Behind Bike Share’s Curtain

Image Courtesy DDOTDC
New York City’s bike share system is set to open this summer, and when it does, millions of residents and visitors will have a whole new way of getting around town. Bike share will be the first new public transit system in the Big Apple in more than a century, and it’ll be every bit as revolutionary as the ones that came before it.

Because 40 percent of all trips in the city are one mile or less, bike share will fast become a staple in the transportation network, and because the 600 bike share stations coming to city streets can go where subways and bus stops can’t, lots of secondary trips will become faster, healthier and a whole lot more fun. What’s even more impressive is that it’s all going to happen without a penny from the City. As is the case in successful systems around the world, private sponsorship and user fees, not taxpayer dollars, will fund the Big Apple’s bike share.

It sounds too good to be true, right? Well, it isn’t, but there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes action that the average bike share customer might never see. To get a sense of what’s behind the curtain, Reclaim called up Eric Gilliland, the General Manager of Washington D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare.

We already know the rough outline of Capital Bikeshare—1,300 bikes at 150 stations across Washington, D.C., and Arlington, VA—but can you let us in on some of the stuff that surprises people?
Eric Gilliland: I think the thing that surprises people the most is just how easy the system is to use, especially for members with bike share keys. You just walk up to a station, insert your key, grab a bike and go. And when you return it your worries are over. There’s no need to worry about storing it in your apartment or maintaining it, and it’s there for someone else to use.

That sounds great for commuters.
Commuters are big users. In the morning, stations in residential neighborhoods and near outlying transit hubs are full of bikes, and the stations downtown have available spaces. That switches during the day and the bikes return to residential areas at night.

So there are more parking spots than there are bikes?
We’ve found a bike-to-dock ratio of about 50 percent—two spots for every one bike is ideal. That way there’s always a place to park.

Do you move the bikes around to make sure there are more where they’re needed in the morning and spaces available where there’ll be heavy demand for parking?
Yes. We have rebalancing crews that look at the usage data and move bikes to provide the best possible customer service. We want to make sure we’ve got a bike where you want it, when you need it.

  How many bikes do they move every day?
The rebalancing crews move 400 to 500 bikes around, usually at night and early in the morning. I’ve gotten a few emails about people seeing an empty kiosk, and then seeing one of our rebalancing vans down the street. They wait for a few minutes, and out comes a batch of bikes ready to ride.

Can you tell me about the fleet’s maintenance?
Of our 1,300 bikes, a tiny number—somewhere between 20 and 40—are flagged for maintenance each day. Most times, a customer will notice a problem, dock the bike, and then press a button that looks like a wrench, which locks the bike in place and alerts us. It’s usually something small that can be fixed by one of our repair teams in the field. If it’s a bigger issue, the rebalancing van will pick the bike up and take it to our warehouse.

This all sounds so cool. Will New York’s system work the same way?
The tech will be a bit different in New York, but all of the lessons we’ve learned here will certainly move up to you. We’re all very excited for New York’s system.