Improving Bikeshare Operations, Marketing, and Ridership – Heartwarming Graduation Edition

Just for a moment, put yourself in the place of an advocate trying to get people riding a bicycle more often, a public health official concerned with women’s health, a local bike shop trying to push back against Big Bike’s dipilatory-industrial complex, or a bicycling nonprofit looking to raise awareness of your programs. You find out that there is an email contact list with over 20,000 recipients, complemented by 5,231 Facebook fans and 5,531 Twitter followers, about which we can infer the following characteristics*:

  • All have demonstrated an interest in riding a bicycle by plunking down cash
  • 45% are women (compared to your region’s 35% female bicycling modeshare)
  • 77% bicycle to get somewhere, rather than simply for recreation or fitness…
  • …yet 71% don’t actually own a bike of their own!

Because you are such an astute observer, you did not have to follow the asterisk to know that these traits all describe the annual membership ranks and marketing assets of Capital Bikeshare. In my opinion, that unicorn of b-school legend – a win-win opportunity – is being missed by not using these marketing assets to actively encourage today’s Capital Bikeshare member to become tomorrow’s bicycle owner.

First, a few stipulations:

  1. Yes, I do believe that bikeshare – by its very nature – creates bicycle owners by advertising and promoting and reintroducing people to bicycling.
  2. No, this is not about blindly “supporting your local bikeshop.” Crappy shops, local or not, bike or not, deserve whatever cruel fate the market doles out to them. This is about getting many more people riding bicycles.
  3. Yes, I have read the data-free anecdotes about Capital Bikeshare doing no harm to local bikeshops. For real, not my point. Stop selling it so hard! Unlike the Reason Foundation, I want a better city for bicycling, not the head of another government program on a stake.
  4. Yes, I am aware that absolutely nobody agrees with me on this particular subject.

To restate my basic argument – Capital Bikeshare has an unmatched capacity to reach a uniquely desirable population, but is not putting that ability to its highest use. In my casual observation (feel free to support or rebut with a combing-through of CaBi’s archives), Capital Bikeshare outreach mainly focuses on (1) encouraging Capital Bikeshare ridership, (2) communicating systems operations issues, (3) addressing customer service issues, (4) advertising for businesses offering “partner” benefits, and (5) sharing positive stories and quotes about bikesharing.  Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those. All are expected and necessary, and all are done well.

But… It has been two very successful years of bikeshare. The program is established, and perhaps it is time to take a look at CaBi and ask, does its marketing operation exist solely to facilitate its own systemic growth, or can it be used to help achieve the ultimate program goal – a transformative shift toward bicycle modeshare? To that end, a variety of benefits could potentially accrue to the entire bicycling community if Capital Bikeshare adopted a strategic marketing goal to begin ‘graduating’ bikeshare riders to personal bicycle ownership. Why?

The system is overloaded at peak times/places –The weekday work commute trips are high-demand times for CaBi, and the highest variation in peak-period usage is very spatially concentrated.  We can continue to add stations in peak-demand origins and destinations, we probably should, and we likely will. But the ever-present resource constraint means that meeting both existing and latent demand solely with more stations may not be possible, certainly if Washington DC wishes to reach modeshare comparable to other world cities. Getting even a few existing peak time/place riders onto their own bicycles frees system capacity for existing and potentially new riders….

…And does so by increasing bicycle modeshare. Rather than dissuading a peak time/place rider from riding through pricing changes, a CaBi graduate is still riding a bicycle, and freeing a spot in the peak CaBi ‘gateway’ system for another potential rider to give it a try. And Peter Jacobsen’s safety in numbers hypothesis postulates that we all win in that scenario.

That is efficient use of assets. Even in government, money for capital spending is constrained. Capital Bikeshare continues to expand, and at least on the DC side of the program, there is very little visibility into any long-term plans for how big, how fast, and how much. As I wrote about earlier, we need to ask how efficiently we are making use of capital assets to generate a return (“return” in this context being bike rides). And like my earlier discussion of alternative membership structures, using CaBi as a funnel toward graduation to personal bike ownership generates a return (again, ridership) without necessitating marginal capital expenditure.

How, exactly? Well, I have a few thoughts. Luckily, I’m not running CaBi marketing, because there are doubtless many other better ideas. But here goes:

Bike shopping events – Capital Bikeshare riders are uniquely easier to match with a personal bike, because they share a highly relatable common bicycling experience from which to match bicycle to rider. Imagine if The Bike House / Phoenix Bikes used bike sale this past weekend had been organized, sponsored, and promoted for CaBi members.

Partnering with local bikestores – Reread and repeat in your head over and over my stipulation #2 above. Then, consider the many obstacles to running a “good” bikeshop – DC’s warped labor and retail storefront markets, an industry that is a case study in path dependence, sparse cash flow that makes shops dependent on that same industry, and a target customer base that now has a wonderful bright-red substitute product available. Shops that want to push against those barriers to be “good” (which I subjectively think is – providing bicycles, accessories, and encouragement activities appropriate for a wide range of utilitarian purposes for a wide range of people, YMMV) can play a central role in revolutionizing bicycling in Washington DC. That uniquely complementary CaBi marketing machine should employ every opportunity to support such efforts. Done correctly, CaBi entering the helmet business could have been such an opportunity, but to date, hasn’t been. Other measures, such as creative ad/service swaps, cooperative events, and member sales just have not been a public part of what CaBi does.

Supporting under-represented groups – Women, non-white, and low-income populations show up in the CaBi ranks in proportions different from the overall DC bicycling community (both above and below, more on these in a future post). As groups like Black Women Bike DC and Capitol Spokeswomen are working to increase bicycle participation among under-represented groups, CaBi could be a valuable partner in promoting and providing logistical support (such as a truckful of bikes) for events that result in actual ridership.

Anyway, the bottom line is that in my ideal world, we take seriously the oft-repeated cliché that CaBi is simply a ‘gateway drug’ for bicycling. We can hopefully all agree that the DC customer is sold on our current product. I think it is time to begin pushing the harder stuff.

*All percentages pinched from Capital Bikeshare 2011 Member Survey (pdf). All social media stats accessed 9/17/2012. Email subscribers is a SWAG based on CaBi annual membership.

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3 Responses to Improving Bikeshare Operations, Marketing, and Ridership – Heartwarming Graduation Edition

  1. Pingback: Burke, BHAGs, and Bikeshare | bikepedantic

  2. ericmbudd says:

    I want to challenge an idea here: “Capital Bikeshare has an unmatched capacity to reach a uniquely desirable population, but is not putting that ability to its highest use.” In economic terms, I agree with you – it produces a consumer surplus. However, looking at CaBi’s incentives [as you said] to mainly “encourag[e] Capital Bikeshare ridership” – then, they are doing the right thing.

    I actually agree with almost everything you wrote – but CaBi won’t be incentivized to do these things – Bike shopping events, Partnering with local bikestores, Supporting under-represented groups. I can only see two solutions – either government intervention [subsidy] or programs to accomplish some of these goals, or have other companies in the private market support them. Either way, they would be a greater benefit for end users.

    • bikepedantic says:

      The thing is, unlike the Colorado bikeshare systems, CaBi is not only government subsidized (vast majority of capital costs, marketing contract, planners, operating subsidy in the Arlington part), but all of the management marching orders are provided by a regional group of reps of the participating municipal governments.

      So if CaBi were a more quasi commercial enterprise (like the b-cycle systems), I would heartily encourage them to follow the incentives to maximize their own ridership/revenue outcome. But all of these gov entities are incentivized to seek an outcome of broader positive outcomes. That CaBi appears somewhat indistinguishable from what Parry Burnap is doing in Denver is kind of why I’m pestering them so much.

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