Category Archives: Bike Share

Five Bikeshares in London


Bikeshare system coverage in London, November 2017. Shading: Proportion of people who cycle to work.

There are now five bikeshare systems operating in London:

Santander Cycles (Central London)

Photo: Copyright TfL.

Santander Cycles are red, they launched in July 2010 and currently have 9500 bikes on the street (around 12000 in total), covering an area of 110km across 11 boroughs and the City of London – this sounds impressive, but it is only 7% of London’s area (based on a 500m station buffer), and equates one bike for every 950 people in the capital. You can see the live state of the system (in terms of empty/full docking stations) on Bike Share Map. As a publically funded system, Santander Cycles have an excellent open data policy and release live docking station data which can be readily mapped, location information and historic journeys through TfL’s Open Data Portal.

Santander Cycles last week unveiled their “50000-series” bikes which are part-manufactured in the UK, with smaller wheels, bluetooth asset tags and a number of other enhancements, although in technology terms they still very much third-generation bikeshare bikes (“dumb” bike, smart dock) and the system remains expensive to use with a complicated pricing structure (£90/year or £2/day membership for journeys under half-hour, £2 per extra half-hour), with any expansion hamstrung by the very expensive docking station installation costs – so its footprint has only slightly expanded in the last few years. There have been some other innovations, such as widespread use of Blaze laserlights, and its current sponsor has also invested considerably in promoting the system. The Santander Cycles system looks expensive and rigid, particularly compared with the newer alternatives. It is, however, in terms of bike quality, maintenance and use, and public acceptance, the “gold standard” of bikeshare in London.

Mobike (LB Ealing)

Mobike (orange bikes) were the first dockless fourth generation* (smart bike, dumb lock) compliant (working with local authorities) system in London, which launched in Ealing in July this year – a far from obvious place to launch, as Ealing has a very low tradition of cycling in general (no dark areas in the map above). However, Mobike did have UK experience before, having had a bigger and higher-profile launch in two of Greater Manchester boroughs. Mobike persevered through initial bad publicity due to vandalism and can be seen on many streets of the city. Personally, I found Mobike extremely uncomfortable to cycle – their bikes have been shipped from the far east with little customisation, and their frames are designed for the far eastern rather than the European build (Europeans are typically bigger!) At its maximum extended saddle position, it was uncomfortably tiny to pedal one. This is a pity, presumably the extremely cheap mass manufacturing costs of sticking with their global design were too tempting.

The Ealing launch had a reported 750 bicycles although as ever you have to take the numbers with a pinch of salt. A quick look at the app reveals around 160 bikes in the preferred zones and around 10 parked elsewhere. Mobike is very cheap and has a simple to understand pricing model (£29 joining fee then 50p per half-hour ride). One nice touch is that if you have a membership of the Manchester system, it will work fine in London too. Ealing is not a densely populated inner-city borough and the 750 bicycles serve a huge 56 square kilometres – in practice, as shown on the app map, the bikes (and zones, shown with a “P”) are clustered in the eastern edge of the borough, around Acton. I wish Mobike good luck but they need more comfortable bikes and to get into a borough with an established cycling tradition, and operate around a larger area than the few square miles in the eastern end of this borough. Mobike, as a fully commercial operation, does not release bikeshare open data for Ealing (dockless bikeshare data does have theoretically considerable economic value), although they have plans to release it for Manchester (likely a stipulation from the local authority there) so maybe it will come here too in time.

Ofo (LB Hackney, LB Islington and City)

Ofo (yellow bikes) are, like Mobike, a big global player in dockless fourth generation bikeshare. They launched in Hackney – London’s spiritual home of regular cycling – in September, and have just announced (this week) an expansion to the neighbouring borough of Islington and the City of London, meaning serious commute potential of these bikes.

I have ridden an Ofo bike (a one-off in Manchester) and found it extremely comfortable – it felt like riding a “real” bike rather than an approximation of one. Like Mobike, Ofo have a low joining fee, a flat rate for usage and the membership can be used in their other systems (including Cambridge in the UK). Ofo has targetted boroughs with a good cycling tradition and also is, in some parts of the boroughs, in direct competition with the incumbent Santander Cycles – the only one to do so (see map below). Hopefully this competition will lead to innovations on both sides and not damage either.

Urbo (LB Waltham Forest)

Photo: Paul Gasson on Twitter.

Urbo (green bikes) are another dockless fourth generation bikeshare operator. They are an Irish company, although they are buying the bikes and technology (e.g. the smart lock and the apps) from China and customising locally. Their bikes are the most attractive of the new dockless bikeshare bikes I have seen (with a nice curve design on the frame) and appear (I haven’t ridden one yet) to be similar in overall build style, and so hopefully comfort, to Ofo’s bikes. Waltham Forest (39 sqkm in east London with some tradition of cycling, on its western edge) is their first system and it has only just launched this week. They also do not yet release open data (although they have only just launched). Ofo may be most useful for residents of Higham Hill, Poets Corner, the top of Walthamstow Village and certain other parts of the borough to get quickly to the stations on the efficient Victoria Line or Overground to central London.

Like Ofo and Mobike, Urbo have designated zones in their host boroughs and induce users (via cheaper journeys) to end their journeys in these zones (shown with the STOP icon on their app’s map, here). These zones come with a bespoke street sign erected by the local authority, as well as the usual taped/painted markings on the ground. It is a little surprising that Waltham Forest have included the operator logo on the signs (presumably to Urbo’s delight) as there is no good reason why other dockless systems, when they inevitably arrive here too, should use these spaces too. It is kind of like the council painting new car parking spaces on a street and putting up a sign, with the Ford logo, saying they are spaces for Ford cars only. They are just spaces on a road/pavement…

oBike (Withdrawn)

Then there’s oBike (orangey-yellow) which launched in July without coordinating with boroughs (using the Uber-style “forgiveness is easier than permission” modal), had a number of its bikes impounded by Wandsworth borough and withdrew from the capital – almost all of its bikes are lurking behind locked gates in an industrial park in Rainham so they aren’t included on the maps here. There is the odd one that got away from the purge and remains in central London. They will return, I’m sure, once the company has a strategy for compliance with TfL and the boroughs. oBike did at least wake up authorities to the fourth generation revolution, and force some much-needed policy documents to be hastily released. I rode a few oBikes and found them more comfortable than the Mobike but not as good as Ofo, Urbo or Santander Cycles.

November 3rd Snapshot

System  Type            Locations Area
/km2
Launch
Date
Reported
Bikes**
Available
Bikes
(Estimates)
Santander
Cycles
 Dock
 -based
Central London 110 July 2010 12000 Was 10800
now 9600***
oBike  Pure
 dockless
All London,
but withdrawn
1570 July 2017 400 initially
5500 planned
Was 1500
now 6
Mobike  Zoned
 dockless
West: Ealing 56 July 2017 750 160
Ofo  Incentive
 dockless
North: Hackney,
Islington & City
37 Sept 2017 300-400 Around 200
Urbo  Zoned
 dockless
East: Waltham
Forest
39 Nov 2017 250 40
(so far)

Of course, it’s hard to know how well these systems are being used, particularly as dockless systems don’t generally release this information (except if the numbers are particularly good, as occasional press releases). Santander Cycles reliably gets around 20000-40000 usages a day (i.e. 2-4 usages/bike/day), and certainly, on the more central parts of the Cycle Superhighways during rush hour, there is a sea of red Santander Cycles amongst the other cyclists. Anecdotally, I’ve a couple of Ofo bikes in use, but this is a bit unfair on Ofo and Urbo – I regularly cycle through Hackney on my own bike, but don’t generally pass Waltham Forest and Ealing. My sneaking suspicion is that Ofo will do quite well, by targeting the boroughs where there are going to be a lot of cyclists, and that Mobike and Urbo will either have to expand or will stay irrelevant in London’s overall cycling picture. This sounds harsh, but, as DataShine Region Commute and TubeHeartbeat show, Londoners move beyond their borough boundaries a lot. We shall see, we live in interesting times for bikeshare.

This map (an inset of the map above) shows the reach of the four systems (excluding oBike) in London. The shading behind shows the proportion of residents there who cycle to work (2011 Census data, Copyright ONS) and therefore likely enjoy good cycle infrastructure and community (e.g. cycle cafes, cycle repair workshops) that would help integrate bikeshare. Parts of Southwark and Lambeth look woefully underserved.

* The first generation of bikeshare systems were free bikes, left on streets for people to use. Inevitably they were stolen or broken. Second generation bikeshare systems used “dumb docking stations” where cash was used to release them. Users were therefore only out by the cash amount if they didn’t release them, and operators didn’t know where they were without visiting the docks, so again they got stolen and/or broken. Third generation bikeshare systems require the user to use credit cards (and so charge a large amount for non-return) and use smart docking stations which can report the status of themselves and their bikes. They have been very popular for the last few years, but require a large up-front investment and are very expensive to operate and maintain, so most are publically subsidised. Minor advances to these (such as GPS on some bikes, or integration with transit smart cards) are sometimes termed as fourth generation but are actually really just usability tweaks to fundamentally the same third generation concept. I am terming the new dockless systems, where the bikes know where they are (through an app, or their own communications) as fourth generation. Physical docking stations can still exist on the ground, to manage the bikes or provide a known starting location, but the bikes don’t have to be left there, if inconvenient – the “hybrid” model, as used in Brighton. Zoned dockless systems (Urbo, Mobike) have tapes on the ground as “preferred” docking zones, replacing the physical docks. Incentive dockless systems (Ofo) don’t even have the tapes – just virtual locations that appear in the app). The Pure dockless systems (oBike) don’t even have anything – inevitably resulting in bikes being scattered through an area.

** These numbers, reported in media and press releases, will invariably be higher that the “available bikes” currently on the streets (or visible in the app, in the case of the dockless systems). The difference can typically be explained by bikes will be in repair or reported broken, some will be in active use (although generally I try to measure at night to avoid this) or in redistribution, some will be in the warehouse, ready to come out in the near future. Ultimately though, if the bikes aren’t available for use, then they aren’t really any good to anyone, so bikes on streets is the number the operators should be reporting!

*** For larger, commuter heavy systems (like Santander Cycles) that are dock-based, there are good operational reasons to slightly reduce the numbers of bikes available during the winter months (where the commuter mode share will be higher) as the flows are more undirectional and therefore full-dock pressures are otherwise worse. In the summer, tourist use acts as a natural rebalancer.

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High quality lithographic prints of London data, designed by Oliver O'Brien

Social Benefits from Public Bike Share Data

I presented at the BikePlus Future of Bike Share Conference in Manchester in late September, as part of a panel session on social benefits of public Bike Share Data. I framed my presentation in the context of open data, whereby operators or technology providers of bikeshare systems, and/or municipalities containing them, release data on the systems on an open data basis, allowing unrestricted analysis and reuse of the data. This is distinct from controlled access to the data, where typically an operator provides data to a local council in exchange for the authority’s blessing/cooperation/support.

The main part of the talk was in five sections, each outlining a social benefit of public data for bikeshare:

  1. Academic research, including themes such as urban mobility, multi-modal journeys, health outcomes
  2. Creating “app” ecosystems around a bikeshare – making greater and better use of often publicly financed systems, by the public.
  3. Effective targeting of cycling infrastructure – understanding where the users go so that infrastructure investments are beneficial.
  4. Improved public visibility – Press coverage and helping with public acceptance of a private business using publically owned assets (i.e. pavement space).
  5. Better management – novel visualisations of fleet and activity, and enabling easy experimentation of new redistribution strategies devised by specialists.

The final part of the presentation was a research and data summary from my perspective, and a wishlist. In particular, I mentioned and enthused on GBFS, an emerging, operator-led standard format for bikeshare data, which will likely be useful for integrating bikeshare with independent multi-city journey planners (e.g. Google Maps, CityMapper) – and useful for me too in managing data feeds from over 250 cities currently, in Bike Share Map.

My presentation can be viewed here:

The conference also included a led ride around some of Manchester’s key cycle infrastructure, including the Oxford Road segregated lanes. The bikeshare bikes provided for the ride were dockless bikes supplied by Ofo (who run UK systems in Cambridge and Hackney, London, as well as various other locations around the world) and Urbo (a new Irish start-up who are adopting the Chinese dockless model and bringing their bikes to Waltham Forest, also in London, launching at the end of October).

Photo: © Cyclistsinthecity, via Twitter.

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Dockless Bikeshare in London – oBike is Here

London has a new bikeshare system – and it’s appeared by surprise, overnight. oBike is a dockless bikeshare. The company is based in Singapore, where it runs a number of large dockless systems there and in various Chinese cities, Melbourne, Amsterdam and Zurich, it is also likely coming to Washington DC in the USA and to Berlin in Germany, based on some recent job postings.

And now they’ve shipped 29 lorry-loads of nearly 5000 bicycles to London, the number being revealed in a now-deleted tweet by a logistics company:

Just under 1500 have been released so far, initially being “seeded” in groups along the major roads in Tower Hamlets and Hammersmith & Fulham boroughs (400 in each), and more recently in Wandworth, Clapham, Kennington, Lewisham, Waterloo, Harrow* and Enfield*, with “organic” use moving the bikes out as far south as Kingston, and as far east as East Ham (plus possibly in the river near Erith…) There have been several hundred journeys already, with the great majority of bikes having been moved at least once from their initial deployment.

Other players in the space are MoBike (in Manchester), OfoBike (in Cambridge – N.B. website currently down) and YoBike (in Bristol). Another company, GetBike, claimed to have launched in London a few months ago but the bikes, to date, have not appeared. Possibly, they got mired in council discussions. MoBike is also launching a system in Ealing, west London, at the end of the month. All five companies are based in Asia, where mass cycle manufacture is cheap, which had led some cities there ending up with huge heaps of dockless bikeshare bikes, being piled up by desperate city councils trying to keep their pavements clear.

As the bike is the only physical presence on the street, there are no permanent structures for the system and so authorities are not always involved in the process, but have to pick up the pieces and clear the streets – leading some in the dock-based bikeshare establishment to term the systems as rogue bikeshares. The European Cyclists Federation have this week published this timely position paper, where they term the systems slightly more politely as “unlicenced bikeshare” and suggest a potential framework to make the concept work in a European urban context. Whether the operators take notice of course is another matter…

Meanwhile, oBike’s rollout continues. In the map below, red dots with yellow borders show the most recently organically moved bikes (i.e. areas of red/yellow = popular use) while the blue dots with turquoise borders show ones which have not moved since their initial deployment. The other bikes (which someone has moved, but not recently) are shown with purple dots. The map is just a snapshot, and is manually created by myself, so I may have missed some bikes (but I think I’ve got almost all of them):

So far, most of the rollout has been to areas already served by bikeshare – the Boris Bikes (aka Santander Cycles). The real value add for London will be when Zones 3-6 (i.e. non-tourist, non-hipster “real London”) get the bikeshare. After 7 years of the Boris Bikes and no sign of them extending outwards, it’s about time the rest of us got the value of bikeshare too, particularly as our alternative options are more limited.

What is it?

Dockless bikeshare is different from the so-called “third generation” dock-based systems like London’s existing Santander Bicycles or “Boris Bikes”. It does away with docking stations and credit card terminals for charging and storing the bikes and administering the access, instead the bikes themselves have locks which contain a solar panel GPS receiver and SIM card for broadcasting their location, and are controlled by an app on your smartphone. It massively cuts down on the costs of the system because no docking stations are needed. London’s docking stations are very expensive as they have to go through the planning process, and also need to be wired up for power. There are also fewer staff needed – oBike do not employ drivers to redistribute the bikes, and also don’t have an established call-centre. Payments are handled entirely through the app. Maintenance teams are also, I suspect, likely to be minimal on the ground.

The bikes themselves are similar in size to the Boris Bikes, but come with solid rubber tyres (so no punctures). They feel around the same weight. The bikes only have only one gear, set quite low, so you can’t get up much speed. The bikes don’t feel heavier than a Boris Bike. They have the same, chunky “tank” feel to them and feel sturdy – the livery being bright yellow helps with visibility on the streets, which is a bonus.

Trying it Out

I took an oBike out for a spin yesterday afternoon. I noticed a pair parked (orange pins) close to the Facebook office at Euston Square – maybe some Facebookers trying out the latest thing?

On arrival, I was a little surprised to see the bikes were parked on the other side of the road (small blue pin). Still, my own phone’s GPS was saying I was on the other side of a large building (blue dot)…

The process of getting the bike was straightforward – I had already paid the £29 refundable deposit (£49 from August) by entering my card details into the app on my phone, so it was just a case of clicking “Unlock” and the scanning the QR code on the bike’s stem. Around 10 seconds later (with communication through your phone’s Bluetooth or through the SIM card on the lock – I’m not sure) the lock on the bike clicked open and the app’s timer started. Neat! The whole signup process was far more streamlined than with the Boris Bikes, where you have to go to a docking station, use the terminal there, page through tens of screens of information and put in your credit card at least twice. Here, you can be on board in less than a minute, with subsequent hires even quicker.

My bike already had its seat raised to the highest position (or higher still, as there was some brown scuffing there) so no adjustments needed. I headed across Euston Circus and down to the British Museum. Unfortunately, my bike had a distinct squeak every time the back wheel rotated, although squeezing the brake stopped it for a few seconds. The brakes themselves are excellent (perhaps I noticed this particularly as my own bike brakes are poor) and everything seemed OK. The bike appeared in good condition, no rubbish had collected in the basket. The handlebars are very wide, so I couldn’t squeeze through the usual gaps between cars and buses. I didn’t find the handlebars very grippy – they are plastic rather than rubber, and my left hand slipped off at one point (I was juggling a mobile phone at the time). In all, not the fastest cycle but perfect fine for utility riding and definitely still faster than walking or getting the bus.

There were various Boris Bikers around, I must have passed at least 10 in my 15 minute ride, but no other oBikes – yet! At the end of my journey I dropped the bike beside a bike rack beside Euston Square station. It wasn’t immediately obvious how to end the journey – you don’t press anything in the app, instead you pull the lock switch manually back across the back wheel, until you hear a reassuring click. A few seconds later, as long as you have Bluetooth switch on, on your phone, then the app beeps and confirms the journey as complete.

On finishing, the app presents an attractive display showing your start and finish, time, and a “route”, however the route is simple the Google Maps route for bicycles rather than the actual journey taken. The distance also bears no correlation to either the Google Maps “shortest path” route on the map, or the actual distance taken, which is very odd. For the finish location itself, the GPS had once again not given a particularly accurate result, and it looked like I’d cycled the bike straight into the A&E department at University College Hospital. Only 100m or so off again, but not ideal for discovery:

I tried another bike out a bit later. This didn’t have a squeak, however the basket was tilted slightly to one side – not a biggie but still a bit worrying that quirks like this are appearing so soon into the deployment. The bike coped just fine with the rough surface on the River Lea towpath, including over several speedbumps. However, on a return journey, the unlocking process proved to be rather fraught. The QR code was read fine by my phone, but the communication to the lock was not working well, and it kept timing out. Only after around 6 attempts, including moving the bike around. The area we were in had quite poor mobile reception so this may be part of the problem. Still, the few minutes delay to the journey was frustrating. However, once we were moving, the bike itself performed well.

Opportunities

I really like the app, and the payment structure is excellent – 50p flat rate per 30 minutes represents much better value than the £2/day for 30-minute-max journeys on the Boris Bikes. I really didn’t like that, before oBike, it was cheaper to get a bus than a bicycle in London. The reward system is a great idea, it always made sense to incentivise riders to do the tasks of the operator, and the lack of redistribution is another good thing – I always thought it was a huge waste of time redistributing bicycles to one place, only to redistribute them back later.

The fact that, rather being constrained to docks, the allowed operating area is the whole of London, is great. Already, one bike has ended up at Heathrow in the far west of London:

The lack of docks mean that the users set the area of coverage. Finally, Hackney and Haringey, Lewisham and Rotherhithe, have the bikeshare that I am sure would always have been popular there.

I do also like the name – oBike (five letters, two syllables) rolls off the tongue a lot more easily than Barclays Cycle Hire or Santander Cycles.

Challenges

I’m not totally convinced that oBike will survive long-term – despite assertions to the contrary by some operators of these dockless bikeshares, the bikes will need maintenance due to the rough weather, roads and people in London. Whether they get any will be interesting to see. The bikes I tried out have only been on the streets for four days, and for the first one I tried have picked up a loud squeak so quickly, and the second one to have a wonky basket, is not great. The bikes are also a little too small for the British frame – having said that I am 6′ and I got around OK on one, but with the seat-post extended to its absolute maximum. There have been some cases of the seat-posts easily coming right off when extended further.

Also – some people will inevitably be hard on the bikes. They are not that indestructible, and some people will see them as a cheap way of getting a bike. Some will end up in the Thames. Councils will end up confiscating some, as Hammersmith & Fulham has already threatened to do. Not getting the council involved is brave – they may have looked at the Cambridge example where the council insisted that another operator reduce its launch from 500 bikes to 20 – there are obvious advantages with not having to deal with 33 separate councils in London (+ the City + TfL and the GLA) and just sticking the bikes out there – but oBike could have made life easier for themselves by distributing them more discretely, to avoid the ire of grumpy councils and pedestrians – placing one or two bikes together, at the most, ad on side roads rather than main roads, beside existing cycle parking racks, rather than obstructing pavements, and focusing on Zones 3-6 first (even if that results in a slower initial takeup). And a commitment to maintenance or organised disposal would also be good – at the moment no one knows what will happen to the bikes after they start to wear out. The scenes of “bicycle graveyards” and huge heaps of brightly coloured bicycles, in the cities of the far east that are full of dockless bikeshares, are worrying.

I hope that oBike is a success, and the bicycles survive grumpy councils, the kids who just want a free bike, and the weather. If it provides an incentive to give the Boris Bikes a kick up the backside (50p per 30 minutes flat rate and all-London low density coverage please!) then that on its own would be a result. Providing a bikeshare out into London’s Zone 3 and further is a real winner for shared mobility options outside London’s already well connected central core.

* These have since been removed, I understand, following discussions with the councils there. The company however did not switch off the GPS trackers on the removed bikes, and so have revealed the location of their depot, at Rainham on the very edge of east London:

Map background Copyright HERE Maps. Top photo Copyright JC, bottom photo Copyright SR.

How Mexico City Does Bikeshare

The above map shows the estimated routes and flows of over 16 million users of the bikeshare in Mexico City, “ECOBICI“, across the 22 months between February 2015 and November 2016, using data from their open data portal. The system has been around since 2011 but its most recent major expansion, to the south, was in early February 2015, hence why I have show the flows from this date. The wider the lines, the more bikeshare bikes have been cycled along that street. The bikes themselves don’t have GPS, so the routes are estimated on an “adjusted shortest route” basis using OpenStreetMap data on street types and cycleways, where any nearby cycleway acts as a significant “pull” from the shortest A-to-B route. Having cycled myself on one of the bikes in November (and hence my journey is one of the 16.6 million here) I fully appreciate the benefits of the segregated cycle lanes along some of the major streets. As my routes are estimates, they don’t account for poor routes taken by people, or “tours” which end up at the same places as they started. So, the graphic is just a theoretical illustration, based on the known start/end data.

The bikeshare journeys are in a dark green shade, ECOBICI’s brand colour, with docking stations shown as magenta dots. Magenta is very much the colour of CDMX, the city government, and it consequently is everywhere on street signs and government employee uniforms. Mexico City doesn’t have rivers, which are the “natural” geographical landmark for cities like London and New York where I’ve created similar maps, so I’ve used the motorways (shaded grey) and parks (light green), to provide some context. Mexico City extends well beyond the ECOBICI area.

The maps shows huge flows down the “Paseo de la Reforma”. This route is always popular with cyclists, thanks to large, segregated cycle lanes in both directions, on the parallel side roads. On Sunday mornings, the main road itself is closed to motor traffic, along with some other link routes. This is not reflected in my routing algorithm but also acts to increase the popularity of the flow in this general area. To the north, a cluster of docking stations and a large flow indicates the location of Buena Vista station, the only remaining commuter rail terminal in Mexico City. Further south, the curved roads around Parque México and Parque España are also popular with bikeshare users, in this leafy area that very much feels like the “Islington” of Mexico City:

Mexico City’s ECOBICI is one of the 150+ systems I’m tracking live on Bike Share Map. You can see the live situation, or an animation for the last 48 hours.

London’s Bikeshare Needs A Redistribution of Stations

bikes_journey_day

Here’s an interesting graph, which combines data on total journeys per day on London’s bicycle sharing system (currently called “Santander Cycles”) from the London Data Store, with counts of available bicycles per day to hire, from my own research database. The system launched in summer 2010 and I started tracking the numbers almost from the start.

You can see the two big expansions of the system as jumps in the numbers of available bikes – to all of Tower Hamlets in early 2012, and to Putney and Fulham in late 2013. Since then, the system has somewhat stagnated in terms of its area of availability, although encouragingly at least the numbers of available bikes has remained constant at around 9500, suggesting that at least the operator is on top of being able to maintain and repair the bikes (or regularly source new ones). Some of the individual bikes have had 4000 trips on them. There is a small expansion due in the Olympic Park in spring 2016, but the 8 new docking stations represents only a 1% increase in the number of docking stations across the system, so I doubt it will have a significant impact on the numbers of available bikes for use.

There is a general downward trend in the numbers of uses of each bike per day, since the halycon Olympic days of Summer 2012, over and above the normal seasonal variation, which concerns me. The one-year moving average recently dipped below 3 uses of each bike per day, this summer, and I am not confident it will pick up any time soon. (The occasional spikes in uses/bike, by the way, generally correspond to sunny summer bank holidays, tube strikes and Christmas Day).

To rejuvenate the system and draw in more users, rather than relying on the established commuter and tourist flows which likely dominate the current usage, I am convinced that the system needs to expand – not necessarily in terms of the number of bikes or docking stations, but in its footprint. I think the system would be much improved by dropping the constraining rule on density (which approximates to always having one docking station every 300m) and instead redistributing some of the poorly performing docking stations themselves further out. It’s crazy that, five years on, there are no docking stations in central Hackney, Highbury, or Brixton, three areas with an established cycling culture and easily cycle-able into the centre of London. Conversely, Putney and Tower Hamlets simply don’t need the high density of docking stations that they currently have, except in specific areas (such as around the train/tube stations in Putney, and Canary Wharf).

Ideally we would have a good density of docking stations throughout cycleable London but, as docking stations (and bikes) are very expensive, I would suggest that TfL instead adopts the model used in Bordeaux (below). Here, the city retains a high-dense core serving tourists, commuters and other centrally-based workers, but adopts a much lower density in the suburbs, so that, while tourists can still “run into” docking stations they don’t know about in the centre thanks to the high density, local users can benefit from the facility in their neighbourhood too, even if it requires a little longer walk to get to it.

bikes_bordeaux

Technical note: Before November 2011, the London numbers included bicycles that were in a docking station but not available to hire (i.e. marked as broken). This exaggerates the number of available bikes (and correspondingly reduces the number of hires/bike/day from the true value) in this period by a small amount – typically around 3-5%, an effect I am not considering significant for this analysis.

Seeing Red: 15 Ways the Boris Bikes of London Could be Better

santabikes

A big announcement for the “Boris Bikes” today, aka Barclays Cycle Hire. London’s bikeshare system, the second largest in the western world after Paris’s Velib and nearly five years old, will be rebranded as Santander Cycles, and the bikes with have a new, bright red branding – Santander’s corporate colour, and conveniently also London’s most famous colour. As well as the Santander logo, it looks like the “Santa Bikes” will have outlines of London’s icons – the above publicity photo showing the Tower of London and the Orbit, while another includes the Shard and Tower Bridge. A nice touch to remind people these are London’s bikes.

velibIt’s great that London’s system can attract “big” sponsors – £7m a year with the new deal – but another document that I spotted today reveals (on the last page) that, despite the sponsorship, London’s system runs at a large operating loss – this is all the more puzzling because other big bikeshare systems can (almost) cover their operating costs – including Washington DC’s which is both similar to London’s in some ways (a good core density, same bike/dock equipment) and different (coverage into the suburbs, rider incentives); and Paris’s (right), which has a very different funding model, and its own set of advantages (coverage throughout the city) and disadvantages (little incentive to expand/intensify). What are they doing right that London is not?

In financial year 2013/4, London’s bikeshare had operating costs of £24.3m. Over this time period, the maximum number of bikes that were available to hire, according to TfL’s Open Data Portal was 9471, on 26 March 2014. This represents a cost of just over £2500 per bike, for that year alone. If you look at it another way, each bike is typically used three times a day or ~1000 times a year, so that’s about £2.50 a journey, of which, very roughly, the sponsor pays about £0.50, the taxpayer £1 and the user about £1. In those terms it does sound better value but it’s still a surprisingly expensive system.

As operating costs, these don’t include the costs of buying the bikes or building the docking stations. Much of the cost therefore is likely ocurring in two places:

  1. Repairing the bikes – London’s system is wildly* successful, so each bike sees a lot of use every day, and the wear and tear is likely to be considerable. This is not helped by the manufacturers of the bikes going bust a couple of years ago – so there are no “new” ones out there to replace the older ones – New York City, which uses the same bikes, is suffering similar problems. (* Update: To clarify, based on a comment from BorisWatch, this assertion is a qualitative one, based on seeing huge numbers of the bikes in use, in certain places at certain times of the day. Doubtless, some do remain dormant for days.)
  2. Rebalancing/redistribution activity, operating a fleet of vehicles that move bikes around.

I have no great issues with the costs of the bikes – they are a public service and the costs are likely a fraction of the costs of maintaining the other public assets of roads, buses, railway lines – but it is frustrating to see, in the document I referred to earlier, that the main beneficiaries are in fact tourists (the Hyde Park docking stations consistently being the most popular), commuters (the docking stations around Waterloo are always popular on weekdays), and those Londoners lucky enough to live in Zone 1 and certain targeted parts of Zone 2 (south-west and east). Wouldn’t be great if all Londoners benefited from the system?

Here’s 15 ways that London’s bikeshare could be made better for Londoners (and indeed for all) – and maybe cheaper to operate too:

  1. Scrap almost all rebalancing activity. It’s very expensive (trucks, drivers, petrol), and I’m not convinced it is actually helping the system – in fact it might be making it worse. Most cycling flows in London are uni-directional – in to the centre in the morning, back out in the evening – or random (tourist activity). Both of these kinds of flows will, across a day, balance out on their own. Rebalancing disrupts these flows, removing the bikes from where they are needed later in the day (or the following morning) to address a short-term perceived imbalance that might not be real on-the-ground. An empty docking station is not a problem if no one wants to start a journey there. Plus, when the bikes are in sitting in vans, inevitably clogged in traffic, they are of no use to anyone. Revealingly, the distribution drivers went on strike in London a few months ago and basically everything carried on as normal. Some “lightweight” rebalancing, using cycle couriers and trailer, could help with some specific small-scale “pinch points”, or responding to special events such as heavy rainfall or a sporting/music event. New York uses cyclists/trailers to help with the rebalancing.
  2. Have a “guaranteed valet” service instead, like in New York. This operates for a certain number of key docking stations at certain times of the day, and guarantees that someone can start or finish their journey there. London already has this, to a certain extent, at some stations near Waterloo, but it would be good to highlight this more and have it at other key destinations. This “static” supply/demand management would be a much better use of the time of redistribution drivers.
  3. rrrHave “rider rewards“, like in Washington DC. Incentivise users to redistribute the bikes themselves, by allowing a free subsequent day’s credit (or free 60-minute journey extension) for journeys that start at a full docking station and end at an empty one. This would need to be designed with care to ensure “over-rebalancing”, or malicious marking of bikes as broken, was minimised. Everyone values the system in different ways, so some people benefit from a more naturally balanced system and others benefit from lower costs using it.
  4. Have more flexible user rules. Paris’s Velib has an enhanced membership “Passion” that allows free single journeys of up to 45 minutes rather than every 30 minutes. London, like Paris, is a large city, and the current 30 minute cutoff seems short and arbitrary, when considering most bikes are used around three times a day. Increasing the window would therefore have little impact on the overall distribution of the system and might in fact benefit it – because the journeys from the terminal stations to the City or the West End, which are the most distinctive flows seen, are acheived comfortably in under half an hour. In London, you have to wait 5 minutes between hires, but most systems (Paris, Boston, New York) don’t have this “timeout” period. To stop people “guarding” recently returned bikes for additional use, an alternative could be make it a 10 minute timeout but tie it to the specific docking station (or indeed a specific bike) rather than system-wide. Then, if people are prepared to switch bikes or docking stations, they can continue on longer journeys for free.
  5. Adjust performance metrics. TfL (and the sponsors) measure performance of the system in certain ways, such as the time a docking station remains empty at certain times of the day. I’m not sure that these are helpful – surely the principle metric of value (along with customer service resolution) is the number of journeys per time period and/or number of distinct users per time period. If these numbers go down, over a long period, something’s wrong. The performance metrics, as they stand, are perhaps encouraging the unnecessary and possibly harmful rebalancing activity, increasing costs with no actual benefit to the system.
  6. lyonRemove the density rule (one docking station every ~300 metres) except in Zone 1. Having high density in the centre and low density in the suburbs works well for many systems – e.g. Bordeaux, Lyon (above) and Washington DC, because it allows the system to be accessible to a much larger population, without flooding huge areas with expensive stations/bikes. An extreme example, this docking station is several miles from its nearest neighbour, in a US city.
  7. Build a docking station outside EVERY tube station, train station and bus station inside the North/South Circular (roughly, Zones 1-3). Yes, no matter how hilly* the area is, or how little existing cycling culture it has – stop assuming how people use bikes or who uses them! Bikeshare is a “last mile” transport option and it should be thought of as part of someone’s journey across London, and as a life benefit, not as a tourist attraction. The system should also look expand into these areas iteratively rather than having a “big bang” expansion by phases. It’s crazy that most of Hackney and Islington doesn’t have the bikeshare, despite having a very high cycling population. Wouldn’t be great if people without their own bikes could be part of the “cycling cafe culture” strong in these places? For other places that have never had a cycling culture, the addition of a docking station in a prominent space might encourage some there to try cycling for the first time. (*This version of the bikes could be useful.)
  8. Annual membership (currently £90) should be split into peak and off-peak (no journey starts from 6am-10am) memberships, the former increased to £120 and the latter decreased back to £45. Unlike the buses and trains, which are always full peak and pretty busy off-peak too, there is a big peak/offpeak split in demand for the bikes. Commuters get a really good deal, as it stands. Sure, it costs more than buying a very cheap bike, but actually you aren’t buying the use of a bike – you are buying the free servicing of the bike for a year, and free distribution of “your” bike to another part of central London, if you are going out in the evening. Commuters that use the bikes day-in-day-out should pay more. Utility users who use the bike to get to the shops, are the sorts that should be targetted more, with off-peak membership.
  9. officialmapA better online map *cough* of availability. The official map still doesn’t have at-a-glance availability. “Rainbow-board” type indications of availability in certain key areas of London would also be very useful. Weekday use, in particular, follows distinct and regular patterns in places.
  10. Better indication of where the nearest bikes/docks are, if you are at a full/empty docking station, i.e. a map with route indication to several docking stations nearby with availability.
  11. Better static signage of your nearest docking station. I see very few street signs pointing to the local docking station, even though they are hard-built into the ground and so generally are pretty permanent features.
  12. Move more services online, have a smaller help centre. A better view of journeys done (a personal map of journeys would be nice) and the ability to question overpayments/charges online.
  13. hubwayEncourage innovative use of the bikeshare data, via online competitions – e.g. Boston’s Hubway data visualisation competitions have had lots of great entries. These get further groups interested in the system and ways to improve it, and can produce great visuals to allow the operator/owner to demonstrate the reach and power of the system.
  14. Allow use of the system with contactless payment cards, and so integration with travelcards, daily TfL transport price caps etc. The system can’t use Oyster cards because of the need to have an ability to take a “block payment” charge for non-return of the bikes. But with contactless payment, this could be achieved. The cost of upgrading the docking points to take cards would be high, but such docking points are available and in use in many of the newer US systems that use the same technology.
  15. Requirement that all new housing developments above a certain size, in say Zone 1-3 London, including a docking station with at least one docking point per 20 residents and one new bike per 40 residents, either on their site or within 300m of their development boundary. (Update: Euan Mills mentions this is already is the case, within the current area. To clarify, I would like to see this beyond the current area, allowing an organic growth outwards and linking with the sparser tube station sites of point 7.)

London has got much right – it “went big” which is expensive but the only way to have a genuinely successful system that sees tens of thousands of journeys on most days. It also used a high-quality, rugged system that can (now) cope with the usage – again, an expensive option but absolutely necessary for it to work in the long term. It has also made much data available on the system, allowing for interesting research and increasing transparency. But it could be so much better still.

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Washington DC’s systems – same technology as London’s, not that much smaller, but profitable.

From Putney to Poplar: 12 Million Journeys on the London Bikeshare

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The above graphic (click for full version) shows 12.4 million bicycle journeys taken on the Barclays Cycle Hire system in London over seven months, from 13 December 2013, when the south-west expansion to Putney and Hammersmith went live, until 19 July 2014 – the latest journey data available from Transport for London’s Open Data portal. It’s an update of a graphic I’ve made for journeys on previous phases of the system in London (& for NYC, Washington DC and Boston) – but this is the first time that data has been made available covering the current full extent of the system – from the most westerly docking station (Ravenscourt Park) to the the most easterly (East India), the shortest route is over 18km.

As before, I’ve used Routino to calculate the “ideal” routes – avoiding the busiest highways and taking cycle paths where they are nearby and add little distance to the journey. Thickness of each segment corresponds to the estimated number of bikeshare bikes passing along that segment. The busiest segment of all this time is on Tavistock Place, a very popular cycle track just south of the Euston Road in Bloomsbury. My calculations estimate that 275,842 of the 12,432,810 journeys, for which there is “good” data, travelled eastwards along this segment.

The road and path network data is from OpenStreetMap and it is a snapshot from this week. These means that Putney Bridge, which is currently closed, shows no cycles crossing it, whereas in fact it was open during the data collection period. There are a few other quirks – the closure of Upper Ground causing a big kink to appear just south of Blackfriars Bridge. The avoidance of busier routes probably doesn’t actually reflect reality – the map shows very little “Boris Bike” traffic along Euston Road or the Highway, whereas I bet there are a few brave souls who do take those routes.

My live map of the docking stations, which like the London Bikeshare itself has been going for over four years, is here.

[Update – A version of the map appears in Telegraph article. N.B. The article got a little garbled between writing it and its publication, particularly about the distinction between stats for the bikeshare and for commuter cyclists in London.]

More Cities, More Bikes, More Data

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I presented some research I’ve carried out at CASA, at the Cycle City conference in Leeds last week. The research shows how the numbers of bikeshare bikes and docking stations have varied between 2010 and 2014, for 46 systems across the world (not all systems have numbers for whole period of study). The numbers are from the database which backs my live global map.

View the slides from my presentation here.

The work has been written up into a CASA Working Paper (#196). The appendix includes the numbers of bikes and docking stations, for the 46 systems, across eight periods of collection in six-monthly intervals from October 2010. You can view the paper as a PDF by following the link above.

5.5 Million Journeys at NYC Bike Share

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[Updated – timeperiod-split maps added] Following on from my London bikeshare journeys graphic, here is the same technique applied with the data released by NYC Bike Share (aka Citi Bike) earlier this week.

If you look carefully at the full size map you can see a thin line heading north-eastwards, initially well out of the bikeshare “zone”, representing journeys between Williamsburg and Central Park, via the Queensboro Bridge cycle path. We see a similar phenomenon for journeys between Tower Bridge and Island Gardens in London. Whether any of the riders actually take this route, of course, is open to question – they might take a longer – but more familiar – route, that stays more within the area of the bikeshare.

Below is a version of the graphic with the data split into four timeperiods – weekday rush-hour peaks (7-10am and 4-7pm starts), weekday interpeak (10am-4pm), weekday nights (7pm-7am) and finally weekends. The data is scaled so that the same thicknesses of lines across the four maps represent the same number of journeys along each street segment – but bear in mind that there are fewer weekends than weekdays. While, as would be expected, the rush-hour peaks see the most number of journeys, there is less spatial variation across the city, between the four timeperiods, than I expected. Click on the graphic for a larger version.

timesplits

The graphics were produced by creating idealised routes (near-shortest path, but weighted towards dedicated cycle routes and quieter roads) between every pair of the ~330 docking stations in the system, using Routino and OpenStreetMap data (extracted using the Overpass API). Edge weights were then built up using a Python script, a WKT file was created and then mapped in QGIS, with data-based stroke widths applied from the weights.

The routes are only as good as the OpenStreetMap data – I think the underlying data is pretty good for NYC, thanks to great community work on the ground, but there is still a possibility that it has missed obvious routes, or proposed wacky ones. It also doesn’t account for journeys starting or ending at the same place, or journeys where the prime purpose is an exploration by bike – with the user unlikely therefore to take an “obvious” A-B route.

Even with that caveat, it’s still a revealing glimpse into the major route “vectors” of bikeshare in New York City.

London Cycle Hire on the Cover of BMJ

7946.cover_89I produced this data map which forms the front cover of this week’s British Medical Journal (BMJ). The graphic shows the volumes of Barclays Cycle Hire bikeshare users in London, based on journeys from February 2012 to January 2013 inclusive. The routes are the most likely routes between each pair of stations, as calculated using Routino and OpenStreetMap data. The area concerned includes the February 2012 eastern extension to Tower Hamlets (including Canary Wharf) but not the December 2013 extension to Putney. The river was added in from Ordnance Survey’s Vector Map District, part of the Open Data release. QGIS was used to put together the calculated results and apply data-specified styling to the map.

The thickness of each segment corresponds to the volume of cyclists taking that link on their journey – assuming they take the idealised calculated route, which is of course a not very accurate assumption. Nevertheless, certain routes stand out as expected – the Cycle Superhighway along Cable Street between the City and Canary Wharf is one, Waterloo Bridge is another, and the segregated cycle route south of Euston Road is also a popular route.

The graphic references an article in the journal issue which is on comparing health benefits and disbenefits of people using the system, with comparison to other forms of transport in central London. Pollution data is combined with accident records and models. The paper was written by experts at the UKCRC and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and I had only a very small part in the paper itself – a map produced by Dr Cheshire and myself was used to illustrate the varying levels of PM2.5 (small particulate matter) pollution in different parts of central London and how these combine with the volume of bikeshare users on the roads and cycle tracks. The journal editors asked for a selection of images relating to cycle hire in London in general and picked this one, as the wiggly nature and predominant red colour looks slightly like a blood capillary network.

A larger version of the graphic, covering the whole extent of the bikeshare system at the time, is here or by clicking on this thumbnail of it:

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Very rare journeys, such as those from London Bridge to Island Gardens, have faded out to such an extent that they are not visible on the map here. An example route, which the map doesn’t show due to this, goes through Deptford and then through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.

For an interactive version of the graphic (using a slightly older dataset) I recommend looking at Dimi Sztanko’s excellent visualisation.