The most successful bikeshare systems in the world have dense networks with stations every few blocks, according to bikeshare guru Jon Orcutt. That suggests that as Capital Bikeshare expands, the agency should focus on adding small infill stations rather than adding more docks to make existing stations bigger.

Bikeshare station in Montreal with only seven docks. Photo by the author.

More stations are better

In a recent Streetsblog interview, Orcutt points out there’s a clear (and probably causal) correlation between bikeshare station density and bike usage.  He cites the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy’s (ITDP) bikeshare planning guide, which bluntly states “increasing station density will yield increased market penetration.”

Simply put, systems with denser networks get more riders per bike per day.

That makes sense. Most bikeshare trips cover short distances, so the closer stations are to cyclists’ final destinations, the better. Conversely, it’s a major disincentive if riders have to walk more than a block or two to get to a station, and dockblocking is much more painful when the next closest station is many blocks away instead of right around the corner.

Since there are destinations on every block, the ideal bikeshare network would have stations on every block. That’s probably not practical even in the densest part of the city, but the best bikesharing networks seem to be those that come the closest. ITDP’s guide says to shoot for 10-16 stations per square kilometer.

And though Capital Bikeshare is one of America’s leading bikeshare systems, CaBi and nearly all its American peers lag world leaders in station density. That strongly suggests American bikeshare networks aren’t attracting as many riders as they could.

Image from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

Politics matter, especially in the Washington region

With distinct clusters of stations in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, Capital Bikeshare is one of the most spread out systems in the world. But while that undeniably reduces the number of riders per bike, it clearly benefits CaBi politically, and therefore financially.

We’re lucky in this region to have a strong regional consensus on the benefits of bikesharing. It’s not just something that DC and Arlington do, which the suburbs grudgingly ignore. Alexandria and Montgomery take part. Fairfax and Prince George’s soon will. It’s a regional network that benefits everyone, and everyone has a stake in its success.

So it’s OK to spread stations out into distinct clusters in multiple jurisdictions, or even multiple wards of the same jurisdiction. But within each cluster, a large number of small stations is better than a handful of large ones.

There’s a catch

If smaller stations are better, why does Capital Bikeshare expand existing ones so often, rather than pour those resources into new station locations?

Simple: Because that would cost more.

Bikeshare stations are prefabricated. They come in basically three components: The kiosk section with the map and credit card terminal, snap-on docks, and the bikes themselves.

Each individual bikeshare station needs all three components, including the kiosk section. But expanding an existing station only takes more docks and more bikes, no kiosk. Thus, by expanding existing stations, CaBi reduces the need to buy expensive kiosk components. They can put out slightly more bikes and more docks with fewer, bigger stations.

Peak capacity versus peak access

Maximizing the number of bikes and docks is important too. The key question is whether it’s more important for a bikeshare agency to maximize peak capacity or peak access.

Putting out the most possible docks and bikes at a smaller number of stations makes the system more useful for rush hour commuters, but less useful for other trips. On the flip side, a system with slightly fewer docks but more stations would be less convenient for commuters, but would put more of the city within reach of a station.

Different bikeshare systems might rightly prioritize different expansion models at different times. But Capital Bikeshare is one of the more commute-oriented large systems in the world. It may be time to think about maximizing infill.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado and lives in northeast DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post .