Whose Bike Is It Anyway?

Bicycle hire schemes have been on the rise in recent years, and are now ubiquitous in cities around the world. Characteristic silver-red bikes and stations with the Santander logo can be spotted easily around UCL. Perhaps you have used such a bike today!

But can you see them everywhere in London? The answer depends on where you live. For instance, there are virtually no stations in the south-east of the city. I saw a similar bias in Warsaw, where I used the system daily to commute to school. I decided I wanted to explore the question of whether there are underlying geographic, economic, or demographic factors in the spatial distribution of bicycle hire stations in different cities. From there, I will seek to identify which areas could benefit most from an expansion of the scheme.

Take. Use. Return. Repeat.

Cycle hire schemes operate in a fairly straightforward manner. In most cases, everyone can approach the station and hire a bike either for free or for a small fee. Often, the first several minutes are free, and then charges apply. In general, these schemes are seen as a cheap way to move around the city.

Cycle hiring schemes were simply local curiosities until several years ago, with only 5 schemes in 5 countries in 2001. The ‘boom’ for this mode of transportation started around 2007. In this year the Vélib’ system in Paris started, followed by Brussels’s Villo! in 2009, and the London Barclays (now Santander) scheme in 2010. Currently, you can hire a bicycle in nearly 1500 cities and towns on all 6 inhabited continents. They appeal to local authorities and residents alike, as they can ease the problems of traffic congestion and pollution while improving the population’s physical and mental health. Moreover, they can fill the gaps of the ‘first/last mile’ between existing public transport routes and actual destinations of users.

Who uses the bikes?

Despite their relatively short history, cycle hire schemes have attracted a large research interest. The majority of studies have found the typical bicycle hirer to be a young, educated man, who already cycles regularly. There are some exceptions to this: a study of a scheme in Montreal found no discernible difference in usage between men and women.

Ogilvie and Goodman (2012) have gone a step further, using data on registered users of the Santander scheme. From this information, they have constructed models to examine the impact of user characteristics on the number of journeys taken, and whether the registered user has ever used a scheme at all. The variables they looked at included: mode of commute, the level of deprivation in the area the user lived, ethnicity, distance to the closest bicycle hire station, and the density of docking stations in the local area.

Their results confirmed that men use the scheme on average more often than women, and that living closer to docking stations and in areas with a higher density of docking stations is associated with an increase in the average number of trips per month. Interestingly, the research found that registered users with postcodes outside London make more trips per month. This suggests that cycle hire is a popular mode of transport between other public commuting services and a user’s actual destination. It may also be the case that long commutes from outside London prohibit these users from using their own bicycles. Also, after controlling for the user’s distance to a docking station and the local density of stations, users from more deprived areas tended to cycle more.

These observations can yield some predictions on the spatial distribution of docking stations, at least in London. We would expect them to be more concentrated close to transport hubs and in richer neighborhoods. The second part of this prediction is quite interesting. Assuming that whoever decides the location of the stations wants to maximize the number of users, then docking stations should be placed in low-income neighborhoods more frequently. This is because, as aforementioned results suggest, low-income users are on average more likely to use the scheme if they are not disadvantaged in terms of being able to physically access a bike.

Putting it on a map

O’Brien, Cheshire, and Batty (2014) turned their focus to the physical features of a cycle hire system, such as shape and layout. They looked at 38 hiring systems in Europe, Asia, North America and Australia. In particular, their paper looked at two spatial attributes. The first was compactness ratio, a measure of how circle-like each system’s shape was. The second was how clustered docking stations were.

The correlation of both measures was weakly positive. In general, European and Middle Eastern cities had bicycle hire schemes that were more circular, and more evenly spaced, because of the traditional layout of the cities there, geographically focused around a core. Asian systems, the authors suggested, tend to be dispersed among sub-systems of the city, covering different communities, and are also shaped by local geography more heavily than their European counterparts.


My interest in this research project stemmed from my own experience and daily observations of public bicycles on the streets of London and Warsaw. In the subsequent articles, I will focus on previously unexamined, or less examined, cities where bikes can be hired, such as Warsaw, New York, and Moscow. I aim to examine correlations between the locations of cycle docking stations and the affluence of the local neighborhoods, as well as proximity to underground and railway stations. The location of major landmarks or institutions, be it universities or museums, might also influence bicycle docking stations distribution. I hope to use the spatial analysis approach of O’Brien, Cheshire, and Batty’s paper in a new setting.

Robert Lipiński


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