B-cycle, Austin’s bike-share system, recently added three new stations as part of an 18-station expansion over the next 18 months. All the new stations will be close to or in downtown, adding to the company’s existing 51 docks.
The expansion might seem like an opportunity to build a station outside B-cycle’s limited coverage. Once you cross I-35, bike-share stations don't exist north of East 11th Street. South of the river, stations peter out by Elizabeth Street.
Sophia Benner, who chairs the city’s Bicycle Advisory Council, said she’s heard this question many times: “Why are they expanding in the direction they are and why aren’t they going a little farther?”
The answer, she said, lies in the required number and proximity of stations to ensure the bikes are a real option for people who want to use them.
“The nature of that business is such that their expansion has to continue the same amount of station density,” Benner said. “It’s not very easy for them to just locate a single station, or even just a couple stations, several miles away from the rest of the herd. It’s not very viable for that business.”
According to a report from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), ridership depends on the density of stations. That’s because bike-share is about convenience.
“The trick with bike-share systems is always sort of doing the balance between making sure that you have stations close enough together, so that it’s easy for people to use and also making sure that you have a system that’s big enough so that it can take you enough places so that people want to use it,” said Kate Fillin-Yeh, director of strategy at NACTO.
Fillin-Yeh said figuring out how to build a successful bike-share system is not about peoples’ willingness to bike.
“It really is actually about how far someone is willing to walk to get to a bicycle,” she said. That distance is about a quarter-mile.
“We’re trying to create an interconnected network where it’s really easy to jump on a bike,” said Elliott McFadden, the executive director of Austin B-cycle. “If people have to walk long enough to get to a bike, they’re going to use some other form of transportation.”
According to NACTO, 28 stations per square mile is an ideal station density. Austin has an average of only nine stations per square mile. Data from 2015 show New York City’s bike-share had an average of 23 stations per square mile, while Denver’s system had an average of five stations per square mile.
McFadden said as B-cycle expands geographically, it must maintain a certain level of density.
“So you have this core system that’s built to make the system successful and get it off the ground," he said, "and then we grow out to neighborhoods as there’s demand."
The latest B-cycle expansion will cost roughly $800,000. Funding is coming in part from a Federal Highway Administration grant.