The Methodology of Bike-Share Station Placement in New York City

Taking lessons from its predecessors, America's largest city has crafted a three-pronged approach for bike-share deployment

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REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

Last month, New York City selected Alta Bicycle Share to develop and operate its long-awaited bike-share program. Having finally arrived at this decision, the city must now shift its focus to 600 others: That's how many stations it intends to place throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn before the program's launch, which is scheduled for the summer of 2012. This first phase of 10,000 bikes alone will make NYC Bike Share the largest such program in United States, and among the largest in the world.

The situation seems primed for success. Two out of every five trips made in New York City are under a mile, or roughly 20 blocks, and to date the city has constructed hundreds of miles of bike lanes to facilitate the travel mode. Still the station selection process can't be taken lightly. Putting bike-share docks too far apart can frustrate riders trying to get as close as possible to their final destination; failing to stitch them into the city's existing transit fabric can push riders back to other modes; placing them where neighborhoods don't want them can incite local resentment toward the program in particular and riders in general.

If all goes according to plan, these potential problems will remain just that. New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and Alta president Alison Cohen describe a multi-step selection process that balances the physical needs of a successful bike-share system with the personal desires of New York residents. Alta and the city will first target optimal service areas using detailed data models and public suggestions, then approach community boards that govern these areas with at least three possible locations, and last allow the neighborhoods themselves to make the ultimate decision.

The idea is that an emphasis on three established bike-share pillars — high density of stations, close proximity to transit, and community feedback — will elevate New York's program from a novel subculture to an integral, and seamlessly integrated, part of the city's complex transportation network.

"New York is never about just one mode of transportation," says Sadik-Khan. "This is a city where people walk, they take the subway, they drive, they take a bus. More and more, riding a bike is becoming an increasingly attractive way for New Yorkers to get around. This is a very natural next step."

Station Size and Density

A bike-share station — for the uninitiated — is the docking fixture where system users pick up and drop off their bicycles. The first wave of 600 stations will be concentrated in Manhattan south of 79th Street and in select Brooklyn neighborhoods, including Williamsburg, Fort Greene, and Park Slope:

The importance of station density boils down to time and money. Users don't want to have to walk far to pick up a bike, and they don't want to drop off a bike too far from their final destination. Part of that's convenience. Another part is getting what they pay for: An annual membership into the NYC Bike Share will be cheaper than a monthly subway card — roughly $100 — but that provides unlimited rides of roughly 30 to 45 minutes in length. (Short-term memberships will be available too.) After the allowed usage time, overage charges will apply.

Having a high density of stations is the best way to ensure a dependable and fair total riding time. In deciding how far apart to place stations within these boundaries, New York will follow in the footsteps of Paris. That system established the industry density standard of about 28 stations per square mile. If you're on the metric system, that's a station every 300 meters; for New Yorkers, it means one every two or three blocks.

"The number one indicator of success is density of stations," says Cohen. "You don't want to have stations more than a couple blocks away from each other. In the off-chance, hopefully, that someone encounters a completely full or empty station, they don't have to walk far to a station that does have capacity or bicycles."

Arriving at a full bike-share station is sometimes called "dockblocking," and it's far from uncommon. In a recent month, for instance, the Washington, D.C. bike-share system, also run by Alta, experienced 5,000 instances of dockblocking, according to a recent Marketplace report. Sometimes this inconvenience is unavoidable — in the case of D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare, it no doubt reflects the system's great popularity — but it further underscores the need for proper station density as well as density's close cousin: station size. 

The general rule of thumb for avoiding full stations is to have about 50 percent more spaces than bikes. A 2009 bike-share report [PDF] prepared by the New York City planning commission recommended a target capacity of 24 bikes per station. The city's initial phase will adhere closely to that recommendation: spreading New York's 10,000 bikes across 600 stations breaks down to about 16 bikes per station; add to that a 50 percent space contingency, and you get the ideal capacity of 24 bikes.

"If you've got a lot of people at a particular location, and you under-size that station, you've taken care of one element by having it in the right location, but you're not addressing the needs of people at that particular location," says Lee Jones, sales director for B-Cycle, a company with programs in Chicago, Denver, and elsewhere, and the other finalist for the New York program. "Creatures of habit will say: I wanted to try it, but I couldn't."

Proximity to Transit

The key to any good urban transportation system is connectivity — the ability to shuffle from one transit mode to another without great delay or distance. Cohen says Alta's highest-use stations are aligned with key transit hubs. In Washington, for instance, the heaviest traffic occurs at the Dupont Circle bike-share station, in close proximity to the Metro stop at the same location. Two highly successful stations in Boston are the ones outside North and South Stations, she adds. In New York, a natural hub will be at Grand Central Terminal.

The 2009 city planning report suggests placing docking stations near subway stops and bus stands. Abiding that recommendation will help NYC Bike Share become "an extension of the transit system," says Sadik-Khan. "This program will really improve access to the subway and will certainly leverage the bike network and the transit network we have in place."

The waterfront areas will also become a station focus, especially near ferry routes, as will the city's dedicated bike lanes. That infrastructure is at 700 miles and growing, and it certainly an attraction to Cohen, who is relocating to New York to oversee the project. She'll make her new home in Midtown East, right along the Second Avenue bike lanes, and not too far from Grand Central.

Community Feedback

The city and Alta have launched a public outreach effort they consider every bit as important to the success of the bike-share program as the mathematical formulas for station size and density. They recently launched a web portal where New Yorkers can recommend station locations, and it's already received thousands of suggestions. They'll maintain the dialogue this fall with a series of public demonstrations designed to inform locals about station location and program usage. In the final phase of the selection process, the city and Alta will approach Community Boards with at least three location options and offer them the last word.

"What we're prepared to do is to go to communities with some pre-vetted locations to make sure that the stations go where the communities want them," says Sadik-Khan. "Everything's location, location, location. We're going to be looking to site stations where they work for commuters, for businesses, and for communities."

The hope is that by engaging the community in every phase of the selection process, Alta and New York will minimize public protest to the unfamiliar program. That's been a problem in the past. In October of 2010 a contentious debate emerged over where to place a station near Lincoln Park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C., with a host of passionate locals expressing fears about traffic and child safety, vandalism, and general appearance. One community meeting on the subject became so heated that a shoving match actually broke out. Of course, once it was actually in place, turns out demand for bikes in that location was so high that users often found the station dockblocked.

"Prior to launch, it can be difficult for some folks to get used to the idea of bike-share stations, but then after launch it's viewed as a very positive asset to the community," says Cohen, who adds that concerns over theft and vandalism have been proven entirely unfounded. "Every city we enter is new and unique and different. … But the way we approach it is we have the same attitude: open and professional. We don't want to put a station where the community doesn't want it."

Another common neighborhood complaint about bike-share stations is that they replace street parking spaces. Generally speaking, every ten spots in a bike-share dock can result in the loss of one on-street parking space — or about three spots for a New York station with a capacity of 24 bikes. To address that complaint, says Cohen, Alta and New York will make sure that at least one of the station options presented to each community includes a location that doesn't take away parking.

Additional Site Details

At the level of the individual station, bike-share docks are subject to the same regulations as any piece of street furniture: sidewalk clearance, distance from fire hydrants, compliance with historic districts, and the like. Other general guidelines for successful placement include locating stations on wide sidewalks so as not to impede pedestrian flow; adjacency to major cultural and tourist locations as well as parks and public spaces, to attract casual riders; and providing enough station visibility so bike-share users don't have to hunt for a station they know is nearby. Stations located in the street should be tucked away from traffic and ideally settled beside hydrants (left, a street station in Paris; right a potential New York equivalent):

Since bike-share stations will be accessible 24 hours, they should be placed on the periphery of, rather than inside, major public parks, which (technically) close down overnight. Open public areas or squares, like Columbus Circle and Herald Square, also make for logical station sites, as do pedestrian plazas.

Many of the finer specifics of bike-share stations are spelled out in the 2009 planning report. In addition to wide sidewalks, locations should take advantage of curb bulb-outs, open-air frontage, and space under viaducts, elevated railroads, and highways. The report suggests considering space beneath FDR Drive in the Financial District, for instance, or the viaduct beneath Park Avenue near Grand Central, for larger stations (left, a Paris station beneath a viaduct; right, a potential NYC Bike Share location beneath a Metro North stop at 125th Street, which would fall outside the scope of phase one):

Because it's something of a late entrant into the bike-share game, New York benefited from a few key technological upgrades over early systems. The stations will run on wireless solar power, so they won't need access to direct sunlight, which allows for locations beside tall buildings. They'll often be exceedingly moveable — capable of being lifted up and out in less than a half hour if necessary — in contrast to some European systems heavily anchored in the ground. Leaders of NYC Bike Share have toured successful systems for years to prepare for the day the city would join those ranks, says Sadik-Khan.

"We did a lot of work to identify what was the best program area to meet the needs of New Yorkers in the first phase of this program," she says. "The fact is a successful bike-share system means having stations located every few blocks and putting them where they're needed, and that's really what we're focusing on right now."

Above images courtesy City of New York

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