In cities around the globe, bicycle and electric scooter rentals seem to be everywhere. And in a way, they almost have to be. If the bicycle or scooter isn’t right where users need it, right when they need it, they won’t go out of their way to find one, says new research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
It creates a challenge for bike-share and e-scooter companies, says Maryland Smith’s Ashish Kabra. In new research featured in Management Science, Kabra and two Cornell University co-authors offer suggestions on designing bike-share systems that attract more users. They studied how ridership is impacted by the distance a user must walk to the next docking station and the likelihood that one will be available.
As a doctoral student studying at INSEAD in France, Kabra spent a lot of time in Paris. He became a frequent user of the city’s ubiquitous Velib bike-share system at a time when he was studying inventory management, sparking the research.
He and his co-authors combed through Velib’s bike-share data online and mapped Paris points of interest, such as tourist attractions and popular restaurants, bars and hotels to figure out where riders were picking up bicycles. They wanted to know what happened when stations had no bikes left – whether people would walk to the next station or opt for another mode of transportation.
“Once a station runs out of bikes, you never know when a bike will become available,” Kabra says. “If there is no bike when you need one, how does that affect your propensity to use the system?”
It turns out, a lot.
Kabra says the data show that people are “quite sensitive” to walking and really don’t want to go out of their way to find a bicycle. “Even a few hundred meters – a few minutes’ walking distance – has a significant drop in demand,” he says.
Kabra and his co-authors found that having to walk 300 meters, roughly four city blocks or one-fifth of a mile – made potential users almost 60% less likely to bother. And when a station is 500 meters away, or about six city blocks, people become “highly unlikely to use the system.” The availability of bikes matters too. Even a 10% increase in bike availability at stations increases system-use by more than 12%.
Adding more bikes to the system hits both distance and availability factors, and therefore is a solution. But, Kabra says, this doesn’t always mean a company has to increase its fleet to increase ridership. “Simply reconfiguring your system design, so that there are more smaller stations with the same overall number of bikes could improve ridership,” says Kabra. “The advantage of that system design is you can locate them closer together, but the downside is with fewer bikes at each station, there is a higher chance that a station will be out of bikes when a user wants one, or there will be too many bikes and no place to dock them.”
The other extreme would be to only have a few large stations in a city, likely requiring most users to walk too far to get to a station. But because they would be high-capacity stations, users could be almost assured to find a bike when they want one. After performing several scenario analyses, the researchers concluded that distance is a more critical factor, and therefore Kabra says, bike-share systems should have many stations within a city.
The latest trend in dockless bikes and e-scooters – though raising environment and safety concerns – is solving some of the accessibility and availability problems of docked systems, Kabra says.
“Dockless systems remove walking, especially at the end of your journey, where you won’t have to go out of your way to deposit the bike or scooter you’ve been using, which is great, because people hate walking,” he says. “Where it may become slightly challenging is where you have to locate a bike or scooter. With docking stations, you always know where to find them. But without stations, you have to try to locate one on an app and hope that it’s still available when you get there.”
Overall, dockless systems are easier to use than station-based systems, Kabra says, because bikes and scooters can be in more places when riders need them.
“Dockless systems allow virtual stations pretty much anywhere, so in some sense, you are getting to that idea of having lots of stations,” Kabra says. “These systems align with the main finding in our research: People hate walking, so if systems have bikes or scooters available in more places, they’ll do better on total ridership.”
Read more: “Bike-Share Systems: Accessibility and Availability” is featured in Management Science.
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