Since they debuted in 2018, the lime-green bicycles have become a familiar sight in communities surrounding Boston, showing up at train stations, libraries, town centers — and, occasionally, your neighbor’s front yard.
But is the dockless bike-share system operated by Lime doing anything to ease the hassle of getting from place to place in a region renowned for its gridlock?
Yes and no, says a recent report.
New data from more than 300,000 bike-share trips originating in more than a dozen Greater Boston communities shows a strong demand for service, but also a need for improvements to the cycling infrastructure.
Lime has been operating a dockless bike-share system in Arlington, Bedford, Belmont, Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Medford, Melrose, Needham, Newton, Quincy, Revere, Watertown, and Winthrop. Between April 2018 and September 2019, users took over 300,000 trips, logging an estimated 380,000 miles.
With permission from Lime, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council used GPS data from the bikes to map the trips, track patterns, and pinpoint the busiest routes during the 18-month period. The information is in a new report, First Miles. The report also includes data for Milton and Waltham, which did not officially partner with Lime.
“This analysis shows how new forms of so-called ‘micro-mobility’ can be quickly adopted by all kinds of communities and serve a unique role in the transportation system,” said Eric Bourass, MAPC transportation director. “It also shows how important it is for public agencies to have access to detailed data that can inform planning and policy.”
For example, the data shows that Lime bike riders face some tough conditions (but not in the winter, when the bike share shuts down). Eighteen percent of miles traveled were on “very-high-stress” roadways, with high traffic volumes, multiple lanes in each direction, and no protected bicycle facility.
Examples include Revere Beach Parkway in Everett, Commercial Street in Malden, Washington Street in Newton, and Watertown’s Arsenal Street.
“Retrofitting these roadways to fully serve bicyclists will be a challenging endeavor; however, the travel patterns observed here demonstrate how important it is to build facilities that will keep bicyclists safe, and to do it soon,’’ the report states. “The facilities are needed not just to encourage more people to bicycle, but to protect the people who already are biking in unpleasant if not dangerous conditions.”
Some communities are already taking measures to improve cycling infrastructure.
Chris Cassani, Quincy’s director of traffic and parking, said the city has identified a number of projects, including bike lanes in the Quarry and Granite street corridor and also on Centre Street.
“In order to make it more appealing and for people to feel more [incentivized] to ride in general, we are committing to buff up our bike infrastructure,’’ Cassani said.
The ridership numbers also showed that there are big variations in usage. Malden, Everett, Arlington, and Winthrop saw the highest per-person ridership.
Malden, which was a step ahead and already had initiated a pilot with Lime, had the largest number of trips by far: 74,222 during the 18-month study period. Everett, which has both Bluebikes and Lime bikes, is the second busiest, with 40,995 trip starts. Bedford and Milton saw the least activity, with approximately 972 and 114 trips, respectively.
“The reason we were so successful is because we had it out there early,’’ said Kevin Duffy, Malden’s strategy and business development officer. “Residents were already well-schooled on it.’’
He also said the layout of the city — 5 square miles with two major subway stops — makes it ideal for the dockless bike system. Data shows that many residents used the bikes for the last mile or so home from the T. Duffy said ridership also spiked on the weekends when kids were home.
Additional data from the report showed that:
■ The average trip is about 1.3 miles and takes about 16 minutes on one of the electric-assist bikes that make up most of the Lime bike fleet.
■ Two-fifths of all trips start in town centers and commercial districts, and many of those fan out into outlying neighborhoods that are beyond an easy walking distance or inaccessible by transit.
■ Approximately one-quarter of all trips terminate in a predominantly residential neighborhood, providing a level of convenience unmatched by docked bike share.
■ Connections to transit are an important, but relatively small, share of all Lime bike trips. About 15 percent of all trips begin or end at a subway, trolley, Silver Line bus, or Commuter Rail station.
■ The regional nature of the system is critical: Thirty percent of all trips ended in a different municipality than where they started. This is most frequent in the Chelsea-Everett-Malden-Melrose corridor.
Although many communities that participated in the pilot program praised Lime for its operations, the data comes at a time of uncertainty in the bike-share market.
Lime’s pilot program with several communities ends in June 2020 and it’s unclear whether the company will continue to offer the service as it shifts toward electric scooters, Bourassa said.
“Lime has to better analyze what they are going to be doing,’’ Bourassa said. “The reality is they are moving away from operating bikes and moving into scooters because they are seeing scooters getting higher ridership and can generate more revenue.’’ (Lime charges $1 per 30 minutes to ride its manual bikes, $1 to unlock, and 15 cents per minute to ride their pedal-assist e-bikes.)
In Brookline, which recently completed a scooter pilot, Bourassa said Lime scooters are getting five to six rides a day while bikes are getting two to three rides. Bourassa said those numbers follow a national trend; however it’s unclear whether scooters will catch on in Massachusetts, given legal and safety questions.
Arlington, Chelsea, Newton, Revere, and Watertown all are exploring joining the Bluebikes system, Bourassa said.
Bluebikes, which is operated by Lyft, offers a network of docking stations and provides a fleet of rental bicycles that customers can ride between stations. Bluebikes currently operates in Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Everett, and Somerville.
Daniel Amstulz, Arlington’s senior transportation planner, said the Lime pilot was a success and the town is now considering all options.
“Bluebikes has reached out to us about their program and we’re still looking at whether that makes sense for us,’’ he said. “We’re still in the middle of this program so we can’t speculate on what we will have in the future.’’
Mayor Ruthanne Fuller of Newton said recently that the city will continue discussions with both companies with the goal of ensuring that bike sharing continues in 2020 and beyond.
So where does that leave other communities that can’t or don’t want to join Blue Bikes and are hesitant to allow scooters?
Bourassa said MAPC is still trying to find a solution, whether it’s Lime or another company. MAPC recently put out a request for information from companies willing to provide bike-share services outside of Boston.
“We’re hopeful we can identify another operator that could offer a service, but that is still unknown,’’ Bourassa said.
Scott Mullen, Lime’s director of expansion in the Northeast, said Lime is exploring its options and working on plans for 2020. He said data shows that there is a strong demand for scooters and other commuting options but he acknowledged that each community has different needs.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all, but a community-by-community discussion,’’ he said. “We are in a congestion crisis and we need new options to get around.’’
Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.