Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Hubway Expansion Station Locations Not Always Optimally Located

Boston Bikes and Hubway are in the midst of a public input process for adding shared bicycle stations to several neighborhoods in Boston. Not only are these additions welcome for the general public, but the city has decided to use a local start-up, CoUrbanize, to solicit input. CoUrbanize has a map- and tag-based comment database, and seems like a good, simple platform in the often-confusing public comment sphere. So all systems are in place to get some good comments, and get the stations on the street, right?

Not really, because instead of putting the stations in thoughtful locations where they will do the most good, they are scattered across the study area and located in places where they make no sense (while leaving out obvious locations like major commercial corridors and transit stations). So instead of having a good discussion about the merits and detractions of various locations, the public is now discussing how some of these locations make no sense at all as bike sharing locations (at least in the current iteration of bike share), and why other, disparate locations, would work much better. This seems less productive than would be desirable.

An issue seems to be that the station maps were created to cover as much of the map as possible without much thought to whether the locations were best of bike sharing. This seems like a political play to keep constituents happy, but seems to assume that constituents will be content if their neighborhood is covered by a circle on a map, but not care whether or not there is a useful network of shared bicycles. The Jamaica Plan expansion—the largest of the three proposed—is a good example of how this plays out. Most of the study area is in or near a circle buffered around a location. However, the way in which the stations were placed means that there are no bikes at any Orange Line station, and that the southern portion of the Centre Street business district is underserved as well. For anyone with more than a passing interest in Hubway—and most public commenters likely fall in to this camp—the illogic of some of these station placement is obvious.

There are three neighborhoods being studied right now: Jamaica Plain/Roxbury, South Boston and Charlestown. All of them seem amenable to bike sharing. Yet several of the locations chosen in each bear little resemblance to successful bike sharing locations. Let's review several important factors in siting a bike share kiosk, which I'll define as

The Five -tions of Bike Sharing
  • Population density (there needs to be someone to use it)
  • Destination (it needs to be somewhere people want to go)
  • Elevation (bike share locations on hilltops require frequent rebalancing as people take advantage of gravity in one direction only)
  • Connection (they need to be part of a dense network)
  • Transportation (bike share needs to complement existing transportation infrastructure)
While these are certainly not the only factors necessary for a successful bike sharing system, they are quite important. The proposed locations, in many cases, fail one or more of these tests. In addition, logical, and in some cases obvious, locations were overlooked. It certainly seems that they were chosen not to become part of the existing network, but instead to cover the map. This may be an unfortunate part of the planning process, but in this case it seems to just gum up the works.

Here is some short commentary on the locations:

Jamaica Plain / Roxbury is a fertile location to grow Hubway. There is significant existing bicycle infrastructure, good transit and density, and a burgeoning bicycle culture. A logical system would follow existing transit corridors—Centre Street, the Southwest Corridor (transit and bike path) and Washington Street—in JP, and similar corridors in Roxbury. (I will admit that I know less about the transportation infrastructure in Roxbury than in JP.) Instead, locations are put in some rather inconceivable locations:
  • JP-1 fails due to its location atop Mission Hill. Which is steep! It has population and destination, but would likely require frequent balancing as riders took bikes down the hill but walked up. This would be better moved to the VA Hospital on South Huntington or to Jackson Square, which inexplicably falls outside any of the circles, despite being a major transit hub with significant new development taking place.
  • JP-2 is a logical location, at a business node on a dense transit corridor.
  • JP-3 makes no sense and fails on all five of the -tions above. It is in a relatively sparsely-populated part of JP, away from any transportation infrastructure and high up on a hill. In addition, the only way to access the rest of the proposed and existing network is by navigating the bicycle-unfriendly Pond Street-Arborway corridor. This location will certainly not come to be any time soon, and it's disingenuous to propose it.
  • JP-4 lies on the Southwest Corridor but is, for whatever reason, halfway in between the Green Street and Forest Hills Orange Line stations. Perhaps it would be a good location in the future, but the first priority should be locating bikes at the stations themselves. Furthermore, there are no locations anywhere near Centre Street through the heart of Jamaica Plain, and this location is about as far from Centre Street as any location along the Southwest Corridor.
  • JP-5 is at Upham's Corner in Roxbury and is a decent location for a station, although it is somewhat far from other locations.
  • JP-6 is a good location in Egleston Square, but again suffers from the fact that there are no nearby stations, especially along the Orange Line. Egleston was once an elevated station, and Hubway could be a good resource for getting to and from the current Orange Line stations, but if the Orange Line is eschewed, it loses some usefulness.
  • JP-7 is similar to the location above, although at least closer to the current Hubway station at Roxbury Crossing.
South Boston is another good location for bike sharing. It is quite dense and located in close proximity to the Downtown area, but lacks rapid transit except on the western fringe. One issue is that it is surrounded by three sides by water, so connectivity to the rest of the system is a bit of an issue. And while the three stations proposed do not provide coverage for the whole of the neighborhood, they do not fall as far short as some of the locations in Jamaica Plain. It helps that there are existing Hubway stations at Red and Silver Line rapid transit stations on the north and west sides of South Boston, so these stations can act as feeders to there, and to downtown Boston as well. I don't know Southie that well, but this chart (from Southie Bikes) is a great representation of why Hubway should do quite well there.

Charlestown's main issue is that the proposed stations do not complement the existing stations in Charlestown that well—let alone the rest of the system. (NB: there is a new station at the new Spaulding Hospital not shown on this map.) C-2 is a logical spot at the Charlestown Community Center. But C-1 is located between two existing stations. And there are no proposed locations at either the Community College or Sullivan Square Orange Line stations, or logical connections to the Hubway locations in Cambridge or Somerville. While C-3 is labeled as "Sullivan Square," it is quite a distance from the actual Sullivan Square MBTA station. As the roads in Sullivan are redesigned and as the area is (hopefully) developed in to something more than an array of highways and parking lots, the station may be differently located. But for now, it should be located at the MBTA station, where it can provide connectivity not only to the new and existing Charlestown stations, but to Somerville as well.

It is good to see the City partnering with CoUrbanize to invite public comment for these location, and the comments—some of them my own—have certainly hit on where these stations should go. Hopefully the Hubway expansion steers clear of some of these less-than-desirable spots. Luckily, the stations are portable and easily moved, so, unlike most infrastructure, the system can be rejiggered if it is not optimally sited at first. But it would be even better to have picked better locations from the outset.

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