Bike share might be able to work in separate nodes

February 27, 2015 at 2:37 am

Streetsblog recently posted about Jon Orcutt, a former Director at the NYC DOT, writing that bike share works best as a continuous network of stations, as opposed to “nodes” of stations throughout a city or region.

He’s right, in most contexts. I know that Bay Area Bike Share has stations in San Francisco as well as some suburbs south of it. Chicago’s Divvy is still wholly located inside the city, but adjacent, denser suburbs Oak Park and Evanston will get stations shortly. There may even be cases where splitting the system within the city is still okay.

A Divvy station next to a Brown Line ‘L’ station in Chicago.

Vancouver, BC, is still awaiting a bike share system (and is among North America’s largest cities without one). Part of this is because of bad timing — Alta, who managed several North American systems, sold its bike share business which is now called Motivate — and because of British Columbia’s all-ages helmet requirement law.

There has not yet been a map released of potential bike share station locations in Vancouver, but a few sources believed that the stations would mostly be located downtown and in the West End. If this is true, it’s a terrible idea.

The West End and downtown are both on a peninsula, are the densest areas of the region, and have very high walk-to-work mode shares. However, they have low bike commuting rates — usually rationalized with topography, since a large hill somewhat separates the two neighbourhoods.

The West End neighbourhood, in pink, compared with the rest of the city, in maroon. Image: Inside Vancouver.

I’m not saying the hill is the only deterrent, but they do create problems for bike share. I believe that putting bike share stations initially in the downtown peninsula is a bad idea because it’s already very walkable.

Many large swaths of the rest of Vancouver are nowhere near as walkable. There are exceptions, of course, but this is the result when most of the city is zoned for single-family homes with few commercial areas:

Vancouver zoning: grey is single-family, yellow is two-family, orange is multi-family, and red is commercial. Image: We Love East Van.

Which brings me to Orcutt’s assertion that bike share can’t work in nodes.

South of, say, 16th Avenue (an east/west avenue, along the north end of the pink zone in the map above), there are some neighbourhoods that are relatively walkable. Some of these neighbourhoods are also anchored by or are near to transit — but many people take bus transit to these stations, instead of walking. In my own scenario, walking to the Canada line takes 20 minutes because I detour to avoid a busy, six-lane arterial (Marine Dr). A bus ride takes about 7 minutes, but runs every 10-30 minutes, depending on the time of day. I could bicycle, but that involves getting my bike from behind two locked doors in my building’s parkade, riding along an industrial road (to avoid the arterial), then locking the bike, worrying about theft, etc…

Would you want to walk or bike along this? Image: Google.

Would you want to walk or bike along this? Southwest Marine Drive, Vancouver. Image: Google.

This is where I tote the incredible convenience that is bike share.

Residential density in Vancouver: concentrated in the north, but pockets in the south and west. Image: UBC.

Residential density in Vancouver: concentrated in the north, but pockets in the south and west. Image: UBC.

Were there enough bike share stations — more than 10, perhaps — in my neighbourhood, Marpole, people could bike to the station or to many other places (like shops on Granville and Oak or the Fraser River Park) which are now at least a 15-20 minute walk away. You can bike to the station in the morning, and take the bus home when it’s raining in the evening. It would also assist in connecting people from the denser areas of Marpole with new development taking place at the Canada line station. East Vancouver neighbourhoods near SkyTrain could have increased accessibility to rapid transit with bike share. Bicycles can help put more people within access of rapid transit over a larger distance. That could mean fewer stark towers around stations and more context-sensitive, human-scale development that is dense but tolerable.

The problem is that neighbourhoods like these wouldn’t see bike share for years, if at all, because they’re separated from Vancouver’s core by dozens of blocks of single family homes where there’s just nothing to do, see, or go to. Instead, bike share stations will likely go to neighbourhoods where walking is already easy and safe, transit is abundant, and bicycling rates are low despite a well-connected network of bicycle infrastructure.

Vancouver isn’t the only example, and maybe someday it’s neighbourhoods will be more connected with stronger commercial districts and denser neighbourhoods. Until then, I think we should keep an open mind to the idea of node-based bicycle share systems here and elsewhere.