Hacking Seattle’s Bike Share, Part 1: Hills and rain

This is part one of a series looking at the first year of usage data from Pronto Cycle Share. Pronto organized a “data challenge,” and the submissions they received go deeper than you might expect.

Did you know there are hills in Seattle? And did you also know it rains here kinda often?

It’s true, and there are bike naysayers who say investing in biking is pointless because people won’t bike up hills or in the rain. And sure, these are certainly factors in whether people choose to make a trip by bike, but there are still a whole lot of people who are not deterred.

Jake Vanderplas, a West Seattle safe streets advocate and very smart person, entered a lengthy analysis of Pronto trip data that earned him the “Most Insightful” award in the organization’s recent Data Challenge. And he found that both hills and weather affected bike share trips just about how you would expect.

But first, we have to separate two kinds of users: Annual members use bike share like a typical transportation system, so you see more traditional commute patterns with peaks during the morning and evening rush hours. If it’s a weekday, the vast majority of riders are members using the bikes for “regular” transportation.

On the other hand, short term pass holders are more likely to be making a non-commute trip, and many of them are probably visitors or locals giving the system a try. On a weekend, the majority of trips are made by short-term users.

hourly_trendIt makes sense that short-term pass holders would not follow a commute pattern, since the system’s membership pricing structure heavily incentivizes buying a membership if you like using the system. At $85 for a whole year, you make your money back after only eleven days of use.

Weather

temperatureprecipitationTemperature is a bit of a tricky issue, especially for short-term rentals. After all, warmer months are also summer vacation months, so it’s a little hard to know exactly where the temperature effect on trips ends and the time-of-year effect begins. But in general, there are few surprises here. People take more trips when it’s warm out. People take fewer trips when it’s rainy. But outliers aside (like major storms), a lot of people bike even on cold and rainy days.

Annual members are more likely to bike through bad weather, but someone is more likely to think twice about spending $8 to bike in the rain. That also makes sense.

Hills

Annual members have also figured out that they don’t need to bike round trip. That means there are a bunch of downhill bike share trips that don’t come back up the hill (perhaps they just walk, take the bus or ride share?). In fact, 63 percent of annual member trips are downhill. This also makes sense, and Pronto knew this was going to happen. That’s why they have staff rebalance the system by driving bikes from overloaded stations to mostly empty ones.

But what surprised me is that short-term pass holders are much less likely to bike downhill without returning their bikes back uphill. Only 44 percent of these trips are downhill, and a much larger share of them are “flat trips,” often round trip rides that return a bike to the station it came from. This fits with, for example, a bike ride from the cruise terminal to Myrtle Edwards Park and back.

elevationHowever, more than a third of trips are uphill. So don’t believe people when they say people won’t bike uphill. There were 140,000 trips in the system’s first year, so that’s about 47,000 uphill bike trips. That’s not too shabby.

And this brings us to another entry in the Data Challenge by Bailey Harper and Chris “Feckless” Jambor, who have some interesting ideas for how to help correct this pattern.

One easy way, which has also been tossed around previously on this blog, is a time bonus for biking uphill. They found that every 100 feet of elevation gain adds about 2 minutes. A mile biking uphill adds 11 minutes, and uphill trips take 18 minutes longer than the average trip systemwide. Since overage charges kick in after 30 minutes, the pricing structure actually incentivizes NOT biking uphill. So what if uphill trips got 15 minutes added automatically? This could, for example, give enough time to bike from UW to Capitol Hill, a trip that currently you can only really make in time if you are headed downhill.

But Bailey and Chris go a step further, suggesting that Pronto could create a game out of it. What if you won stuff for biking uphill enough? Users could receive, say, a free 24-hour guest pass once they bike 605 feet uphill (the height of the Space Needle). Prizes can scale up and up until you get to, say, Mount Rainier at 14,409 feet, when you win a free membership for your next year. After all, at that point you have effectively rebalanced 35 bikes, which provides the system value. The numbers may need to be higher or subtract your downhill trips, I don’t know exactly. But it’s certainly worth exploring. This could also be turned into a fun marketing opportunity.

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8 Responses to Hacking Seattle’s Bike Share, Part 1: Hills and rain

  1. jay says:

    Tom wrote: “uphill trips take 18 minutes longer than the average trip systemwide. “…” So what if uphill trips got 15 minutes added automatically? ”
    Um, while that would help, wouldn’t 18 minutes be better? or how about a another 30 minutes (or even an hour or two). In successful bike shares they limit the time so that bikes are available for other users, but on the average a Pronto bike is used by a little less than one person per day , so other than Pronto desperately needing the overtime charges from the tourists, there is little reason to limit the time at all. Well, sure, the usage is not even, no doubt some bike do get used several times a day and others sit for weeks without being used, so one wouldn’t want to give totally unlimited time on the “popular” bikes, but still, an hour probably wouldn’t hurt availability much, well, other than the fact that it might make the system more popular.
    I have read that some (rare) PBS systems have locks on the bikes so people can make stop at other than designated stations. Give people a lock and an hour or two and you have an effective huge expansion of the system for some uses at almost no cost. Of course there would be serous limits to that, wouldn’t do commuters any good, even with <1 use bike/day we can't let people keep the bikes overnight. But, if someone could go to lunch or run some other errand outside the current station coverage it could make the system more popular. Yes, that could be a vicious cycle, if more people want to ride the bikes then you'd need to have them available, but still, probably a better problem to have than the current abject failure. (that was hyperbole, by Melbourne standards Pronto is doing OK, and it is not even fair to compare it with Citi bike, Vélib', Hangzhou Public Bicycle etc.)
    As long as we are comparing systems, it seems Copenhagen has a bike share with e-bikes (top assisted speed 22kn/hr ~13.6mph) that have GPS and other high tech stuff and allow temporary stops at other than designated stations. In fact, as far as usage is concerned, Pronto looks pretty good compared to them. Because, of course, to an even larger degree than Seattle, people who want to ride a bike have a bike, and mostly tourists use the bike share.
    I suppose it would sound a lot better to say Proto is comparable to Bycyklen than to compare it to Melbourne, but there is that elephant that Seattle has in common with Melbourne but not, of course, with Copenhagen. In fact one will not even see that word at http://bycyklen.dk/en/how-to/

    Well, damn, I always do that, I come up with something I think is witty and then I poke holes in it myself. For PBS "go big or go home" is a valid point, in September Bycyklen had about 1000 bikes, twice as many as Pronto, but only about 22,000 riders, probably worse per bike than Pronto, and probably very few of these riders had an elephant on their head, but they were probably riding on world class bike infrastructure, so, compared to that, Pronto's performance is a F-ing Miracle! (cough, Vélib', cough)

  2. asdf2 says:

    About a year ago, I actually tried taking Pronto from The U-district up to Capitol Hill, and made it in exactly 29 minutes. The thought that if I were just a little bit slower, I would have had to pay for the privilege of re-balancing their bikes for them was just crazy.

    Also, if there is, in fact, a peak usage period during rush hour, an additional 15 minutes grace period per trip during the off-peak hours might be a nice gesture.

  3. asdf2 says:

    It should also be noted that the $85 annual membership is actually $93, after sales tax. Is there a particular reason out there why Pronto riders are charged sales tax, but Uber riders are not?

  4. TimF says:

    As a daily Bus/bike commuter I can say my motivation is time rather than contests or discounts. I rode Pronto from downtown to SLU daily until I discovered an express bus a 15 minute walk from my house (no Pronto here), so now I put my personal bike on the bus. It’s a pain, and Pronto would be faster for such a short ride if available at both ends (2 miles combined). I do think the grace period should be extended to 45 minutes, but that’s more to avoid soaking first-time users (esp. low-income) and tourists, which is bad PR. Bike share rides have a sweet spot at or below 15 minutes. After that a traditional commuter bike or a bus is probably more effective.

  5. Gary says:

    As an Orca pass holder, I can’t justify an $8 charge to ride a bike for 30 minutes to run an errand. A 15 minute ride is easily walkable, a 30 minute ride is bus-able, hence I never rent one. And since I already bike to work, I don’t need more biking for exercise. So for me, the cost has to come down for a day pass. As a tourist, I’m not as frugal. In part because I don’t travel much in comparison to every other day, and in part because I’d consider it entertainment and if I overpay for some thing in a strange city, I don’t really care. I probably already overpaid for my meals, the hotel, etc, what’s another $20 for me an my partner to go for a ride.

  6. merlin says:

    I love the bonus for biking uphill, whether time or money or some combination. And how about a bad-weather incentive too?

    • Tim F says:

      How about electric bikes and a 45-minute free period like Birmingham’s new Zyp system: https://www.zypbikeshare.com/ At about $8 a month for yearly users, there’s not much room for paying uphill incentives, but electric bikes might help pay for themselves by avoiding some rebalancing costs.

  7. Wells says:

    I’ll wait for several specific bikeway routes east/west, up/down hills, from north to south districts that substantially and intuitively complete a citywide design. The ‘longer’ distance bike routes and connections may address hillclimb disincentives
    by making the longer bike trip faster at speeds saving time and enjoyable.

    Otherwise and just personally, I have zero respect for
    the Seattle transportation planning community overall.
    Bertha will destroy Seattle amplifying earthquake effects.
    Duh. Yor so smrt, yo do no wah, sincerely boys and girls.
    Your highway department hates liberals and doesn’t care.
    SDOT is a clever confidence crew, never making mistakes.
    1st Ave streetcar is dangerous. and a 4th/5th Couplet safer/better.
    Plan B for Bertha (on record at Wsdot) use it or lose it. :^/

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