Photo by Bjorn1101 on Flickr.

Capital Bikeshare has been extremely successful, and the result is that many riders can’t find a bike or an empty dock during peak times. In many areas, DDOT has prioritized making existing stations larger. Is this better than adding more, smaller stations?

New stations cost significantly more than just adding docks to a station, and adding a station also requires finding a suitable site. However, new stations decrease the distance people have to travel to find a bike or station, and increase the convenience of the system as a whole. What’s this worth?

There’s a big cost difference between expanding versus adding stations. According to Arlington’s Capital Bikeshare contract, expanding a station by 12 docks and 6 bikes costs $13,070, plus installation costs, while a new station with 11 docks and 6 bikes costs $36,209 plus installation.

Are 12 docks at a new station somewhere nearby worth about 3 times the value of adding those 12 docks to a “mega-station?” Possibly.

There are two reasons adding additional docks to a high-traffic neighborhood in the form of new stations instead of tacking them on to existing stations might be worth the extra money: increased customer convenience, and the potential to ease rebalancing needs.

Empty or full stations are inevitable at times. The more this happens, though, the more inconvenience it creates for users. If a customer comes to a full station with their bike and has to go another 5 blocks only to retrace their steps and walk another 2 blocks to their end destination, it won’t be long before they give up Capital Bikeshare as a primary, reliable mode of transportation.

Of course, spreading docks among more, smaller stations rather than one mega-station doesn’t make them less likely to be full. If 30 docks fill up at a single station, 3 clustered stations with 10 docks will probably fill up just as much, and cost more to build.

But having the 3 smaller stations gives members or potential members a shorter walk to the nearest station, making the system more valuable for everyone.

Higher station density and more new stations will undoubtedly attract new users and with them new revenue. At the same time, with strategic planning, closer stations can reduce the frequency and cost of rebalancing bikes throughout the day.

If there are 5 stations within a 3 block radius, a couple stations can be full or empty and as long as the other stations have bikes or docks, the system maintains its usability and convenience for people coming or going from that vicinity.

Currently, if the Dupont Circle station fills up or empties out, Alta has to dispatch someone pretty much immediately to rebalance, since the dearth of other immediately nearby stations will make it a huge inconvenience.

With tight station clusters in activity centers, Bikeshare could more easily monitor “levels of inconvenience” to prioritize rebalancing. If a primary station is full but there are some docks available at nearby stations, that poses only a mild inconvenience and can receive a lower priority for rebalancing.

If the biggest station is full and several of the surrounding stations are too, leaving docks available at only 1 or 2 stations in the area, that would be a medium inconvenience, and should be rebalanced sooner, meaning it might preempt another mild inconvenience situation. If all of the stations in a neighborhood were completely full, that would be a major inconvenience and require rebalancing as soon as possible.

Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

As the system continues to grow in popularity, adding more stations in activity centers is inevitable. In some of the most popular neighborhoods, it will be virtually impossible for DDOT to build single stations that are large enough that they always have a bike or empty dock available.

It’s difficult to measure whether the extra costs of new stations outweigh their benefits. What’s more, beyond the cost of the station capital, each new site has to be planned, measured for size and sunlight, vetted with the community, and permitted. This process also has costs.

Eventually, though, DDOT will run into space constraints for these stations anyway, making it impossible to expand any further. While there is significant extra cost to adding new stations versus simply expanding those already in place, in the long run, the system would reap benefits. The ultimate question is whether we should prioritize expansion efforts on increasing density or increasing coverage.