Making Bikeshare Systems Work for Casual Users

By Darren Proulx and Samuel Baron

Bikeshares provide a great opportunity for casual users to try out urban biking without actually investing in a bike. Moreover, bikeshare systems increase cycling usage by raising the profile of cycling in the community. A properly articulated system conveys to residents that cycling is supported and endorsed by the local government. Most importantly it serves as a gateway from casual rider to full time rider.

After using or attempting to use Bikeshare systems throughout Europe and North America one thing becomes clear: these systems are not convenient enough for casual use by visitors and residents. Part of the challenge with encouraging active transportation is contending with the automobiles’ flexibility. Study after study shows that if you want to encourage different behaviours, you have make them as convenient and easy as possible (Source Happiness by Design, Paul Dolan). Transportation is a social science and people respond to external stimuli. Build a bike lane and surprise, people use it. Make bikeshare systems easily accessible and surprise! People use them.

Therefore, encouraging a simple, user friendly bikeshare system can help encourage greater ridership and raise awareness of the suitability of cycling as a credible, safe, reliable way to get around.

System Access

The Budapest Bikeshare (BuBi)
The Budapest Bikeshare (BuBi)

Using the recently minted Budapest BuBi Bikeshare system, the first impressions are not great. When trying to sign up for a 3 day casual pass, it turns out that every bikeshare station kiosk did not have the functionality to give you a membership. Once you found a station that could sell you a membership, you needed a working phone number or access to the Internet to activate your membership. Once you finally obtain your temporary membership, in order to retrieve a bike you have to enter in your phone number, then your pin code and then your bike number…at each station every time you want to take out a bike. Having to jump through all these hoops is hardly going to win over the mildly interested prospective user.

New York City Citibike
New York City Citibike

The story tends to be similar in different cities. In Washington D.C. and as a casual user it was required to insert your credit card at each station kiosk, and then enter a code, and then a bike number. New York’s Citibike and Chicago’s Divvy system have identical processes.

Other systems like the Netherland OV-fiets or the Barcelona Bicing do not even permit casual memberships.

Comparing this to Paris’ Velib, while it has its own flaws (mainly with many bikes in disrepair) it was the easiest system to use. Every station kiosk had the capability of providing a membership. When you wanted to retrieve a bike you simply entered your passcode and then the bike number.

There have been many occasions where curious passerby’s in New York City have come up to a station only to walk away due to a tedious but fixable procedure. This behaviour was also observed in Chicago.

Cities and bike-share systems are foregoing  an enormous opportunity by making their systems complicated and inaccessible to casual users. Bikeshare systems miss out on profits and cities miss out on latent ridership growth. An intercept survey of 340 people purchasing 1 day and 5 day Capital Bikeshare memberships conducted by Ralph Buehler and Darren Buck et al. found out that 71% of Washington D.C. Capital Bikeshare casual users were using the system for the first time, and 61% of users reported learning about the system by seeing it. The majority (90%) of people were using the system for tourism/site seeing (53%), social (22%) and recreation (15%) reasons. Other research by Darren Proulx on the Washington D.C. Capital Bikeshare system (which is outlined more indepth in these posts), found that 25% of all trips are made by casual users. These systems make the most revenue based off of the pricing structure with trips that are longer than the allotted 30 minutes of free time per trip. Casual users happen to make up the bulk of those trips that are longer than 30 minutes. Proulx’s research found that 37% of casual user trips were longer than 30 minutes (versus 2.8% of monthly or annual subscriber members). With the need to redistribute the bikes at the end of the day there may be concerns that this may be disruptive to the system operation. However Proulx’s research also showed that the stations with high volumes of casual users were tightly constrained within a small area in downtown Washington D.C. and the National Mall.

So what can be done?

Simplify System Access and Use

Designing a system that is accessible and user friendly isn’t rocket science. Make all stations predictable and the same. The system access procedure should be simple and enable a bike rental on the fly. A credit card should be enough insurance to protect the bikes from theft.

In Seville, the Bikeshare was only offered on a weekly basis. While the price was a steal for a week, it was prohibitively outrageous for 1 or 2 days. Ensuring that bike-share systems are priced for spontaneous short term use is key for increased usage.

Legibility of System and Bike Lane Networks

Citibike Station Kiosk 5-Minute Cycling Map Source: (
Citibike Station Kiosk 5-Minute Cycling Map Source: (

One can ride a bike everyday and still not quite remember which streets feature protected lanes. Expecting a beginner or casual rider to understand or to know the network is unreasonable.

Make sure station kiosks feature a comprehensive network map so that riders understand which routes are safest for them, and subsequently their ride goes as smoothly as possible. This map should also distinguish between routes that are separated from motorized traffic. Cycling in urban areas can be very intimidating, even for the most seasoned rider, as traffic regulations require that people cycling “run with the Bulls” mixing with large and lethally fast moving automobiles. Informing casual users where safe and accessible travel options will help assure a safe and comfortable first experience and potentially repeated use.

System maps should also show a ‘5 Minute Travel Circle’ for both walking and cycling (how far it’s possible to cycle or walk within 5 minutes). These maps should also feature transit stations and significant points of interest.

Avoid changes to the map that distort the interpretation of the map upon first viewing. For example, the London bike-share maps were rotated at every kiosk to change the orientation to face the local street. While this is great in theory, it ends up unnecessarily adding a layer of confusion if you don’t know this has been done since most people are used to reading maps with North at the top.

Integrate the Bikeshare System Network With the Overall Mobility Network

While Bikeshares are touted to help fill the ‘last mile of commuting’ gap, the research conducted by Darren Proulx shows that there is a statistical relationship between more bikeshare trips and dedicated right-of-way transit systems like subways.  Ensuring that users understand this opportunity exists is critical. In the smart phone era, users should be able to instantly access and plan trips using a mix of all of the multimodal components of the entire mobility network right from your palm. This supports multimodal transportation, producing the most time and cost effective trip. Bikeshares should not compete but rather compliment other modes of the mobility puzzle. There have been a number of key developments of apps that do this, such as Citymapper or RideScout.

Station Density

Over 1200 Paris Velib Bikeshare Stations
Over 1200 Paris Velib Bikeshare Stations

It would be ideal to have one station for every city block. This would maximize the car-equivalent spontaneity with the possibility to be able to make a trip from anywhere to anywhere. Also according to the research by Buehler and Buck more stations would expose more potential new users to the system. Having more stations maximizes the options and provides peace of mind knowing the next station is just around the corner. A recent study shows promising results can achieved  with little investment. Simply decreasing the distance to access stations by 10% may boost bike-share trips by about 7%, while a 10% improvement in bike availability can increase system usage about 12%.

The perfect thing about bikeshares is their modular flexibility, which provides great adaptability for the incremental improvements necessary for Bikeshare success.

At Slow Streets, we are hopeful that Vancouver will successfully launch its bikeshare network in 2016. With much precedent to draw upon (there are over 1400 globally according to this google map list) Vancouver should ensure that they implement a system with the elements that will maximize rider potential and a good return on investment.

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