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What Real-Time Data Tells Us About The Future Of Bike Sharing Around The World

Helmet rules kill bike sharing, Moscow residents are surprising cycling fans, and other lessons learned by the man compiling 3.8 billion records from bike shares around the world.

Oliver O’Brien‘s real-time bike sharing visualizations now cover 106 city projects worldwide (we first wrote about them here). Go to his site, and you can see how schemes from Seoul to Bordeaux are functioning at any moment, down to a single dock.

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Actually, 106 is only about a fifth of the total city bike shares in the world, and his database doesn’t include many large Chinese shares (which make up 17 of the 20 biggest, yet don’t release data reliably). But it’s a fair representation of the phenomenon. We thought we’d ask O’Brien about trends in the data (he’s collected 3.8 billion records so far), and where he sees bike sharing going from here.

Even Bike-Unfriendly Cities Can Share

Bike sharing is doing well even in cities not known for being friendly to cycling, such as Moscow. “Moscow is famous for being grid-locked, and having really aggressive drivers,” O’Brien says. “It’s generally not a nice place to be, if you’re not in a car. Surprisingly, they have very high usage–sometimes nine out of 10 bikes are used at once. In London or New York, you rarely get more than three or four in use at any time.” The city started with 220 (red) bikes in May, but has since expanded to about 1,000.


O’Brien says he’s also been impressed by usage numbers in Rio (where people use bikes to go to the beach), Chicago, and New York. NYC’s CitiBike, which launched this summer, has roughly the same level of ridership as London, despite having half the number of bikes.

Size And Density Are Key To Success

Some projects are sluggish because they’re too spread out, O’Brien says. “Denver is getting more users, but I think they never had enough docking stations over a wide enough area. They have good usage, but it’s sporadic. Minneapolis is the same. They don’t get a big commuter surge.”

Helmet Requirements Kill Bike Sharing

Australian projects, like those in Melbourne and Brisbane, require riders to wear helmets. That’s been a turn-off. “Despite having the same technology as New York and London, those systems have been really quiet unfortunately, because they fine people for not wearing helmets.” Bikes there have been used less than once a day, on average, compared to an international norm of up to eight trips a day. The cities are now giving away free helmets, and Brisbane is considering relaxing the rules in some areas.

Sharing Data Is A Useful Planning Tool

Bike sharing reveals the “hidden geographies” of cities, O’Brien says. He recently analyzed data for New York, finding patterns of behavior throughout the day (see here). During rush hours, the most popular docks are on the east side of Midtown, in the Financial District, and in some parts of north Brooklyn. It’s the sort of information that can help planners make important resourcing decisions. “It’s nice to be able to detect characteristics of neighborhoods across the world, simply by looking at bike data,” O’Brien says.

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Bike Sharing Will Continue Growing

It’s been a break-out summer for U.S. bike-sharing. New York, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area have all launched initiatives. Boston’s has almost doubled in size since launching in 2011, with Washington, D.C. set to do the same in 2013. In total, U.S. bike sharing should grow to 37,000 bikes by the end of this year, according to the Earth Policy Institute. O’Brien says countries like Spain and France are probably at peak-sharing already, having started a few years ago. But he expects the U.S. trend to continue. “Next summer is probably going to be as exciting as this summer. There are a whole bunch of cities that could have systems.”

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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