How to achieve optimal, emission-free load balancing for Bicing and other public biking schemes

In Barcelona, differential payments based on vertical displacement could eliminate redistribution truck carbon emissions and create income for cyclists with time on their feet. So, for example, you pay 8ct to cycle from Gracia to the beach, but earn 8ct if you cycle back.

Oliver O’Brien‘s excellent public bike data maps and a sea of complaints out there show that redistribution of bikes is a struggle none of the schemes currently in operation has managed to address satisfactorily. A brief flick-through the city stats at OoB suggests that Barcelona’s may be particularly bad, with roughly a 30% distribution imbalance (no of bikes needing transfer to equalise % at stations) over the past 24 hours. (Click individual stations to see the desperate situation many users face over that period.) A post by Jon Froehlich with Joachim Neumann and Nuria Oliver quotes research suggesting this is a major evil:

One of our motivations to explore prediction was the fact that 66% respondents to an online survey about Bicing stated that they had difficulty finding a free parking slot when trying to drop off a bicycle. This is a major impediment to Barcelona residents adopting Bicing as a primary form of transportation as searching for a station with a free parking spot takes time. Indeed, 50% of respondents avoid Bicing when they are traveling to a place where they must be on time.

As was noted the other day, one of the redistribution problems Barcelona faces is that riders prefer downhill, and this is exacerbated by the fact that downhill is where the beach, the shopping, the jobs, and the bars are, from which one may incapable of returning under one’s own steam. Scott van Etten says that

based on the city government’s numbers, few Bicing members are actually switching their car for a bicycle – in most cases they would of been just taking other forms of public transportation or walking, which means negligible carbon savings. Felix Salmon has written up a good post on this, with a shoot-from-the-hip estimate that a bike program in NYC would decrease car trips 30%. In Barcelona, however, this estimate is much lower, with some estimating it is less than 10%. And the reshuffling of bikes isn’t exactly CO2 free – it is an endeavor that requires 10 trucks on the road at any given time.

Truck servicing of this structural inequality of use could certainly be addressed by competent data management (notably lacking, as I have discovered) combined with simple forecasting tools, but better truck-based redistribution creates more emissions without any guarantee that increased costs would lead to increased revenues.

An alternative redistribution model would micro-price journeys based on the relative desirability of start and end stations. You could throw a whole bunch of factors into the pot which would simply confuse users, but a simple start could be made by considering vertical displacement, of which cyclists are pretty well aware: for each journey you earn or pay a small, sliding sum depending on whether your net displacement is up or down. For example, if you apply a simple €0.001/m tariff, you would pay €0.08 to cycle to the beach from Gracia (it’s about 80m above sea-level) and recuperate that €0.08 if you cycle back.

I have glorious visions of unemployed Kenyans accumulating a fortune cycling up Tibidabo (512m) and running down to start over, but that’s probably because I haven’t had my lunchtime aperitif.

That’s such a sensational idea that you are simply dying to

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  1. The IT system they have running the system is barely out of the stone ages. Last I heard that the city government was more or less in a permanent state of war with Clear Channel. So don’t expect too much.

  2. Two weeks of hell so far. At least if you killed a woolly mammoth it stayed dead, but they appear free to bill anyone for whatever a completely shite system turns out (there’s no way of explaining my 231€ mystery charge by reference to their billing system, for example) without any reference to reality, and come after people with lawyers if they decline to pay. I’m sure someone somewhere has been on it for 3 years without any difficulties, but the idea that a system which wouldn’t last a week on a whelk stand can be let loose on the half a million users they claim is completely horrific.

  3. So Mr Smartypants, how does that work for cities where you haven’t got one overriding imbalancing factor?

  4. Another reasonably intuitive approach would be to charge or pay a microsum multiple of ((the no of bikes at station 2) – (the no of bikes at station 1)). Contribute to bunching and you pay, help equilibrate and you earn.

    One of the problems with both these approaches is that they don’t take account of cyclical needs (eg lots of bikes in residential areas in the morning, lots in working areas at 18:00), but they’d probably still better satisfy current need than Barcelona’s current redistribution model.

    The second approach would, to the extent that current anti-liberal employment and commercial legislation permits, provide a small incentive to move towards more flexible working and shopping/leisure practices, something which central government claims to want but hasn’t done much about.

  5. I don’t think using pricing as a stick will ever work as a way of overcoming the sensual imbalance of cycling downhill against the fag of going back uphill. There are two problems: Barca is hilly; and cars still have complete institutional, legal and geographical precedence. Encourage people to cycle by making it as hard for car drivers to drive into town as it is for cyclists to go back up, and you wouldn’t need to rely on some surely outdated idea of rational economic decisions to organise transport in your city.

  6. It might be easier just to tilt Barcelona. Last severe earthquake was 500 years ago, so maybe it’ll happen spontaneously.

  7. Tilting it every evening would get most people home and clean the streets with sea water. Maybe David Icke could arrange it.

  8. I’m just waiting for the 5 degrees rise in temperature and the ensueing rise of sea levels. Pity for the good folks in Bangladesh.

  9. Man, beyond endearing lies pityful. (You’re clearly playing all the registers. But you’re still not foling me.)

  10. (It has been pointed out that there’s no point in optimising this to get rid of drivers and petrol bills when neither have been paid for quite a long time.)

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