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Boston-area dockless bike data suggests most rides for commute, not connections

No last-milers these Lime riders—instead they appear to hop e-bikes for regular commutes not ending in a train or bus stop

Several rider-less e-bikes in a row. Shutterstock

Only about 15 percent of Lime electric battery-powered bike rides in the Boston region over the past 18 months ended within 100 meters of a train, trolley, or bus stop, including commuter rail and the T.

The vast majority instead appear to have ended farther away from such hubs, suggesting that most riders have been utilizing the e-bikes simply to get from Point A to Point B within their own communities or ones nearby.

That is according to a new study from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), which selected California e-bike operator Lime in spring 2018 to operate e-bikes in several towns and cities around Boston. The council is unveiling the study on Wednesday evening as part of the MetroCommon 2050 Speaker Series in Boston.

The study analyzed 301,000 trips made between April 1, 2018 and September 30, 2019, totaling an estimated 380,000 miles to, from, and around Arlington, Bedford, Belmont, Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Medford, Melrose, Milton, Needham, Newton, Quincy, Revere, Waltham, Watertown, and Winthrop.

The number of Lime bikes available at any one time in these 16 places fluctuates due to various factors, including the season. The system was averaging about 700 during the summer, a rep said.

That only 15 percent of trips appear to have been used to connect with mass transit is probably the study’s most surprising conclusion, according to the MAPC. Transit advocates, urban planners, micromobility operators themselves, and others generally view the vehicles as a way to go that so-called “last mile”—the final bit between a home or an office and the most convenient mass transit stop a commuter can get to. Not so in most cases, it seems.

“While the 15 percent of trips that start or end near a transit station suggest that ‘last-mile’ connections are a significant aspect of Lime Bike rider choices,” the study said, “the 85 percent of trips that are not associated with a transit connection underscore that most Lime Bike trips reflect routes that are not easily substituted for by the rapid-transit system.”

Some say such data could be useful in deciding where to allocate more e-bikes and infrastructure such as bike lanes.

“We’re looking forward to using this new data resource 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,” Nicole Freedman, Newton’s director of transportation planning, said in a release about the MAPC report.

The report also found that the average Lime e-bike trip during the 18 months ended September 30 was 1.3 miles and took about 16 minutes. Interestingly, a report released in September by INRIX, a mobility analytics and car connectivity firm well-known for its traffic analyses, found that 49 percent of all automobile trips in the Boston area were less than 3 miles and 21 percent were under 1 mile.

Might e-bikes and micromobility in general—including conventional bikes and bike-shares such as Bluebikes and e-scooters, which run like e-bikes—be an answer, then, to the Boston region’s traffic congestion, which is some of the worst in the United States?

They might. It looks like e-bikes in particular could substitute for these short car rides. The MAPC study of Lime e-bike usage found that 27 percent of all the trips during that 18 months ended in predominantly residential neighborhoods and 24 percent originated in such enclaves.

What’s more, in both cases, some of these enclaves were in municipalities that Lime doesn’t service. In other words, a rider might e-bike it to near the Alewife T stop in Cambridge, and then lock the bike there (it has to find its way back to one of the 16 participating cities or towns to be unlocked for use again).

This data suggests—as does the data showing the vast majority of rides ending relatively far from mass transit—that there is a sizable ridership out there willing to skip the car in favor of something else.

“This analysis shows how new forms of so-called ‘micromobility’ can be quickly adopted by all kinds of communities and serve a unique role in the transportation system,” Eric Bourassa, MAPC’s transportation director, said in a statement.