultants" based in DC, writes that the ideal bike-share systems need approximately one bike per 150 residents of the service area. This equates to 5328 bikes at 605 stations if we're using the Paris-based metric, or 2960 bikes at 484 stations if we're using more modest metrics from the Barcelona system.

The San Francisco bike-share system was originally announced back in 2009 with only 50 bikes at 5 stations - now the most recent plan calls for ten times that number, 500 bikes at 50 stations, at a cost of $7.9 million.

Bixi bikes from Montreal, on display at Golden Gate Park in a recent expo promoting the SF bike share program

Hopefully more public pressure on the city to make a truly workable number will get things in gear. If you are asking SF residents to ride 50-pound bikes through the rain, you need to make the system easier than catching a bus, hell easier than catching a cab! There should be enough stations that riders won't have to worry about finding a place to park their bike at the end of the ride. 

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