Because humans are weird and complicated and not always rational, it's not enough to scatter bikes around town if you want people to use them. Changing behavior – especially behavior as deeply embedded as our commuting patterns, or our preference for cars above all – may also require a little nudge.
There's a ridiculously simple way to do this with bikes: Show people how long the exact same trip would take in a car, or on foot, or even by transit. One of Google Maps's smartest innovations has been to make these side-by-side comparisons possible in its trip planner, with alternate routes laid out on the same screen:
Zach Rausnitz recently imported some of this Google Maps data into an even more powerful tool for local bike-share users in Washington, D.C. (hat tip to DCist). Rausnitz has used historic data from actual Capital Bikeshare member trips to calculate the average time a ride takes between any two stations in the system (he threw out the crazy outliers in his calculations).
Even more usefully, Rausnitz's Bikeshare Trip Timer now compares those results to Google Maps data on how long it would take to travel the same route between bike-share stations by other modes:
Google's data doesn't factor in traffic or parking time. So what would you rather chose: a free bike ride of about nine minutes, with no parking hassle, or a six-minute car ride with more unknowns (and parking costs), or an 18 minute metro trip?
This comparison is so powerful – and this is the kind of data any bike-share system needs – for one big reason. It's not enough to make it possible for people to bike. What advocates really need to do is make clear the costs of not biking, in minutes saved or dollars not spent.