• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


On Sharing, and on Bikes

Sharing is good, and bikes are good, but bike-sharing can be tricky.

May 30, 2013

This week, a major bike-sharing initiative (CitiBike in NYC) had its hard launch.  Those folks to our south experienced both some initial success (LOTS of miles on lots of bikes, right from the git-go) and some snafus (keys lost in the mail, at least one bike absconded with while workers were initially loading the bike-racks).  It is, of course, far too soon to judge just how much of a success CitiBike will be, even if we can agree on some objective criterion for success.

What's more important than the specifics of CitiBike, however, is the fact that it's just one of a growing number of bike-sharing programs based in major metropolitan areas (Boston, Washington DC, London (UK), etc.) and in college towns/on campuses (Cornell, Emory, Penn State, Yale, lots more).  We've taken one unsuccessful stab at bike-sharing here at Greenback U in the past, and we're hoping to get it right sometime next year.

Part of "getting it right" involves knowing what our particular success criteria are and designing a program intentionally to achieve them.  One of the things we've realized is that we're not trying to solve a single transportation challenge, we're hoping to address at least three separate challenges and we're doing that within the context of an already-established transit system.  We're hoping to serve students who have a very occasional need to get someplace, students who have a regular need to get between campus an off-campus location (e.g., live off-campus and need to get to school, or live on campus and need to get to a job somewhere else), and we'd kind of like to be able to facilitate travel to/from campus by non-student (non-faculty, non-staff) community members.  Travel among identified high-traffic locations (campus, housing, selected retail) is already served by shuttle buses; our future bicycle initiative will be successful if it can address travel along lower-density routes.

Large metropolitan bike-sharing programs like CitiBike can address all three challenges simultaneously, due to their large scale and concomitant major funding.  They can put enough bikes in enough locations that they have no need to configure bicycle availability to a particular mix of user demand profiles.  Greenback's initiative won't be that lucky (which is to say, it won't be as well funded even proportional to size).  We need to design a program which, at least on paper, makes financial sense for the university.  Then we need to pilot that program on a small scale, demonstrating the validity of our design assumptions.  Finally, if/when funding becomes available, we hope to ramp up the program size until some sort of critical mass is achieved.

Our plan is to differentiate occasional users from every-day users, designing separate bike-share offerings for the two classes of students.  The occasional users will be able to reserve and check out bikes for short periods of time (perhaps up to 8 hours).  For students who will use a bike virtually every day, however, that business model isn't a good fit -- too much transactional activity, too little assurance that a bike will be available, too much likelihood that the high--volume users will monopolize all the bikes such that occasional users never really get a shot at one.  Thus, we're planning on establishing two separate pools of bicycles, one pool providing bikes for short-term checkout and the other for long-term (semester or academic-year) assignment.

For the short-term occasional-use program, standardization will be critical.  The bikes need to be durable, easy to operate, relatively hard to damage, quick and cheap to repair.  In practical terms, that means a limited number of bike models (ideally, one) to reduce our need to stock spare parts.  The good news is that, for occasional users, the very fact that a bike is available will prove a major benefit, so a little extra weight (in the interest of durability) or a little simpler design (ditto) shouldn't engender too much complaining.  There are several critical design challenges in putting such a program together, but the main one is probably up-front cost.

For students who will be assigned bicycles on a long-term basis, standardization is less important.  Rather than a pool of one-size-fits-most equipment, we can match specific bikes to specific riders for the duration.  And if short-term bike use is kind of like renting a car (the car rental company has to make the repairs), long-term assignment might be more like auto leasing -- the responsibility for maintenance and repair could fall on the individual user.  That's not to say that Greenback won't care about bicycle condition and durability, but it is to say that we'll care a little bit less and we'll be less invested in making sure we have all imaginable parts constantly in stock.  As a result, we think we might be able to assign out some of the unclaimed bicycles our campus police department collects every year; many of them will require minor refurbishment before they're assigned out, but fixing a chain or replacing a front rim is far less expensive than buying a whole bike.

We're hoping that this two-pronged approach (bike-share for non-Greenback community members will just have to wait) will prove to be both financially and operationally viable.  If we had a major sponsor like Citi on the hook, we might have an easier time of it.  On the other hand, I think the prospect for long-term sustainability will be enhanced by the fact that we're not just throwing money at the problem, we're trying to understand the characteristics, and minimize the ecological footprint, of our solution set.



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