Dockblocked! Photo by urbanbohemian on Flickr.

If Capital Bikeshare’s new Reverse Rider Rewards program doesn’t end up improving bike availability, the next step might include a small fee for rush hour trips to or from the busiest stations.

Capital Bikeshare deserves credit for listening to the suggestions of its users and beginning an incentive program that offers some hope for users frustrated with the system’s rush hour redistribution woes. The contest complements the addition of another van for redistribution and an upcoming system expansion in improving the network’s reliability.

But no matter how many docks are added, how many vans are shuttling bikes through rush hour traffic, or how many rewards are offered to reverse riders, there is still a significant risk that rush hour bike rebalancing problems will continue to plague the system.

It might be time for a cost structure that accounts for times of peak demand and charges a small fee for the highest-demand trips.

The solutions already being implemented to help with rush hour rebalancing have their drawbacks, and there’s no guarantee they will cure the system of rush hour woes.

What’s already being done

A common belief is that expanding the system will help alleviate rebalancing problems. Although system expansion should be undertaken so more bikes become more convenient to more people, a larger system will do little to change the underlying rush hour pattern that’s been established.

For proof, look at cities that already have larger systems. London’s bikeshare network is five times larger than Capital Bikeshare, yet some of that system’s busiest stations are staffed during rush hour to keep docks constantly available. This requires lots of staff time, and as a result the system operator has cut back on staffed stations. The underlying problem, a Transport for London spokesperson told the Evening Standard, is that “the scheme was not designed for commuters.”

Another solution is adding more vans and staff to redistribute the bikes. Capital Bikeshare has already added an additional van to move bikes around, but having extra staff to redistribute bikes during peak periods is both costly and inefficient.

Bikeshare systems are, to the maximum extent feasible, designed to be self-balancing; users circulate the bikes throughout the system to keep it running smoothly. Redistribution by staff should be used sparingly. As Richard Layman pointed out in this site’s comments, heavy reliance on redistribution vans, which get stuck in rush hour traffic just when the demand for redistribution is highest, “is a sign of failure, not success.”

In addition, the Reverse Rider Rewards program is structured as a contest, not as an incentive program. As a result, if you are not in the running to win a prize, you have little incentive to participate in bike redistribution. This leaves the rewards program with a few “superusers” who will end up doing most of the work.

This is exactly what happened with the Winter Weather Warrior contest. While that contest was great for getting the press to pay attention to the fact that the system was being used year-round, only those at the top of the leaderboard had much incentive to participate.

Unlike the Winter Weather Warrior contest, which counted all trips over 5 minutes, the Reverse Rider program rewards only those trips being made during a two-hour window each day, in the opposite direction of the vast majority of trips. Even if the Reverse Rider program were restructured to encourage participation among more than just the top users, there is a small pool of people who would be willing and able to participate to begin with.

Moving a significant number of the system’s bikes on a regular basis each weekday will require more than just a few superusers.

Why a rush hour fee? How would it work?

One of the drawbacks of Bikeshare’s current “all you can eat” pricing scheme is that once a user purchases a membership, there is little disincentive for using Capital Bikeshare as a primary mode of daily travel to work downtown from nearby neighborhoods.

On Metrorail, the limited utilization of “all you can eat” pricing for commuters reduces the incentive for off-peak Metrorail use, because those trips come at an additional cost. Bikeshare has the opposite problem, where there is no additional cost to peak hour travel, resulting in bike shortages.

Any rush hour surcharge should be narrowly focused on three factors to have the most positive benefit on bike availability: location, time, and cost.

As part of its Reverse Rider Rewards program, Capital Bikeshare has already identified the downtown stations that could form the basis of a surcharge initiative. Because the rewards program applies only during the morning rush hour, Bikeshare has identified these as “Typically Full Stations.” Because a surcharge program would apply during both morning and evening rush hours, let’s call these “high demand stations.”

“Typically full” stations in the Reverse Rider Rewards program are in black. Many rush hour trips to or from these stations would be subject to a small surcharge under a pricing program.

Capital Bikeshare has chosen 8-10 am for the Reverse Rider Rewards program. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the charge would only apply during those hours and the equivalent evening rush period, 4-6 pm.

If a user ends a trip at a high demand station during the morning rush hours, her account account would be charged. If she begins a trip at a high demand station during the evening rush hours, she would also be charged.

However, trips where both the origin and destination are high demand stations would not be subject to the charge. This is because moving a bicycle between high demand locations does not significantly affect the overall availability of bikes at high demand stations. The same principle applies for trips between low demand stations, which would also be exempt from any charge.

The most effective price should signal to those who use Bikeshare for everyday commuting that using their own bicycles for rush hour travel would be more cost effective. With a fee of 75 cents or $1 per trip, many users would decide against paying up to $2 each day for a round-trip ride they could take for free on their own bikes.

For most members, this low fee is not a barrier to occasional rush hour use when the need arises. Because it would remain less expensive than all other transit options, such as bus or Metrorail, this price point also does not impose an excessive cost on those for whom Bikeshare is the optimal mode.

Hurdles and drawbacks

Currently, fees from Capital Bikeshare are assessed silently. Users don’t know how much they owe until they receive a statement. For a rush hour surcharge to be effective, however, it must be visible at the point of sale. For example, the District’s bag fee, though small at only 5 cents, has had a significant impact on bag consumption because shoppers are asked at check-out whether they are willing to pay a fee for a bag. At the other extreme is Metro’s peak-of-the-peak surcharge, where many users swipe their SmarTrip cards without having to confront the extra cost they are incurring.

For a rush hour fee to work on Capital Bikeshare, users must be made aware of the extra cost immediately before they check out a bike. There are creative ways to do this. A sticker could be attached to the top of each dock at stations where the charge is in effect, so all users are informed before they pull out a bike. Smartphone application Spotcycle could sport a banner notifying users of the charge during rush hours. On bike availability maps, high demand station icons could change to a different color when the charge is in effect to notify users before they use a bike.

If there is less rush-hour demand for bikes during colder months or inclement weather, the charge could be suspended to encourage ridership.

The rush hour fee proposal does make the system more complex, especially for casual users. However, tourists aren’t likely to be affected by the morning charges because few of them will be riding bikes downtown from Columbia Heights and Capitol Hill at 8:30 am. Fees incurred during the evening rush hour might be more of an issue for visitors. Even then, $1 is not a hefty charge for infrequent users, many of whom already incur larger charges for keeping bikes longer than 30 minutes.

A major risk is that a rush hour fee might reduce total ridership numbers during peak hours. Although smaller numbers might not look good as a measure of the system’s success, there is a silver lining to this cloud. By making it easier to get a bike during the busiest hours, the system becomes more more reliable. This encourages more people to buy memberships, because they will have confidence that a bike will be available when they need one.

Astute readers will know that this concept is called congestion pricing. It isn’t just for bikes; it’s a concept that can also be applied to congested downtown streets and overburdened on-street parking to make transportation more predictable during the busiest hours.

While there is no silver bullet to solving congestion problems during times of peak demand, a nominal fee is one tool of many that can help shift behavior and make Capital Bikeshare a more reliable, more useful service.