Bikeshare systems compared, at scale

Similar to the 2004 “Subway systems at the same scale“, from Neil Freeman, now David Yanofsky, at Quartz, goes even further with bikeshare systems and maps 29 of the worlds’ systems, again at scale.

Being point data rather than line data, it’s even harder now to imagine the background topographies that underlie these patterns of dispersion. But it does illustrate some of the key qualities that different systems can exhibit:

Size: Paris leads here, unsurprisingly. As Matt Yglesias recently emphasized, this is key to attractiveness of the system, hence the big starting scale for New York.

Density: Mexico City seems to have highest concentration of bike stations. It’s not clear to me that density of stations matters that much. Density of stalls certainly does, since that’s the essential unique commodity for share-cyclists who are trying to leave off the bike. But does it matter whether there’s one rack with 20 spaces, or two racks of 10 spaces only a block away from each other? When making that decision, street environment issues probably dominate.

Fragmentation: Seoul and several Chinese cities lead here. Without knowing the topographical constrains, this certainly seem as it would threaten the vitality of a bikeshare system. Isolated pockets of bike stations can probably only be justified if they’re near an extremely popular destination that is compatible with bicycling over a distance where no stations are available; and worth taking the risk that there are no mechanical problems along the way, while crossing the sea of no stations.

What I’d really like to see visualized for bikeshare systems is elevation. This, in my own experience, seems to explain many of the problems of bicycle drift that leaves some stands completely full and others completely empty. Different systems have different ways of addressing (or ignoring) this, such as Vélib’s bonus time for those who are willing to pedal up Montmartre to leave the bike. It would be interesting to compare different cities in terms of what elevation challenges they face.

Ethics in Transport Planning, Research Authoring, and Journal Editing

This story has it all. Prof. Bent Flyvbjerg has made a career of tracing the role of power and influence in urban planning, most famously how ostensibly “objective” transport planning analyses, such as traffic forecasting and project cost estimation, can be influenced by political circumstances. Now Prof. Flyvbjerg has published a meta-criticism of the process he underwent getting his work publicized (this issue is not publication) by its publisher, the  Journal of the American Planning Association.

This issue has already set off what promises to be an interesting exchange in urban planning academics’ email lists, but a more comprehensive account can be found in a blog called Retraction Watch. Reading the whole blog entry, we see there’s much more to the story, including not only 1) ethics in urban planning practice and 2) ethics in urban planning publication, but also 3) ethics in scientific authorship — case in point, an article by Prof. Flyvbjerg and his coauthors was recently retracted due to its similarities to an earlier article by the same author.

The punch line is perhaps that there is a tangential link in this story to former-professor Diederik Stapel, perpetrator of one of the most extensive scientific frauds ever known, with nearly 50 social psychology articles based on falsified data.

Why I never lived on Queen Anne Hill

In 2007, when I returned to Seattle after 6 months of guest doctoral studies, my tastes in apartments had changed, influenced by the higher density and smaller living areas in Stockholm, as well as hardwood floors and other features of “older” construction. This basically narrowed the neighborhoods down to Capitol Hill, Ballard, the U District, and Lower Queen Anne.

In the end, I didn’t live in any of these. The reasons are many, of course, but one of the main ones was that bicycling to the University was complicated by the hills, bridges, and other obstacles, and I was dead set on bicycling.

Now Sightline Institute has just followed up their popular WalkScore online tool with a BikeScore tool, which displays both a sort of “generalized bikeability” map of a city, or a destination-specific range of bikeability, indeed taking into account network connectivity and hills. The figure at right shows the 20-minute bicycling range from the University. Indeed, Ballard is well out to the west and Capitol Hill is mostly out to the south. Most interestingly, Lower Queen Anne, which has some quite interesting old apartment buildings, sits right there in the dark corner to the southwest. This matches my mental map of the area, in that Queen Anne — although not so far as the crow flies — is rather inaccessible by bicycle, due to a combination of lake, hill, and Highway 99. Well done, Sightline, you’ve validated my eventual decision to live in Wallingford.

Onboard Auctioning

Just like this blog has been slow to really get off the ground, so has a RyanAir flight in Gothenburg been grounded today after a flight attendant somehow ended up tumbling out of the cabin doorin Swedish as the mobile stairs pulled away, falling three meters and possibly suffering serious injury (no official word on that).

Putting aside the obvious tragedy of the situation, something near the end of the article caught my attention. The reason for the grounding is that the plane can only a limited number of passengers per flight attendant. Now that they’re short one flight attendant, they have to either wait for a replacement, or fly with fewer passengers. Apparently, these passengers have started their own auction to try to sort out who to go with the plane, and who to wait behind: “we are collecting cash contributions among the passengers so that we can encourage enough people to leave the flight, so that we can get underway.”

Of course, this is similar to what airlines already do when they overbook a flight: start offering vouchers, or even cash, until someone agrees to take a later flight. But this is remarkable in that it emerged from the passengers themselves. It would be interesting to learn not only what the final price was, per deferred passenger, but also how the bidding progressed — how much it took to attract the first person, then the second, etc. Direct evidence of the value of travel time at the lower end of the tail!

The Guardian: “How cities fail their cyclists in different ways”

My top go-to news source The Guardian blogs on “How cities fail their cyclists in different ways“. What a great article: rather than highlighting some of the best examples of bicycling infrastructure and policies around the world, Peter Walker shines light on cases where cycling is underserved in fundamental ways. The article takes up both cities where cycling faces seemingly insurmountable challenges (e.g. Hong Kong); cities that seem ripe for a cycling boom that has never emerged (e.g. Auckland).

And why not? From a social (and, indirectly, ecological) sustainability point of view, it could actually be far more important to address these kinds of cases, rather than to make the best (or fairly-good cities, like Stockholm) even better. From a systems-optimization or economic point of view, it is perfectly obvious that one should focus on places where the marginal benefit is the greatest for the marginal cost. Cities where transport problems are severe, like Hong Kong, are where the marginal benefit could be greatest; and cities like Auckland, in which increases could be just around the corner, are where the marginal costs are probably the lowest.

Lines on Maps

It’s been an exciting week for transport news:

That last news is about a new agreement between the City of Stockholm and its suburbs Nacka and Värmdö to carry out a pre-study of an extension of the tunnelbana, or underground, to the fastest-growing corner of the Stockholm metro area, currently served by extensive commuter buses and a very limited, aging commuter rail line, which due to long sections of single track can run at most one train per 20 minutes. This announcement kicks off a new round of enthusiasm from politicians, media, and the general public, continuing several decades of experts and public transport enthusiasts alike (the line is rather fuzzy) drawing lines on maps of exactly where this new extension could go on its way to the southeastern corner of the region.

The new twist today is a proposal by construction firms Skanska and Sweco (in Swedish) to reduce costs by combining the new underground line with the proposed Eastern Link motorway, since both require a new tunnel under Stockholm’s inner harbor.

While the new proposal, shown above left, is intriguing for its efficiency, it’s also noteworthy in its omission of any stop on Södermalm (the south island of the central city) or Hammarby Sjöstad. The only stop between the core and Nacka is at Skansen, a tourist-only destination that is already served by Stockholm’s recently updated #7 tram line. It thus loses two potential benefits: trips from the southeast suburbs to Södermalm, and trips across Södermalm.

The first, trips to Södermalm, are clearly better served by SL’s preferred alignment, shown above right. But what’s interesting is that even that alignment doesn’t do much to help intra-Södermalm trips. This has been an underserved dimension since the tunnelbana was first designed. Characteristic of most radial transport systems, all three lines — as well as the commuter rail line — would be oriented toward the city center, north of the Mälar-Baltic channel (see this map of Stockholm’s inner city).

The origin of the problem is that Stockholm’s tunnelbana has from the beginning been designed as a radial system with elements of spiral curves. In the entire system there are only two intersections between two different lines: T-Centralen, which is truly the city center; and Fridhemsplan, where the Green and Blue lines cross. Fridhemsplan is an excellent example of how the configuration can facilitate trips that don’t go through the city center, shortening those trips and alleviating congestion in T-Centralen. A better example might be the DC Metro, where the three central alignments cross at different stations, creating a central triangle.

Can the tunnelbana configuration in Stockholm be changed to create more transfer points? Not without adding significant distance and tight curves to this new extension of the Blue line.

What about a surface tram line? The planned extension of Tvärbanan will end up at Slussen and head north, just like the tunnelbana. How about buses? Unfortunately, Södermalm’s street grid and turn restrictions make cross-island bus lines extraordinarily circuitous, best exemplified by Bus 66 (see again the same map linked above).

It seems like for the foreseeable future, the best way for Södermalm’s artists, hipsters, youngsters, and the rest of the stereotypical population will be to walk, bicycle, or transfer on buses to get around.

UK to Privatize…no, PrivatiSe Roads

An interesting development in the UK, as PM Cameron proposes to sell some roadways to the private sector. This came to my attention via Chris Bertram, a philosopher at Univ. of Bristol, who sees “the new enclosures as a threat to freedom“, in the sense that many basic freedoms could possibly be curbed, such as rights to assembly, protest, even take photographs.

The contrast between this line of argument to the long-standing economic argument for congestion pricing of roadways, is jarring. The latter holds that trips on a congested roadway carry untaxed externalities, and should therefore not be seen as an intrinsic right, but a service that needs to be regulated to ensure that decisions to travel on the roadway are socially efficient.

This contrast highlights the danger in conflating very different kinds of roadway management issues. In the case of congestion pricing, the targets are usually an urban motorways or arterials with high levels of recurring congestion. Being high-capacity components of the network, such roads are physically separated from dense land uses, acting as trunks that feed smaller roads leading to houses, offices, government buildings, etc.

The point being that these are not good candidates for demonstrations. Where freedoms of expression and congregation are the concern, the priority is usually to be visible, targeting public squares, government and quasi-public buildings, and perhaps particular corporate offices. These, as far as the Guardian article indicates, are not the subject of Cameron’s proposals.

So, can we differentiate between these in a practicable way? The grey area appears when we try to motivate privatization of motorways on the basis of different rights: why is it justifiable to sacrifice motorists’ rights to drive on a roadway, while others’ rights to stand in it are preserved? Perhaps the answer lies in motor vehicle licensing. If the government requires guarantees for personal rights from the roadway operators, while allowing vehicle passage to be privately regulated, then a balance can be struck.

Stockholm’s New (Draft) Bicycle Master Plan

Stockholm has released a draft Cykelplan, describing a set of strategies for further developing the city’s infrastructure to support cycling, with the ultimate goals of improving safety and of increasing the bicycling mode share. I had a chance to hear a bit more about it in detail at a workshop in Kulturhuset, Monday morning.

I’m impressed at the center-right government’s turnabout with regard to certain transport-related policies, both at the municipal and national levels. At the municipal level, this has led to an express commitment to expanding the local bikeway network. Indeed, the draft plan shows an impressive map of the future network, reflecting some serious ambition among city staff.

But reading the document, I became concerned. Perhaps most importantly, there’s surprisingly little in the way of an existing conditions analysis — no maps of land uses, estimated cycle traffic volumes, accidents, key locations for connecting modes of travel, etc. This means that the proposed future network stands out as being either arbitrary or based on implicit knowledge of the city and its cycling problems. Furthermore, there was no inventory of the existing bicycle facilities in neighboring municipalities (the suburban cities). This is quite dangerous for the success of the plan: without providing an adequate motivation for the proposed network in terms of such factors as activities, land use, and the broader transport system, it will be all too easy for future staff and policy-makers to deviate from the plan, potentially sacrificing an important link because they did not understand what made that link important in the first place.

The draft plan seems to be a typical example of planning for a mode of travel in isolation, despite the staff’s valiant efforts to think holistically. I’m still formulating these thoughts into some comments in Swedish, but I’m worried that my real advice for this proposal is that they should take a step back and reflect on how this document is meant to be used, and then ensure that they have included everything that it will need in order to be an effective planning tool.

Joel