A fragmented BABS is bad for the region

UPDATE: Bay Area Bike Share has confirmed that you can, indeed, dock bikes between any participating city. It’s unclear why Peter Colijn was unable to dock his bike.

UPDATED UPDATE: Well, the BABS website has been updated saying that San Francisco and the rest of the system are separate, in that you can’t bike from SF to other parts of the system, nor vice versa. But if you wanted to, say, bike from San Jose to Mountain View, you could dock your bike.

It took less than a week for an intrepid bicyclist to decide it was time to ride a Bay Area Bike Share (BABS) bike from San Francisco to Mountain View. Given our region’s strong corps of Bicyclists, it was only a matter of time, really.

But when the bicyclist, Peter Colijn, got to Mountain View, he couldn’t dock his bike. It seems BABS has set up not just different clusters of stations, but different systems altogether, where bikes from different clusters won’t dock at another cluster’s stations. This does not bode well for BABS.

As BABS expands, the clusters will get close enough that users could easily ride from one to the other.  By splitting what purports to be a unified system into chunks, riders won’t be able to do what it clearly seems like they should be able to do: ride across city lines. It will make rebalancing more difficult in the future, too, as the bikes won’t be interchangeable with one another.

There is a simpler reason why this is a bad idea: people will do dumb and unusual things with BABS, and splitting the system up will exacerbate the consequences.

As a long-time observer of Washington, DC’s Capital Bikeshare (CaBi) program, which uses the same technology as BABS, I can say that I’ve seen just about everything. People take out their bikes for the day, lock them to bike racks, take them on the Metro, bring them into the office, and all sorts of other things you definitely shouldn’t do with a bike share bike. (CaBi has assured me and others in DC that they are very willing to cut overage fees, especially for bikes out more than 24 hours, when people didn’t understand the system.)

The same thing will happen in the San Francisco Bay Area. People will take the bikes on Caltrain, do long-distance group rides, and other things that will cost them a great deal in overage charges, often unwittingly. If users can’t dock their bikes in different cities, they’ll get double pain. Not only will they get hit with overage fees, but they’ll be stranded with the wrong bike in the wrong area.

I suspect BABS separated the systems to make rebalancing easier. There’s no way for a cluster’s bikes to migrate away from it, so each city keeps its “fair share” of bikes. But this doesn’t account for users’ creativity or lack of knowledge about the system.

BABS should give people allowance to do things outside how they want users to ideally use their system. Let the hardcore cyclists do their marathon runs and brag about them on Strava – it’s free publicity! Let the inexperienced and the tourist take the bikes on Caltrain or ride them from San Jose to Mountain View. It would be easier to pick up bikes that people ride to the “wrong” place on BABS’ own time than to force innocent users to travel all the way back to wherever they came from. It would certainly beat the bad the publicity of an angry customer who, quite understandably, thought that all BABS stations were the same.

I have an email out to BAAQMD, BABS’ manager, to find out which clusters are interoperable and which aren’t. A comment on Cyclicious says Palo Alto and Mountain View bikes are interoperable, but I don’t know anything beyond that. See update above.

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About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

8 Responses to A fragmented BABS is bad for the region

  1. Franz Listen says:

    Devil’s Advocacy from somebody who is not intimately familiar with BABS – In car sharing programs, you are generally expected to return the car back to where you picked it up. Nobody seems to have a big problem with that. There is already a cost (not to mention, an air quality impact) for vans and trucks to “rebalance” bikes within a limited urban area. To have a unified system across a 50 mile stretch including SF and San Jose is akin to expecting a bike in DC to be able to dock in Baltimore and for it to get rebalanced if necessary by being driven back to DC in a van. Isn’t there a serious cost to that ?

    • Ciley Myrus says:

      Um, the whole linchpin of the system is dropping a bike off at another station.
      That’s why it exists.
      Maybe you should get intimately familiar with BABS before you comment.

      • Franz Listen says:

        Yes, fine, people can take their bikes to another dock and leave them. Still, the distribution of bikes does not automatically come into perfect balance. Some docks may routinely lose bikes while others will routinely gain. This is why the program requires professional re-balancers. While a trip from SF to MV might be rare, as the program fills in on the Peninsula, there may be lots more trips that cross the SF line. It is not inevitable that if somebody rides from Burlingame to SF, then someone is surely to ride from SF to Burlingame to balance it all out again. That’s wishful thinking. Consequently, rebalancing may be necessary at whatever the geographic scale is of the “open” system. The larger that area, the greater the potential cost involved. This is not a trivial “academic” question for someone whose job is to manage the program or if you are a member of the public who pays for the program’s operating costs.
        http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/dr-gridlock/wp/2013/08/02/the-army-behind-capital-bikeshares-rebalancing/

    • John Murphy says:

      Car sharing programs are designed to let you use a car for errands, such that you can live without a car where general transport can be done via transit or bike, but you might want access to a car to go get 10 sacks of groceries.

      Bike sharing programs are designed to let you use a bike to get from point A to point B and be done with it.

      One of the biggest differences between a bike share program and a car share program allows this is that you can drop down a rack for 20-30 bikes pretty much anywhere. Can you imagine any space in downtown SF that we could allocate 30 parking spots for share cars? Let alone *several* places to allocate 30 parking spots.

      Peter riding the bike share bike to Mountain View was a stunt. His own bike is a nice road bike that he rides from SF to MV every day. Nobody who doesn’t already own a bike like that is suddenly going to get an epiphany because of bike share, sign up, and ride a BABS bike from SF to MV.

      These are interesting academic (euphemism for “geek”) problems but even with a completely open docking system, the amount of bikes that will migrate from one city to another might top out a 2-3 per month. And most of those will be matched with a return trip later by the same user.

  2. Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog San Francisco

  3. ladyfleur says:

    So one guy has a problem docking a bike and we’re jumping to conclusions? Maybe something went wrong with that one bike that one day. I have heard reports from people exchanging bikes between Palo Alto and Mountain View without any problems. The SF2G is likely a temporary glitch than a design decision.

  4. Ken says:

    BABS has changed their FAQ. http://bayareabikeshare.com/faq
    “All San Francisco bicycles must stay within San Francisco. However, members may use non-San Francisco Bay Area Bike Share bicycles to travel to other cities that are part of the Bay Area Bike Share network.”

  5. If you missed it, the updated word from BAAQMD is that the two “clusters” are San Francisco and everywhere else. So bikes and docks in SF won’t work with docks and bikes from the Peninsula, but all the Peninsula/Silicon Valley bikes are interchangeable.

    This makes sense from a rebalancing perspective, just as Franz argued. I still think it is on the whole a bad idea, given that eventually the two systems will probably meet in the middle, but that’s what we have for now.

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