cycling the last mile: an exchange with kyle “one red paper clip” mcdonald

Kyle McDonald, celebrated author of One Red Paper Clip (book, blog), recently had this exchange with me about bicycle access to transit:



I’ve seen some literature around the web that suggests bike sharing networks may reduce transit use somewhat, but I’m curious to your thoughts/insights on how a bike sharing system can be beneficial to extending the local reach of the network, as a transfer. 

I’m in Montreal and have been blown away with the spontaneity afforded byspur-of-the-moment Bixi rides in virtually any direction since the system’s implementation in 2009.  I see people riding to and fro from busy commerical areas and major transit nodes on Bixi bikes all the time, either returning on foot, taxi or transit, depending on the reason of their journey.

I’m following the launch of Citi Bike in NYC and Vancouver’s potential launch (currently fuddled behind helmet law and other problems) very closely.  

Curious to know your thoughts on bike sharing systems and how they interact with transit, and can extend access and local reach of existing services, etc.

In my experience, the 400m walk-to-transit norm is more in the order of 1km or 2km with very dense and well-planned bike share network like Bixi in place. 

Surprised you haven’t done a bikesharing post on Human Transit yet, as I think they’re one of the most exciting and emerging transport technologies for dense urban areas.

Multi-point public bicycling (ie one-way-journeys) is effectively a completely different mode of transport than the private bicycle in terms of usability and integration with transit networks.  (no need to transport bikes on trains or buses, just grab a new one at destination, etc)  

For that matter, the emergence of multi-point car sharing systems like car2go is a fascination phenomenon and brings up some interesting opportunities for transit/walking integration that return-to-the-same-spot services like ZipCar can simply not accomplish. 

I’m of the (under-researched) opinion that these emerging technologies are lowering per-capita car ownership and may have interesting macro effects on public urban transportation as they become more popular and widespread.

Anyhow, I guess I’ll repeat myself….curious to know your thoughts on all this stuff!

to which I replied:

Hey Kyle

I completely agree that bikeshare at stations is valuable to both cycling and transit modes! I suppose I haven’t posted on it because it’s so obvious to me that I’m not sure what to say. 

The key thing to keep in mind about these bike solutions, from a transit standpoint, is that anything that helps transit concentrate its resources on more rapid forms of service — e.g. by reducing the demand for “last mile” local transit — is great for transit too, because slower kinds of transit are also more expensive to operate.  So this ties directly to my [suggestion] (see Chapter 5 of my book) to not just expand rapid transit but also shift many local bus lines over to more rapid forms of stop spacing … so that service runs faster but is worth walking to.

The challenge for using bikeshare in that context, of course, is that the people who feel confident on bikes in the city are also confident as pedestrians.  The challenge is the older or less bike-confident person, some of whom resist walking 200+ meters [to more widely spaced transit stops] as well.  It is for these people that many high-cost-per-passenger local transit services — in low density areas — are retained.

Keep in mind that where bikeshare and bike-parking styles of access are needed most is in lower-density development.  This is where transit agencies that are focused on maximum ridership and sustainability benefits for the dollar would benefit from being able to run less service, because any service they run is low ridership and thus high cost per rider.  

So I’d like to see bike parking and bikeshare promoted especially in new lower density areas, and with a focus on being attractive to a wide range of users, not just the athletic younger people who’ve traditionally driven US bike advocacy.  That means infrastructure that’s more about safety than speed, such as you see in Europe.  (As I recall, the “design cyclist” for whom the Dutch design their infrastructure is a 60 year old woman with two bags of groceries.)  This is really easy to do in new suburbia with well-designed off-street paths and connective paths via low-traffic streets.  Canberra, Australia is one city that’s long done this kind of infrastructure really well for a long time, though they’re only now connecting it to transit.

All the best, Jarrett


I couldn’t agree more with you pretty much on all this stuff.

I’m from Vancouver and find it’s cycle culture especially militant, pushy and spandex clad to the point of turning the average person OFF cycling.  

Last-mile infrastructure to harbor more mainstream, even boring, cycling is totally necessary!  I’ve never heard the term “design cyclist” but strongly feel this concept needs more traction in the USA/Canada, especially the 60 year old with two bags of groceries……that’s pretty much my mom!

(I should add that I don’t necessarily endorse Kyle’s implied critique of all “militant, pushy, and spandex clad” cyclists. The tension between slow and fast cycling is a fact of the cultural moment, one that calls for some tolerance on all sides … But I appreciate where Kyle’s coming from here.)

18 Responses to cycling the last mile: an exchange with kyle “one red paper clip” mcdonald

  1. Matthew July 25, 2012 at 10:04 pm #

    I like the bike-share system a lot. We have it here in Boston and I tried it in Montreal. But… there’s some problems.
    In Montreal, in particular, I had the problem of encountering dead bikes which wouldn’t unlock from their station. In both cities, it is quite common for a station to be drained/full of bikes if it is at one end of a peak flow. That makes it problematic; you can never rely on it. There must be an alternative at hand.
    In Boston, the stations are not close enough for redundancy, and they have not yet expanded into neighboring Brookline and Cambridge, which turns 19th century political disputes into 21st century infrastructure problems. Especially since the shape of Boston is highly concave, leaving big “dead” zones for Hubway.
    But when you can cut across town and avoid a poor transit connection, it’s pretty slick.

  2. chrismealy July 25, 2012 at 10:27 pm #

    Anybody interested in urban issues should really get familiar with Dutch cycling:
    I think transit’s great but I have enough social anxiety that I’d rather be on a bike than packed in a box with strangers.

  3. Richard July 26, 2012 at 12:45 am #

    Not sure what Vancouver Kyle has been in for the last 4 years but at least in Vancouver BC, the focus has been in creating the types of separated bike lanes that are attracting a wide diversity of people. This has generated a fair amount of attention as it does involve reallocating road space. Still, much more needs to be done to create a complete network of cycling routes for people of all ages.
    Not much spandex at least in the area near downtown either unless one counts yoga pants but those are just as likely to be worn by people walking and driving.

  4. Bob Bourne July 26, 2012 at 5:18 am #

    My question would be on the economics of the bike provider. Is there any data on how many times per day the average bike is used? Using the bike for the last mile effectively takes it out of service for nine or more hours per day if you want to have it at your workplace when it is time to go back to the transit stop in the afternoon.
    What kind of usage makes it profitable for the bike supplier?

  5. Miles Bader July 26, 2012 at 6:30 am #

    @Bob Bourne
    The way typical bike-share fees are structured (cheap/free for short ride, with rapidly rising rates beyond that), nobody would ever just keep the bike for 9 hours unused… they’d ride to the bike-station nearest their workplace or home, and return it.

  6. Andre Lot July 26, 2012 at 10:41 am #

    I’ve lived in both sides of the Atlantic (Netherlands included) and follow transportation discussions here and there as well.
    I think the “spandex cyclist” advocacy paradigm is damaging and counterproductive if one is to think of bicycles as having broader uses than the super-fit 20/30-something semi-athlete running around.
    A good example of that is how many “cycling associations” in US are vehemently opposed to initiatives that fit bike paths in a wider or widened sidewalk, but clearly marked and slightly elevated or depressed, in favor of sharing space with road motorized vehicle, or bus lanes.
    These compounds the “cycle warrior” mentality and the aggressiveness cyclists in North America usually display towards pedestrians, disrespecting – for instance – pedestrian crossings or just blasting their way in areas that are pedestrian-only.
    Aggressive cyclists that ignore traffic laws exist everywhere, but whenever they form the majority of the “cycling community”, they develop a general animosity from every other road user and that will ultimately reflect on political perceptions and choices. Such “aggressiveness” is also displayed toward fellow cyclists that dare not to race on bike paths – or sometimes make those cyclists abandon a bike path and cycle in the roadway itself, feeling “entitled” to their maximum speed.
    That is a reasoning that would be shunned if actively proposed by any other urban road user. Imagine if AAA advocated that cars should be allowed not to stop on Stop signs, or that pedestrians should watch out for cars on a street and just wait couple more seconds before hitting a pedestrian strip crossing instead of obliging the car to slowdown… they would be loathed for their lack of respect for other users of an urban road, but when cyclists display similar “get out of my way or get hurt” attitude, they usually get away with that within their “community”.
    If a city is to have a lot of people cycling, top-notch cyclists will just have to conform to general bike traffic flows more or less like professional drivers with sport cars must get along with urban traffic or even highway traffic. Today, they behave like 1910s drivers that blasted through every street with their Ford-V s

  7. Scott July 26, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

    Being a year-round bicycle commuter myself in Vancouver, I completely disagree with M. McDonald’s description of those who ride bicycles here and the effect it has on others choosing to ride. For every spandex-clad bicyclist out there (and I have nothing against them), there are any number of office-worker types like myself, loads of what I call “pedestrians on bicycles” particularly in the summer, and of course herds of tourists on rental bikes around downtown and the parks. Some individuals from all of these types have their quirks, and I relatively frequently can be found chastising my fellow persons-on-bicycles about riding on the sidewalks or through red lights, but the majority of those riding do a good job. In any case, I have never heard anyone say they do not ride a bicycle themselves because other bicyclists are pushy, as opposed to issues with weather or traffic.

  8. anonymouse July 26, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    @Andre, I think a lot of the reflexive opposition to cycle paths comes from being told far too often by clueless drivers to “get back on the f-ing sidewalk!”. There’s also a (not unfounded) fear that those cycle facilities will be built in a totally clueless manner, such as these ones in the UK, and that they will then be made mandatory, with tickets give out for not being in the bike lane. As one US example of this cluelessness, the West Side bike path in Manhattan has a few at-grade intersections with driveways. Each intersection had traffic lights for both drivers cyclists, but also stop signs, which were conveniently placed right in the middle of the not terribly wide bike path and conveniently at the height of a cyclist’s head.
    And as far as the “rolling stop” goes, that’s because the US uses the stop sign or four-way stop as the universal lightweight traffic control device, so a suburban street can have a stop sign every 250 feet. In Europe, streets typically have yield signs unless the intersection really does require you to come to a full stop due to reduced visibility or whatever. European streets also tend to be narrower, even in suburbs, and thus much less likely to require measures like stop signs to discourage cars from speeding.

  9. Kenny July 26, 2012 at 3:36 pm #

    I’ve been in Canberra again for the last few days after a few years of cycling in Los Angeles, and I’m finding it surprisingly difficult to figure out where I’m supposed to bike! My inclination is to default to the road, unless there’s a clear cycle path, but it looks a bit more like the expectation here is that cyclists will default to the sidewalk, unless there’s a clear cycle path. In LA, I would basically never use the sidewalk, except in places where the road is very scary.
    I think a lot of the psychological difference I’m feeling has to do with the fact that roads in LA are wider and much easier to share between cars and bikes, while sidewalks in LA are generally in very poor repair, and can be very difficult to cycle even if you ignore the dangers of running down pedestrians. But I was surprised to feel slightly more threatened by cars in Canberra than in LA.
    (Somehow the switch to being on the left hasn’t bothered me.)

  10. Andre Lot July 26, 2012 at 6:09 pm #

    @anonymouse: in the Netherlands, many urban roads have the car lanes forbidden for cyclists, who must use the adjacent bike path (always clearly marked in red, and divided per direction of travel) or face fines. And the do get fined otherwise. “Fast” cyclists are not entitled to ride together with cars if they have a bike lane at their disposition…
    That is not the case on “shared streets”. But major thoroughfares do have such restrictions. Bicycles are also not allowed on tramways or bus lanes in The Netherlands.

  11. Jeff B July 26, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

    Bike share can help transit in dense areas too by reducing the reliance on buses to distribute customers to and from rapid transit stations. More times than not, the peak load point for a bus route is approaching or departing from a rapid transit station and demand at the peak load point dictates the frequency for the entire route for those routes that operate above minimum policy headways. Diverting just a few bus riders to bikes can free up capacity for those travelling longer, less bike-friendly distances to access rapid transit.
    I recall an anecdote of this phenomenon in reverse when the MetroCard introduced free transfers from bus to subway (a good thing!) at NYCT. Service planners noticed a sharp increase in the number of bus customers taking short trips near stations, which in turn, prompted increases in frequency to avoid passing people up. This was particularly problematic for trips departing stations. Presumably some of this new bus demand resulted from people whose walking distance from the station didn’t justify paying a bus fare, but were more than happy to hop on a bus when the transfer was free.

  12. Andrew July 26, 2012 at 8:44 pm #

    In Jarrett’s reply, he noted that bikeshare would do well to provide last-mile connectivity in low density areas where bus service is cost inefficient. However, these low density areas are more likely to reduce the network effects that make bikeshare work by promoting rebalancing–the “not empty/not full/just right” load of bikes available at any time. Of course, these low density areas also tend to have uniform land uses–I’m picturing large, low density residential sectors feeding toward a (rail) transit stop with a park-and-ride. The bikeshare station in one cul de sac is likely to empty out with the morning rush traffic, leaving mid-day users without this last-mile benefit without extensive rebalancing by bikeshare staff.
    The need for bikeshare balance has been difficult for Capital Bikeshare in D.C., even in relatively dense areas of mixed use which contribute lots of bike commuters during rush hours. Comparing the cost of rebalancing bikes, particularly over longer distances in low density areas, to the cost-inefficient bus line is unlikely because these are handled by different agencies with different agendas and missions. Does bikeshare need to come to the table with transit operators to build coherent regional transit? Can we expect resolution in spite of the range of public perception, funding, service mandates, that face both systems?

  13. anonymouse July 26, 2012 at 11:23 pm #

    @Andre in the Netherlands, the bike lanes and paths are designed pretty sanely, which is very much not the case in the US. Looking at a few random examples, it seems like the principle is that on urban streets, the bike path is just to the right of the cars and easily visible, and in fancy new suburbs like Almere, there’s a whole separate network of bike paths, which are either grade separated or get priority at intersections, with the cars having to yield to bikes on all the the most major roads. In the US case, where a separate bike path crosses a road, the bike path will almost invariably have a stop sign. There’s also a tendency to have bike paths/lanes only where it’s already convenient and not necessarily where it makes sense, and there are no design standards. The result is that you get something like this, where there is a bike lane, and then a highway off-ramp comes in, and if you had to stay in the bike line and not cross the white line, you’d have to stop where the lane comes to a point. Or how about here, where, as a cyclist, you are required to swerve across a lane of traffic going toward a freeway on-ramp? If bike lanes were that mandatory, you could get a ticket for not attempting to cut off a speeding car! Of course, you also have the option of getting killed by that speeding car if you do succeed in cutting it off like the designers of the bike lane intended.

  14. Miles Bader July 27, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

    Of course note that such areas may not be best for bikeshare, but they could be absolutely ideal for good bike infrastructure (routes, parking near station) for rider-owned bikes.
    [Bike parking is great because it’s so incredibly space-efficient compared to car-parking that even huge park-n-ride capacity for bikes doesn’t have a negative impact on potential development near the station (not to mention being pretty cheap).]

  15. Chris M. July 28, 2012 at 9:50 am #

    But low density neighborhoods are usually almost purely residential. I question whether it would be cost effective to have bike sharing in such areas, especially seeing how people users are often going to and from home. The bike sharing schemes I have seen in Canada- Montreal and Toronto- have bikes placed in fairly dense urban area only in order to have acceptable ridership.
    Perhaps it would be more cost effective to concentrate capital on building covered bike parking at major transit stations and safe road infrastructure.

  16. Jo Walton July 31, 2012 at 8:48 am #

    This isn’t to do with cycling, but it’s about the last mile problem.
    I think there are a group of people with a requirement that never gets mentioned when you’re talking about this. Actual disabled people, in wheelchairs, have a different set of needs. I’m not addressing them here, separate problem.
    There are a large group — I see them on the bus all the time — of elderly and semi-able people. I’m one of them, I’m not elderly but I have a lame leg and walk with a cane. We’re never going to be able to cycle anywhere. We’re never going to be able to walk a mile, but we can walk a bit. How far we can walk varies, and a lot of it depends on what happens when we get there.
    I can walk 200m and then stand and wait for a bus. Or I can walk 400m if I know I can sit down when I get there. I can’t walk 400m and then stand up to wait.
    Nearly all the time people will give me a seat on the bus when it comes, that’s not the problem. But I’m talking about the wait. While a ten minute bus schedule is awesome, when it’s painful to stand, standing up for nine minutes because you couldn’t run makes it a whole lot less awesome.
    I’ve never seen this addressed, and yet I have this problem and I meet people with this problem at the time. I meet them at bus stops, and we grouse about it. We exchange tips for where there are stops with seats. We plan the places we go according to where there are shelters, even though they seem completely random.
    If it would be possible to think about actual seats and shelters when planning stop spacing, you could give a wider range of people freedom of movement. If you did your 400m spacing, but people knew they could sit and rest even if they’d just missed a bus, that would really be a huge help. Or if there was reliably a shelter/seat at alternate stops.
    I live in Montreal, where the STM provides a terrific integrated service of buses and metros. They’ve just moved the actual stop for my bus when coming home from the metro. I can see they did this for good reasons — and I’m sure it didn’t cross their minds that they were hurting anyone by it. But is means instead of waiting sitting, I now have to wait standing, and that going to be every day, and this is making my life a little bit harder and restricting my freedom to go places because I will have to remember that I will always need to save the energy to stand at the stop to get home.
    I’m saying this here because I wish it was a thing people were aware of.

  17. alurin August 7, 2012 at 1:50 pm #

    @Matthew: Hubway is expanding into Cambridge and Somerville this month.

  18. Matthew August 8, 2012 at 10:20 pm #

    @alurin: I just tried out some of the new stations. It happened quickly, it had seemed postponed indefinitely. They need more infill stations though, if the map is to be believed. I already was fooled by one of the maps at the stations that claimed there was another station which turned out not to exist…
    @Jo: I think this is really important. 400m bus stop separation would imply 200m walks. But it should be the case that fewer bus stops implies better waiting facilities for those that remain. Unfortunately, it seems these facilities are not driven by common sense here in Boston. I didn’t see enough of Montreal to judge. But for example, my daily route has nothing but a pole and a sign for most of the heavily used stops. However: the penultimate bus stop on the route has a fancy shelter even though the terminus of the route is less than 200m away! I imagine that the daily boarding at that stop are zero. But it has the nice shelter! Go figure.