Studies Examine Bicycles and Mass Transit

By Charles Pekow

June 2011 – It's not news to most people that bicycling and mass transit go hand in hand to get people around. But planners and transit officials need to innovate to improve this marriage of alternative transit forms to get people from place to place.

Two studies initiated in California examined the integration of bicycles and mass transit (mainly buses), one in the United States and the other in China. They recommended ways to help and encourage cyclists to take advantage of mass transit. Because of structural differences in our two nations' transportation systems, they looked at systems that differ completely in structure and culture. In the USA, most situations involve adapting existing transit systems to accommodate bicyclists or designing new mass transit facilities to incorporate bicyclists. In China, by contrast, bicycling has traditionally played a much larger part of urban transportation systems and the question is how to best coordinate the cycling culture with emerging motorized transit systems.

On the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean (but just barely), at San Jose State University in California, the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) examined ways to better get people to use both modes of transit for the same trip. The most common way involves people taking their bicycle on board buses or trains and sometimes ferries. The biggest problem: capacity. Trains and buses can only carry so many bicycles, notes the report, called Bicycling Access & Egress to Transit: Informing the Possibilities (http://transweb.sjsu.edu/MTIportal/research/publications/documents/2825_bicycling_access.pdf).

Mass transit systems gain plenty from making room for bicycles, as it brings additional riders.

The first major problem the MTI team encountered involved the lack of data. “The existing knowledge base of cycling and transit integration is relatively thin and recent but appears to be growing,” the study says. A few recent reports in Europe and the USA examined the issue. History shows that people are more likely to pedal to a higher speed, longer distance vehicle (commuter train or express bus) than they are to take a shorter route. People won't save much (if any) time by taking a bus with frequent stops than they would bicycling less than five miles.

European research also found that the combined transit users come more commonly from suburbs, where they need to cycle to the commuter station, than from cities where transit distances are shorter and stops and stations more frequent. The most common use is to get to and from work. Some students also combine methods but they generally live closer to campus than commuting workers do to their jobs. Also, people are less likely to bother to bring their bike on board if they have to travel less than half a mile on the other end.

Second to taking one vehicle aboard another comes the time-old practice of parking one's bike at the station. Given the scarcity of cash that most local transit agencies find themselves in (especially these days) the best way to encourage this usage and get the most bang for buck consists of improving infrastructure around suburban stations. This could included improving parking (racks, lockers, bicycle stations) and infrastructure (bike lanes and paths to the stations).

Security of the parked bikes and subjecting them to the elements constitute major problems with the bike-to-transit approach. MTI examined the programs of several American cities whose long-standing efforts to increase bicycle use has included transit integration. Chicago dealt with it by building bicycle parking inside transit stations. Boulder County, CO is building bike corrals accessible by smart cards. Many jurisdictions have been installing bike lockers.

A third way of combining transit modes beginning to catch on in this country and around the world consists of shared bike systems. Modern technology allows for quick registration and wireless payment and tracking of bike-share systems. This tends to help people who don't own bikes, are traveling out of town or who can't take their bikes on mass transit. The one-size bikes don't always fit and generally don't come with helmets or other equipment, though.

The fourth option examined: using two bikes: riders own two-wheelers at both ends of the route. People generally won't bother with this if they only have to travel a few blocks on one end of the journey. Nor would they be interested unless they traversed from the same stops regularly.

One issue the report does not cover in length concerns limited hours for bikes on transit. Many transit systems don't allow bikes on board during peak use periods. Co-author Eric Stonebraker responded in an email “we could have been more explicit in mentioning policies….” And in focus groups conducted by MTI, some bicyclists said they worried they were impinging on other transit users.

CalTrans in San Jose California dealt with these problems by dedicating two cars per train for bicyclists. And in Denmark, Copenhagen adapts half of a commuter car for those bringing bicycles, strollers and other wheeled vehicles. The Metro in Washington, DC won't allow bikes on trains during rush hour but excepted folding bikes from the ban.

And while one group of California researchers were studying the issue in this country, a grad student at another California university did the same in China. The Transportation Research Board published a study originally done as a master of city planning thesis at the University of California, Berkeley by Brittany Montgomery. The study looked at the city of Jinan in Shandong Province. A town with a traditionally large bicycle use has in recent years become flooded with motorized transit: bus rapid transit (BRT), cars and electric bicycles. Along with the rise in vehicles comes a rise in city population and a rapid rise in affluence that allows more people to buy cars – an additional 300 cars roll down the roads of Jinan every day..

In Jinan, where autos rather than bikes are alternative vehicles, people of all ages still bike, says the thesis, Cycling Trends & Fate in the Face of Bus Rapid Transit (http://metrostudies.berkeley.edu/pubs/masters/Montgomery_PR.pdf). But people like the e-bikes, which now account for nearly half of bicycle transit. But at least motorized help keeps people on bicycles.

“When the complete travel time of a transit rider is accounted for, e‐bikes vastly outpace all transit options, and bike travel times are competitive with those of BRT,” the study found. E-bikes can not only go faster than traditional bikes, but they can carry more cargo or in some cases even a passenger.

But this new popular form of transit in China presents a safety problem as they don't fit neatly into either traffic lanes or bike lanes.

And with a lot of e-bikes, the city may need to create special traffic lanes, speed limits and rules for them.

As it did in the United States, the rise in affluence in China has allowed people to live farther from work, necessitating a greater need for transit. Officials in many Chinese cities, the study declares, figured that the added BRT would largely displace bicycles as it would become harder to ride longer distances. This appears, however, not to have become the case.

And just like the United States, the Chinese haven't collected sufficient data on bicyclist behavior.

But the author concludes that planners should figure bikes as a significant way of getting to a rapid transit bus, just like walking to the bus stop and taking feeder buses. And the system lacks enough safe bike parking. The paper notes that “very little formal cycle parking is available in Jinan, and currently, there are no cycle parking lots in the city dedicated to transit riders.” Bike parking need be included in initial design for these systems, not as an afterthought or retrofit, she warns.

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