Bicycles as public transit

Chattanooga Tennessee calls their new bike share program “Chattanooga Bicycle Transit.”

Chattanooga Bicycle Transit System

Chattanooga’s bike share is similar to the other public bike share programs popping up around the United States. After you buy a membership, you can unlock any available bike from a bike share station, ride it for up to 60 minutes without any additional fee, and return it to an open slot at any station. The 30 stations are mostly clustered within a few hundred yards of each other in Chattanooga’s waterfront / downtown area. Chattanooga Bicycle Transit is managed by the city of Chattanooga Park & Recreation Department and is operated by Alta Bicycle Share. Alta also runs Capital Bikeshare in DC and the Hubway in Boston.

Why “Bicycle Transit”?

“Bicycle transit” reflects the purpose of bike share in the United States. Bike share provides on-demand service from station to station, and they’re often located adjacent to transit service or popular destinations. Like a bus or train service, bike share is not “point-to-point” the way a private bicycle or car is, but bike share does provide more schedule flexibility than typical bus and train services.

I’ve written previously on what I consider the obvious synergies between traditional public transit and bicycles, but that’s always been in the context of privately owned bikes. In the United States, bikes can be a solution to the last mile problem of getting passengers between transit stations and dispersed homes or offices. People who bring bike to transit benefit non-biking riders by freeing up park-and-ride spaces.

American transit operators recognize this last mile benefit and often allow bikes on board the vehicles. Making room for bikes on board trains and buses, however, does not scale. In the San Francisco Bay Area, cyclists often get “bumped” from buses and trains because no additional space is available onboard for their bikes. (In countries with heavy transit use and transit oriented development, transit operators build large bike parking facilities because homes might be dispersed, but the work places tend to be more clustered. Workers bike a half mile from home to the train station, lock up in the large bike parking lot, ride public transportation to their destination, and walk 50 yards to the office or factory.)

Partly in response to the perpetual bumping problem on Caltrain, the San Francisco Bay Area Air Quality Management District decided to pilot a bike share program along the Caltrain corridor between San Francisco and San Jose, with stations planned at the busiest train stations on the line.

I’m personally a little bit skeptical about bike share’s utility for the last mile in the South Bay — when a thousand commuters get off of the train in San Jose, it won’t take long for the 100 bikes stored at Diridon Station to all get utilized. Even with rebalancing, I picture dozens of commuters waiting for an hour or longer for bike share bikes to reappear. I’m looking forward to see what happens and I hope I’m proven wrong. Caltrain commuters are an inventive group, and I imagine somebody will think of an amazingly practical solution.

Transit consultant Jarret Walker expresses his enthusiasm for bike share as a type of public transit:

I completely agree that bikeshare at stations is valuable to both cycling and transit modes! I suppose I haven’t posted on it because it’s so obvious to me that I’m not sure what to say.

The key thing to keep in mind about these bike solutions, from a transit standpoint, is that anything that helps transit concentrate its resources on more rapid forms of service — e.g. by reducing the demand for “last mile” local transit — is great for transit too, because slower kinds of transit are also more expensive to operate. So this ties directly to my suggestion (see Chapter 5 of my book) to not just expand rapid transit but also shift many local bus lines over to more rapid forms of stop spacing so that service runs faster but is worth walking to.

The reader conversation after the post, unfortunately, turns into a stupidly divisive “us vs them” debate about “militant, pushy and spandex clad” cyclists {/*sigh*/}, but never mind that. What are your thoughts on bike share as a form of public transportation? Does it work? Is this how the successful European bike shares operate?

One Comment

  1. …a simple point but one i’m glad to see is the terminology utilized by that city – “chattanooga bicycle transit”

    …i’ll leave the infrastructural logistics to those like yourself, fritzster, who most often use those facilities but i’m glad to see the graphic phrase “bicycle transit” used so that it becomes part of peoples daily nomenclature…

    …i think it becomes a positive step when the concept of commuting by bicycle becomes as synonymous in the minds of the general public as the usual methods via cars, buses, trains, ferries, et al…

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