Lime riders traverse dangerous roadways

Data from bike-share could inform urban planning

PEOPLE RENTING BIKES through an app often travel down dangerous roadways, such as Revere Beach Parkway, according to a planning agency that is hoping to sift the travel patterns of those cyclists to inform future decisions about transportation infrastructure.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council facilitated contracts between multiple Boston suburbs and Lime, a bike-sharing company, and received anonymized data on 300,000 trips as part of an agreement with the company. On Wednesday, the MAPC shared some of its initial findings in a research brief.

According to the data, about 18 percent of miles traveled by Lime bikers were on stretches classified as “very high stress” – roadways where the lane configurations and traffic make them especially risky for bike-car crashes.

“In many cases, these roadways provide the only direct connection to important destinations. 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 MAPC study said. The research brief determined that the routes “heavily used by Lime bike riders should be important priorities for local bike facility improvements.”

Many Lime users appear to be casual bicyclists. About half either don’t even own a bike or haven’t used their bike in more than a month. Still, the data gleaned from the GPS units embedded within the Lime bicycles could be instructive, according to MAPC, which helps Boston area municipalities make planning decisions and generally pushes for environmentally friendly “smart growth.”

The data also showed how multi-use paths have become like “highways” for bicyclists and found those low-stress roadways account for roughly 44 percent of Lime bike travel. Lime riders are using the rentals to get to a variety of destinations – including urban centers, residential neighborhoods, and transit stops – and the average trip lasts 1.3 miles. Use of the bike-rental service also dropped off significantly this summer compared to last summer.

Lime bikes are similar to Blue Bikes, which are available in the urban core, in that they can be quickly and easily rented. Boston, Cambridge, Somerville and Brookline are all exclusively Blue Bike territory, and Everett is the only city with agreements for both Blue Bikes and Lime to operate within its borders.

Unlike Blue Bikes, Lime bikes are not tethered to large docks, so people can ride them directly to their destination as they would a normal bike – rather than searching for the closest dock to deposit it. Starting late last year, Lime started introducing electric-assist bikes, which use a motor to help power the drive-train. Those e-bikes are somewhat more expensive than the normal pedal-powered bikes.

The extra cost might be one reason why the number of trips during the peak-riding months of April through September dropped 40 percent from 2018 to 2019. The planning council also reported that municipalities said fewer Lime bicycles were available this year, which could have cut into ridership, but it was unable to determine how many overall bikes were deployed.

Uber has invested in Lime, and Blue Bikes is owned by Lyft, but bike-sharing hasn’t caught on quite as much as the popular apps used to hail drivers. In Malden, the first city to offer Lime bikes and a community that has adopted them more than its neighbors, Lime bike trips accounted for just 0.08 percent of all trips originating in the city. There were 30 ride-hailing trips for every Lime bike trip originating in Malden, according to the MAPC study.

MAPC isn’t done digesting the data from Lime, either. Asserting that similar data-sharing arrangements should be standard for all new mobility forms – including scooters, autonomous vehicles, and drones – MAPC plans to keep crunching the numbers.

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Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

“Over the coming year, MAPC will continue to analyze this data, along with Lime’s data about the electric scooter pilot in Brookline, in order to better inform transportation and land use policies,” the brief said.

In a statement sent out by MAPC, Lime’s director of Northeast expansion, Scott Mullen, said MAPC’s data analysis will “enable cities and towns to prioritize safe, inviting infrastructure, which will entice people out of their cars” for short trips, reducing the region’s traffic congestion problem.

Nicole Freedman, director of transportation planning for Newton, said the data would be used as “another piece of information to plan for new bike infrastructure that will make people feel safe and comfortable biking around Newton so they don’t feel the need to drive for every little trip.”