If you live and work in New York City, you see Citi Bikes at least once a day and likely have a friend or two signed up. You've probably been hearing either how it’s a revelation or a rip-off for months now, or maybe have nearly had a few heart attacks watching distracted, helmetless tourists making left turns on reds. In short, the bulky blue bikes have become ubiquitous just in the five-months since their launch on May 27.
But the bikes remain mysterious. Besides rumors (started by Mayor Bloomberg) that the program is losing money ("but not a lot"), nobody seems to understand how the privately-funded public program works financially or how it compares to other bike share programs. They’re just sort of everywhere.
In a quest to demystify, contextualize, and evaluate, two designers have taken the first 100 days of public Citi Bike data and began making graphics with them. "Citi Bike made their data public, and left it to the data-visual community to make sense of it," say the creators, Zack Davenport and Michael Yap. Last month, the pair began crafting these patterns into legible forms to create a public narrative.
The graphics tell three main stories. The first is about the bicycle itself. The design decisions behind bulky-blue form, including the wireless and green technologies it incorporates, make it unique. Citi Bike's contain GPS and RFID units that record data for every trip. Citi Bike publishes this data (though not in raw form) on its website. The graphics also highlight simple design decisions necessary for a publicly-shared bicycle, such as a bag rack rather than a basket that would collect trash.
Davenport and Yap mapped out the ride behavior for more than 80,000 people who signed up for annual memberships. They take the total number of trips and average daily number of trips, and compare them to those in bike share programs in Paris and London. As the newest program with the fewest number of bikes and docks, New York comes in third in total number of trips. But, interestingly, New York beats out London for average number of daily trips. This could stem from the way New Yorkers seem to use the bikes: for very short trips. They found trips to average 19 minutes despite the 45-minute limit for annual members.
Davenport and Yap said that the 19-minute average ride time surprised them. It’s also one of the most telling numbers of the lot because it allows insight into how people use the bikes. Short rides point to a utilitarian approach—there are not a lot of long leisure rides through Central Park. The figure also stands as proof, they said, that "New York City is easy to bike around."
And finally, they give a much-needed overview of the financing structure of the particularly perplexing public-private partnership that runs the program. With this section they wanted to show, "the stakeholders, what’s at stake, and the revenue earned since launch." They show us how much was spent and on what. Finally they give us the number $8,532,147—the revenue earned between May 27 and September 15 which seems quite promising, though no one knows the costs of the program.
Yap and Davenport hope for more access to the data collected by the GPS and RFID units on the bikes. If they could map that data and see where people go, they could create feedback loops that would inform decisions about optimal dock locations for the remaining 277 planned stations.
More data would also help them piece together more interesting stories. Ultimately, since the bikes are tools for getting around, these graphics are ultimately stories not just about how New Yorkers use the Citi Bike program, but also how New Yorkers use their city.