Friday, June 14, 2024

The Bluebikes system hit 20 million rides this week, with more than half those trips in the past five years – a milestone that shows an incredible demand for transportation alternatives. Bluebikes is a flexible bike-share system that allows people to pick up and drop off a bike at any of its many stations across the area. Users pay per trip, by the day or with a monthly or annual subscription, and subsidized subscriptions are available to low-income residents, Harvard and MIT affiliates and via many local employers.

Investments in the system have grown the number of stations from 155 in 2016 to almost 500 today, with 80 locations in Cambridge. This growth in locations has created a “network effect”: By building a more complete network, it has become more useful and induced more ridership.

A massive increase in ridership

The number of annual rides in Cambridge has increased by 50 percent since 2019 (despite the temporary dip from the pandemic), and has tripled since 2016. In real numbers, almost 1.8 million rides started and/or ended in Cambridge last year:

In absolute numbers, this is making a serious impact on transportation in Cambridge. Many of those rides are undoubtedly replacing motor vehicle trips, whether in a personal vehicle or ride share such as Uber or Lyft. By providing this infrastructure, Cambridge and other area cities have enabled residents to choose a healthier and sustainable transportation option millions of times.

An alternative to bike ownership

Owning a bike is more flexible than Bluebikes; for example, parents transporting small children need a fixed child seat, a trailer or perhaps a cargo bike. And Bluebikes requires stations near an origin and destination. Bluebikes does have benefits over bike ownership, though:

  • Low-cost transportation: There is no need to buy a bike, and membership cost is comparable to maintaining a personal bike. This is vastly cheaper than car ownership.
  • No need to worry about bike parking: Bluebikes remove the potential for weather damage and theft, and don’t require storage in an office or apartment.
  • One-way trips: Bluebikes provide flexibility for one-way trips, which can complement transit or walking.

While Bluebikes and bike ownership have somewhat different tradeoffs, at least one major constraint is shared: the need for safety.

Safety as a network effect

While Cambridge has fewer than 20 percent of Bluebikes stations, more than 45 percent of system rides started or ended in Cambridge last year – and this is just a fraction of the people riding bikes across and within the city. People are likely also choosing to ride Bluebikes in Cambridge due to the excellent progress made to improve safety. Most notably, the Cycling Safety Ordinance is installing separated bicycle lanes along the most dangerous roads in the city.

Beyond its primary goal of providing safer streets for current riders, the Cycling Safety Ordinance helps increase ridership by removing a critical barrier to bike use. If a route is too dangerous – or just feels dangerous – fewer people will bike; if a rider or someone they know has a close call, they may be discouraged from biking in the future. Conversely, safer biking infrastructure such as separated bike lanes removes this barrier, encouraging more people to ride.

Network effects apply to safety infrastructure as well: a half-safe route is better than nothing, but the barriers caused by unsafe conditions are only truly removed once the whole route is safe, end-to-end. This is why the Cycling Safety Ordinance aims to build a complete network of separated bicycle lanes, allowing safer travel between all major destinations in the city.

Encouraging even more

The city continues to install more Bluebikes stations across Cambridge; the public can weigh in where they’d like a station using an online suggestion map. There is also research underway on how to add e-bikes to the mix, which would significantly increase the useful range of Bluebikes, especially given the 30- or 45-minute ride time limits (depending on membership plan).

At the same time, the city continues its rollout of separated bicycle lanes as a way to make biking safer. Working together, these two infrastructure investments will encourage even more people to ride, helping reduce traffic congestion, freeing up parking spots and reducing local air pollution and carbon emissions.


The author is a member of the Cambridge Bicycle Safety group.