CitiBike's Open Data Reveals the Future of Transportation in New York

Due to the nature of its usage, CitiBike has some of the most granular data available. Unlike a shared service like the subway, every single ride has a record, leading to some unique insights.

Not only is every ride logged: the system itself is incredibly open ended. While transit hubs exist for a reason, looking at public transit usage patterns can magnify the importance of these hubs.

Slicing out the weekdays, I aggregated the trips by station and hour. Subtracting the number of bikes leaving each station from the number of bikes arriving led to a "flow" of bikes to and from each station. In the map, you'll see reds when more bikes are coming in and blues when more bikes are leaving. Below is what I came up with, animated by the hour:

There are a few interesting patterns here.

Going into this I expected to see a more traditional flow into Midtown and the Financial District. In addition to these classic office districts, the entirety of Central Manhattan gets included in the rush hour pattern. Newer, younger, and more creative offices can be found from Chelsea to SoHo. Since CitiBike arguably trends towards younger and more creative types, these areas get over represented on the map. 

My personal rush hour strategy was also confirmed: in an attempt to find available stations in Midtown, I go closer to Grand Central, in order to take advantage of people doing a Metro North to CitiBike commute.

The average weekend, as expected, doesn't have a strong rush hour effect... unless you count the late night rush hour to the East Village:

These patterns have a few implications. Looking at CitiBike demand shows just how decentralized the demand for transit really is. Public transit traditionally focuses on hubs, and encourages use towards dense centers. CitiBike allows users to go wherever they want within the zone. Given this option, people will take advantage.

There isn't much variety in classic transit options: there previously wasn't an option between a fixed public transit system and private cars. I've written in the past about how different transit options are beginning to get bundled, and how innovation at Uber and Lyft are giving people more choice. Instead of a fixed bundle, a sliding scale of convenience versus price is evolving. 

In addition to more choices, technology is reducing the friction between different modes of transportation. New systems like CitiBike allow biking to be more easily combined with rail (according to the new CEO of the company behind CitiBike, he'd like to even further remove friction by unifying systems across cities.) Public transit apps allow users to more easily coordinate between different types of transit, in New York allowing people to more easily catch feeder buses into transit hubs.

Taken together, these innovations are allowing alternative transportation modes to approach the level of convenience of private cars. CitiBike and apps like Uber are completely decentralized, no longer restricting travel between points outside of the central city, while traditional public transit innovations is widening its footprint, and allowing more users further from stations to be served.

Where can this go next?

So far these advances are working really great for Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn, but they could be expanded further out into the boroughs. Alongside tech friendly advances in the city, low tech innovations have been occurring in the boroughs. Express buses fill in the gaps between the subways, and there's an entire shadow transit system, from dollar vans to informal $2 cab shares. Properly analyzed, these can bring into focus the hidden demand that the MTA isn't currently fulfilling. CitiBike mini-networks for example can begin surrounding subway termini, increasing the service area and allowing a cheap way to travel point to point around the outer boroughs.

Over the long run, this would hopefully increase the supply of urban land throughout New York. Less dense areas between subway termini could be "filled in." As more people are using more decentralized modes of transit, these areas could begin to support more urban amenities. Allowing denser development in these areas would complete the virtuous cycle.

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