Debunking common myths about bikeshare in the suburbs

“There’s no need for a bikeshare station here. People in this neighborhood already have bikes.”

As bikeshare expands beyond Arlington, Virginia’s densest neighborhoods along Metro corridors, this is a comment the county’s bikeshare planners hear a lot from the public. At first blush, it makes a certain amount of sense. If someone owns a bike, why pay to use bikeshare? And would anyone really use a bikeshare station in a less dense suburban neighborhood?

That’s just one of a number of myths about bikeshare in the suburbs – ideas that may sound reasonable but that don’t square with the growing body of data we now have on bikeshare use. Of course, not all bikeshare myths are suburban in origin. Some of these misconceptions are heard in various settings but tend to be expressed more commonly in the suburbs, but others are more exclusively suburban in origin. It turns out that bike owners do use bikeshare. In fact, Capital Bikeshare’s Annual Member Survey Reports have revealed that a substantial majority of bikeshare members in Arlington also own a bike.

Here’s a quick list of some factual counterpoints to the most common myths, as misconceptions meet the data-based reality of bikeshare.

Fact: Bike owners use bikeshare.

While the idea that residents who already own bicycles, particularly in suburban neighborhoods, won’t use bikeshare, is a common one, statistics from Capital Bikeshare and other systems indicate otherwise. Nearly 60 percent of bikeshare members in Arlington do own their own bicycles. They still find bikeshare valuable because it eliminates the need to find a secure location to park their bikes, because it enables one-way trips (such as using bikeshare to get to work, but carpooling home due to bad weather), and because they have access to a fleet of well-maintained bikes across the metropolitan area. Having a bike at home and having a bike available at all times at 350+ stations across the Washington D.C. region are two very different things.

Fact: Bikeshare riders walk to stations.

Bikeshare members overwhelmingly come from within walking distance. Surveys of members have found 80 percent live within a quarter-mile of a station, and nearly 90 percent live within a half-mile. Of course, they could still drive from that distance, but someone looking to use active transportation (a bicycle) for a trip is unlikely to drive to do so, especially if the distance is so short.

More to the point, a huge reason why people use bikeshare is convenience – the ability to not have to find a place to park a car (or even private bike), to not have to deal with traffic, and so on. The process of driving to a station, parking, switching to a bike, making the bike trip, then perhaps switching to Metro or another mode is less than convenient.

To get a better sense of where users come from, we analyzed a month’s worth of data for the station at George Mason Drive and Wilson Boulevard. For now, it’s the westernmost station in Arlington, meaning that in theory it would be a particularly likely station for anyone to drive to, hop on a bikeshare, and bike the remaining way to work. We mapped home addresses from everyone who departed from this station during the month of July 2014 and found the overwhelming majority of the 232 trips were made by people who lived within walking distance of the station (the majority of all trips) or another station (meaning they were presumably making return trips, mostly to other stations nearby in Arlington). Just 39 trips that came from people not living near any station, which of course doesn’t mean that they drove to the station, just that it’s at least plausible. Still, even if they all did, that averages to just more than one motor vehicle trip per day.

The George Mason Dr. and Wilson Blvd. station, at the edge of the system.

The George Mason Dr. and Wilson Blvd. station, at the edge of the current system.

Fact: A bikeshare station will improve safety by adding more people on bicycles and pedestrians to streets.

Portland photoArlington’s bikeshare experience so far supports this concept. With nearly 700,000 trips during our first full five years of operation, there have been fewer than two dozen reported crashes, typically involving minor scrapes at most. There have been no fatal crashes involving Capital Bikeshare in Arlington – or any other part of the network. Sometimes, opposition to a station is couched in misplaced safety concerns, namely the misconception that adding cyclists increases danger on the road. In fact, the reverse is true.

A growing body of statistical analysis has found that crash rates decrease as more people ride bikes – that there is “safety in numbers.” Simply put, having more people riding bicycles or walking makes them more visible, which tends to change the behavior of drivers (who are more likely to also walk or ride a bike at times) as well. The end result is more careful drivers and calmer traffic, which improves safety for all road users – including drivers.

In terms of “congestion” at a station, it seems likely that many people underestimate the number of stations that exist – and therefore overestimate any effect a station might have on a neighborhood. With more than 80 stations spread across Arlington, no individual station adds an overwhelming amount of activity at peak hours. Most of our more suburban stations see between 10 to 20 trips per day, almost entirely from neighborhood residents.

Fact: Stations blend in to all types of streetscapes.

Obviously, appearance is subjective. But perhaps this notion stems more from circular logic than any inherent feature of a bikeshare station. So far, most stations are located in more urban parts of Arlington, so it’s natural to think of them as urban. But the network is rapidly expanding into the more suburban parts of the county. Once that happens, the perception likely will change.

Bikeshare stations include a solar-powered kiosk for walk-up registration, a number of bikes and docks, and a map panel for directional assistance. Just like bus shelters, bikeshare stations have the same appearance in both urban and suburban neighborhoods.

That said, we do recognize that there are objective differences in the design of the built environment between more and less urban areas. In lower-density neighborhoods, we can remove the map panel that might contribute to that “urban” appearance. What’s left is, in essence, a bike rack – which can be found anywhere.

Fact: We do think of the children! (And how safe they are around stations.)

One misconception we have encountered is the idea that stations will be irresistible playgrounds for children who might climb or cavort on the bikes and suffer an injury. This has been suggested in feedback from a number of locations, but it hasn’t been borne out by facts.

We track incidents of all types and have yet, after five years, to encounter a case of a child injured in some way by a bicycle or rack. On the other hand, showing children that mobility doesn’t mean only driving and modeling healthy, environmentally friendly transportation seems like a good thing. So you can say that we do, in fact, think of the children.

As with anything new, people will have questions about how bikeshare works and what effect it may have on their neighborhoods. We think all these questions – and more – are reasonable, and it’s our job as Arlington County’s Commuter Services Bureau to address questions and concerns and to explain how bikeshare works.

While the idea of bicycle transit is new, the physical elements of a station and how they work aren’t new at all. In essence, it combines the physical appearance of a bike rack with the function of a bus stop (walk up and go) – two elements already found in virtually every neighborhood in Arlington.

Photos: Top, a woman rides bikeshare in Crestwood, D.C. (Kevin Kovaleski/DDOT, Flickr, Creative Commons). A group ride in Portland (City of Portland).

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