A Visual Look at the Data Behind Bike Shares

by Allison McCartney 10 months ago Filed Under: Data


The Bay Area BikeShare program is set to open this week, making it the only major bikeshare currently operating on the West Coast. Bicycle sharing programs have swept across the country, with more than 20 U.S. cities participating as of 2013; a number that is expected to nearly double in the next year.

Besides helping to clear congestion and promote a healthy lifestyle, bike sharing programs have the ability to collect data on membership and ridership within their system to provide a snapshot of alternative methods of transportation that are otherwise difficult to track. These databases, which are often open to the public, have allowed data scientists to create some stunning visualizations of a city’s commuting patterns that provide valuable insight and are fun to look at.

Until New York City opened its bike share program in May 2013, Washington, D.C. and its nearby suburbs was home to the largest bike share in the country, with about 1,800 bikes and more than 2.2 million rides in the last year alone.

Capital Bikeshare, sometimes shortened to CaBi, opened in 2010 and provides an easily accessible system data page with a dashboard for visually exploring the numbers. This has also made it a target of analysis for other large bike sharing programs around the country.

The first visualization of the set simply tracks users as they move throughout the city from station to station.

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The second shows the most frequented paths taken from each respective station. The information from each of the stations was also aggregated by Arlington, Virginia’s Mobility Lab in a series of still images.

Capital Bikeshare Trip Visualizer

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The third visualization tells a more specific story. It tracked the movement of riders from the Washington Nationals baseball stadium after one game in October. By focusing on specific events or moments in time, these data can provide valuable insight into how a city can better alleviate traffic during entertainment events other situations with high concentrations of people.

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New York’s new Citi Bike program, introduced at the end of May, is currently the largest bike sharing program in the U.S., with around 6,000 bikes. Despite concerns from opponents of the program, Citi Bike has so far been a success, with more than 2.5 million rides since launch.

Two visualizations of the program show the availability of bicycles at each station throughout the day.

Interactive map: bike movements in New York City and Washington, D.C.

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A Month of Citi Bike

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While these interactives are fun and interesting to look at, they give the viewer less information that those that track the movement of the bicycles, since they provide no real trip information. The New Yorker interactive in particular provides little usable information since the overlapping circles obscure each other in a way that makes them largely unreadable.

More compelling is this network analysis of Boston’s Hubway system, the product of an open challenge by Hubway to create compelling visualizations from their data.

How does Hubway help you get around Boston faster?

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On the other side of the pond, London’s bike share, known formally as Barclay’s Cycle Hire, but colloquially as “Boris’ Bikes” after eccentric and pro-bike mayor Boris Johnson, has also provided the material for some beautiful visualizations.

At 8,000 bikes, London’s bike sharing program is the fifth largest in the world behind three major Chinese cities and Paris (though their data is not publicly available, Chinese cities are estimated to make up 17 of the world’s 20 largest bikeshares).

This visualization shows the city as a teeming anthill of bike activity on a day when the London Underground shut down, tracking the movements of riders like the first Capital Bikeshare animation, but with a bit more visual flare.

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Another visualization from New Scientist by Jo Wood shows a mesmerizing sea of bike users without an underlying mapping system to structure the data. Over time, the animation adds tracks to the individual users to display the most used stations and routes.

Bike sharing graphics can also be global. By aggregating the data from about 100 of the 500 worldwide cities with bike sharing programs, this map shows real-time bike usage in cities from Salt Lake City to Taipei.

Bike Share Map

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Allison McCartney is an editor at the PBS NewsHour focused on education and informational graphics, and a freelance designer in the Visual.ly marketplace. She has a bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis, where she studied Middle Eastern history and art. You can follow her on Twitter @anmccartney.