Friday, December 19, 2008

Bikeshare's Marketshare

It’s the holiday season, and in an effort to battle the shortened hours of daylight, my friends have found numerous excuses to throw parties — be they for the holidays, the end of exams or birthdays. Friends the city over have heightened their consumption of alcohol and produced prodigious amounts of palpable camaraderie. However, being bike-bound in wintry Philadelphia, and trying to attend all these events can be difficult. Chugging through the rain on a cold dark night from West Philadelphia to Center City, out to Fairmount, and back up to even farther West Philly, proved to be a test of will as much as it was a product of my graduate student thrift. It also hit home the main problems that would face a bike-share program in a mid-Atlantic fairly large city.

For those of you who may not be aware, a group in Philadelphia has been working to start a bike-share program — similar to those in Paris and Washington D.C. Bike-sharing is a system, much like Philly Car-Share, where members can rent vehicles for short periods from pods throughout the city. An entity manages a fleet of bikes scattered throughout the city that members can pick up at one bike corral and drop off at another. These bikes are usually grouped in corrals or pods of eight or nine, at any given site, and one of the trickier parts of bike share planning is figuring out how to maintain an appropriate mix of bikes and spaces so that the flow can be efficiently managed.

Bike-share proponents in Philadelphia argue that the City should build a bike-share network with pods stationed only approximately 2 blocks apart, as is the case in Europe’s most successful Bike-share programs in Lyon and Paris. To do that in Philadelphia’s center city alone would require over 1,000 bikes and 117 bike stations. When Montreal recently implemented its impressive bike-share program, the City spent nearly $9 million, around $3,600 per bike. Philadelphia could easily spend $3,800,723 on a bike share program that would only penetrate the central business district (CBD). That’s a pretty hefty price tag.

When proponents of bike sharing insist that the City of Philadelphia should mimic Paris, more than just copying the Place de la Concorde and Champs-Élysées along the Parkway, they insist that the city copy an initiative that was unprecedented in scope. While we should always strive to model ourselves on best practices, the Parisian model in many ways is an accident. As a recent article in Spacing Toronto puts it:
“To be certain that its American rival would not beat it out a second time, JCDecaux submitted a revised offer that far surpassed what the city had imagined: 20,600 bikes and a network of 1,450 stations so dense that no point within the city would be more than 300 meters away from the nearest station. Clear Channel had clearly lost and Parisians woke up to the world’s largest bike sharing network. The new system, the unlikely fruit of intense competition for advertising market share between Clear Channel and JCDecaux rather than any ecological good intentions, now made it possible for Parisians to pick up and drop off a bicycle anytime and anywhere in Paris.”
JCDecaux and Clear Channel are not likely to compete for the Philadelphia market as intensely. There are demographic reasons — Paris is far wealthier with more of its wealth within the city boundaries — and technical ones — Paris does not have nearly as much public advertising space as Philadelphia (or nearly any American city); thus any ad space introduced by bike share pods (as is the typical financing structure) is worth all the more. Philadelphia should be wary of copying Paris for other reasons. Parisian weather is fairer than ours, and they live in buildings that are not conducive to bike-ownership (no-one would want to cart a bike up those narrow stairs), and so when bike-sharing was introduced it was able to tap into a long simmering need.

All of this brings us back to that awfully cold night I biked between three different neighborhoods. Those of us who are pro bike sharing may bitch about the weather, but we are willing to bike in winter, in the wet and the wind. But we already own bikes, and may, or may not, need to actually use bike-share. We are also far more likely to bike amongst the city’s many neighborhoods. It’s important to realize how similar to transit biking is. Transit planners lust after the no-transfer-trip, where a traveler can get somewhere without switching between lines or modes; it remains to be seen if bikers want to simply go between home and work, or if people are willing to run more than one errand on a bike.

These kinds of questions are critical for building a bike-share program because they create the criteria upon which distribution is based. Do you need to build a system that maximizes the connection between specific neighborhoods and the CBD, or do you want a system that allows people to bike from one neighborhood to another? When real estate developers boast about “creating markets” what they are actually talking about is tapping into un-realized purchasing power. A successful bike-share taps into such a demand. The problem is, without a market study, you could just be drilling in a dry desert, coming up with nothing but sand.

While we should dream big, we should build smart.

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