By Robbie Webber
On June 18, the Madison, WI, bikesharing system became the first in the U.S. to switch its entire fleet to electric pedal-assist bikes, although other cities have been adding e-bikes to their fleet for several years. Results from a comparison of e-bike vs. standard bike usage show pedal-assist bikes may be the key to increasing bike mode share, especially as part of a city bikesharing program. In addition, recent studies also show that we are still getting plenty of exercise, even when getting help from the electric motor.
The Madison BCycle system is the only one that is owned and operated by Trek, whose headquarters are just over 20 miles from downtown in nearby Waterloo. Because of the friendly relationship between the city and the bicycle company, Madison has been a testing ground for some of Trek’s ideas over the years, so it is not surprising that its system would be the first one to go fully electric.
Data gathered shows that people really like the new bikes, are taking more trips, and are riding longer. Getting electric-assist bikes out on the street may be a way to increase the number of trips taken by bike overall. Since the e-bikes were introduced in Madison, total trips more than doubled over 2018 numbers, and the trips per bike, per day has almost quadrupled. Since these statistics include some time before the system became fully-electric, the increases may be higher.
So why did Madison BCycle decide to fully convert their fleet? Morgan Ramaker, Executive Director of BCycle, explained that they wanted to increase overall ridership and make bikesharing a more mainstream and meaningful part of the transportation system.
“We wanted to reach people who hadn’t considered using our bikes before. Having electric-assist bikes opens it up to people who might not have been willing to try the heavy standard bikes. We think that as people see others using the electric bikes—and see how easy it is—they will think, ‘Hey, we could use that instead of walking, driving, or waiting for the bus.’”
The increases are especially impressive given that Madison’s system is a bit sparse outside the immediate downtown, but Ramaker says that they hope to start filling in gaps and expanding farther from the downtown. “Although best practices say that people are generally only willing to walk five minutes to and from a bikeshare station, maybe they’d be willing to walk seven or ten minutes if they know they can make up the time by zipping along a bit faster on the bike.”
Since the conversion, BCycle survey data shows that 77 percent of trips are by monthly and annual members, so the usage increase is not just from people trying the bikes for a joyride or from visitors. Of members surveyed, 37 percent say they use a car less often, and 54 percent had never tried an e-bike before.
The appearance of so many e-bikes and the easy public access to them has raised some concerns. One online forum user said he expected a fatality within a month due to inexperienced users suddenly being able to travel much faster. Others have complained about an increase in users traveling at excessive speed on already-crowded area paths. Fortunately, there have been no fatalities or even injuries due to the new bikes, and most users are riding calmly in order to arrive at their destination less damp and disheveled in the hot and humid Wisconsin summer.
So does the arrival of e-bikes mean the end of getting exercise as part of transportation? A new study says “no”. Because the pedal-assistance makes using a bike easier, faster, and less likely to make one a sweaty social pariah, e-bike owners are using them for longer trips and more frequently than study participants that owned only a regular bike. However, the real gain in physical activity was among study participants that switched car trips to e-bike trips.
Both a local American example and a study from several European cities show that e-bikes encourage longer and more frequent trips by bike, findings that can inform decisions for both public health and transportation planning.
Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.
By Michael Brenneis
A new analytical approach could help identify streets most in need of improved facilities to better connect cycling networks. In Shanghai, researchers used high-resolution dockless bike-share trip data, and percolation theory, to identify clusters of cycling activity and the bottlenecks between these clusters.
In their analysis, the researchers allowed road segments to be closed or open to cycling based on a threshold value of the segment’s “weight” (the number of trips on a specific road segment/maximum number of trips on any segment.) In percolation theory the threshold value at which the second largest cluster reaches its maximum size indicates when the network has transitioned from a connected to a fragmented state. The closed road segments connecting the isolated clusters can then be identified as critical to improving the cycling connection between clusters. These segments often represent existing roads with a lack of cycling facilities—restricted routes or routes too dangerous for most riders (Figure 1.)
Figure 1. Bike island clusters in fragmented state showing bottleneck where connection could be made by improving cycling infrastructure. Source.
Close examination of the road segments within clusters can reveal internal gaps—road segments below the threshold—that could be improved with better cycling facilities in order to increase cycling connectivity (Figure 2.)
Figure 2. Identification of gaps within bike island clusters (circled in red.) Source.
The clustering methodology requires data on “trajectories,” not just origins and destinations. The researchers used Mobike dockless bike share data consisting of 720,000 trips made by 130,000 randomly selected users, on 290,000 bikes over an unspecified time period—a subset of the 20 million daily Mobike trips taken by users in Shanghai. The trajectories consist of time-stamped GPS points. The time stamp interval varies by trip, but 54 percent of trips have less than a 5 second sampling interval, while 89.6 percent of the trips have less than a 15 second sampling interval. The 13.7 percent of trips without sampling points were assigned routes using the shortest network path algorithm. The trajectories were then aligned to the road network using the fast map matching algorithm.
In addition to running the analysis city-wide, the authors suggest running it on smaller areas within cities with the goal of locating more localized gaps in cycling networks.
By Saumya Jain
Most efforts to increase bike and walk accessibility focus on physical access. But the built environment is not the full story. A new study finds that certain attributes of the social environment also greatly affect the perception of walkability, especially among people of color.
To understand the attributes associated with perceived walkability among different ethnic and cultural groups, the researchers conducted on-site interviews in two locations—one predominantly Mexican-American and the other a predominantly non-Hispanic White neighborhood in Tucson, AZ. Other than the cultural differences, the researchers matched the locations for income, poverty rates, and built environment. The researchers designed most of the questions as open-ended prompts—general likes and dislikes about the areas. The researchers found that there was a major discrepancy in the perception of walking in the two locations. For respondents from the predominantly non-Hispanic White neighborhood, the most important contributors were all related to the physical infrastructure of walking. In contrast, respondents from the predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood showed a greater inclination toward attributes of the social environment, such as social interaction, community identity, and safety.
The Tucson study is not the only one to highlight the importance of social environment in walkability, but it does serve to sharpen the focus on incorporating consideration of cultural and ethnic perspectives in planning:
While the built environment is clearly a critical component of walkability, built environment-only approaches for assessing neighborhood walkability, or a failure to recognize how social and physical dimensions may interact, can result in investments that fail to address underlying barriers in a community that are preventing residents from walking. In such a situation this may lead to a disconnect between city and community priorities and, especially in areas where residents are concerned about gentrification and economic displacement, may result in a sense that such investment is being made for future residents.