Bikeshare and share alike: where (and why) to saddle up

There’s a lot of excitement in the air about the upcoming launch of Bay Area Bike Share. The new system goes live Aug. 29, starting with 700 bikes and 70 stations in San Francisco, San Jose, Redwood City, Palo Alto and Mountain View.

One person who is anticipating the launch is Susan Shaheen of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies, who co-directs the institute’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center and is an adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Susan Shaheen

Susan Shaheen

As part of her work on emerging shared-use transportation modes, Shaheen has spent eight years studying bikesharing systems worldwide. A “very hands-on person,” as she calls herself, she’s also been intimately involved in launching pilot programs, such as bike- and Segway-sharing, smart parking for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations, and two previous carsharing programs, with a new one set to launch in September.

The NewsCenter sat down recently with Shaheen to get her unique perspective on bikesharing and the rapidly changing state of transportation alternatives.

How did you come to be a transportation researcher with bikesharing and related systems as your focus?

Early on in my career, I knew I wanted to be involved in the nexus of energy, the environment and technology innovation. And because I’m particularly interested in technologies and systems that could result in a lower impact on the environment, I did my dissertation on carsharing (short-term access to a vehicle fleet), which is part of a larger phenomenon we call “shared-use mobility,” and is also more popularly known as “collaborative consumption” or the “sharing economy.”

Many people have been thinking about sharing resources — not just in mobility but in other areas of life. The online private-rental platform Airbnb is a great example, or Netflix or music sharing. The idea is simple: can we share resources as we did in the past? Do we each have to own everything? Personal cars, for example, sit unused about 98 percent of the time. How can we provide people the convenience and flexibility of auto access, without ownership?

How, ideally, would shared-use modes fit into the larger transportation ecosystem?

As people move through their life stages, they would have a greater range of mobility options available, which could enable them be less auto dependent or even car free, if that’s what they choose. Before entering college, teens could rideshare with friends; they are already doing this on Craig’s List. And when in college, they could carshare, rideshare, and bikeshare, instead of bringing a car to campus.

When couples start to have children, they could have access to other mobility options in more suburban locations, such as peer-to-peer carsharing (shared use of a privately-owned vehicle) or fractional ownership of a car — so instead of owning two cars, they could have one plus, one shared with the neighbors. And as people age and are living on a fixed incomes, they might eliminate the fixed costs of a car by taking public transit and accessing a shared-use vehicle fleet.


Bay Area Bike Share how-to: users can purchase a 24-hour, three-day or annual membership.

In studying bikesharing worldwide, you’ve written about three “generations” of systems, starting in 1965 in Amsterdam with 50 white bikes left unlocked around the city. Today there are about 550 programs operating in cities around the world, and the model has changed a lot. Could you talk about the evolution of bikesharing?

First-generation bikesharing systems, which demonstrated the concept of a shared bike fleet, came first, but they failed, in part, because people could not rely on them for daily mobility. Where is the bike located? Will it be there when an individual needs it for tripmaking? Next we moved into “second-generation” coin-deposit systems about 30 years later in Copenhagen, Denmark, which had designated docking stations. This quickly moved into the third (just three years after coin-deposit systems were launched) in Rennes, France, which includes the information technology-based systems that employ IT to manage reservations, pick-up, drop-off and information tracking. It is with IT, where we saw the most rapid increase in bikesharing and carsharing systems.

It’s your view that smartphone-enabled apps give bikeshare and other shared-use modes a much better shot at success?

Absolutely. The Internet and apps enable us to take a car, bike, scooter or a parking space and allow it to be instantly shared and linked to other modes, like public transit. The full integration of these modes is still a work in progress, but it is being discussed more now and implemented in more locations. Essentially, access to real-time information facilitates a new range of innovative services, which are becoming part of the transportation landscape, including bikesharing and carsharing.

What have you learned about who’s using bikeshare and how?

We’ve found that’s there’s essentially two main user groups: subscriber members (who are easier to study because you have an online profile) and casual, unregistered users, who often use bikesharing for recreation or tourism. The latter we are finding to be in the majority.

bikeshare station in Italy

Bikeshare station in Rome.

Our research has shown about 40 to 55 percent of bikesharing subscribers are using it to commute to work or school. This is an exciting finding, as it means that people are relying on the service for essential trips, like commuting. It’s logical that people would use a bike for recreation, but to see bikesharing being adopted for the commute is notable. This also reflects the reliability and convenience of the service because it is being used for critical trips.

What’s your take on the launch of Bay Area Bike Share?

I’m really excited. This will be the first large-scale bikesharing system on the West Coast. And the Transportation Sustainability Research Center will be involved in research to evaluate how it’s going, safety impacts, and travel behavior. We’ll be taking a group of students out next spring to interview casual users of the system at docking stations.

In the meantime you have another big project in the offing, right?

Yes. We are very enthusiastic about the Shared-Use Mobility Summit we’re putting on in San Francisco Oct. 10 and 11. It will feature the three sectors of shared-use mobility — carsharing, bikesharing and ridesharing, as well as other emerging sharing options (e.g., Lyft, Sidecar, InstantCab, Uber). To my knowledge all these modes have never been brought together in the U.S., under one roof, to discuss where shared-use mobility is headed. We’ll also be discussing key policy issues with transportation leaders from major cities and the federal government.

What’s UC Berkeley’s role in the shared-use mobility summit?

We’re playing a leadership role in developing and hosting it. We think this is a good role for academia — gathering all of these parties and facilitating a focused discussion about the future of transportation, particularly as some of these new transportation services are rather disruptive. Key questions include whether or not some of these services will be allowed to operate and how existing frameworks might be modified to include them.

In the years that you’ve been in the field, how has the transportation landscape, and transportation research, changed?

There’s so much to be fascinated by in transportation today. I started studying transportation in 1993, and the space I research is noticeably different now. Around 2010, I felt something was changing in shared-use mobility. Many new services were being developed, more transportation entrepreneurs were involved, and developments started to move much faster, Also, there is a lot more discussion of these innovative approaches, including the sharing economy, in the media.

It’s an exciting time in transportation research and an exciting time for the Bay Area. One of the reasons we wanted to hold the Shared-Use Mobility Summit in San Francisco is that so much transportation innovation has come from the Bay Area. And UC Berkeley is on the forefront of studying shared use.

Related information:  Susan Shaheen’s ITS webpage, with links to published research