Courtesy of Cornell University

Prof. David Shmoys and Eoin O’Mahony Ph.D. ’18 at a Manhattan Citi Bike station. Both researchers focus on improving the Citi Bike program.

September 4, 2018

Reimagining Bike Sharing: Cornell Researchers Develop Smoother Bike Transport

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Cornell researchers have been working for over four years to help bike share programs make their systems more efficient and user-friendly with key innovations such as real-time tracking, dock allocation and incentives for riders to move bikes to where they are needed.

Prof. David Shmoys, the Laibe/Acheson professor of business management and leadership studies, began working with Citi Bike and its parent company Motivate in 2013 to improve systems that bring bikes to dock stations in New York City where and when they are needed — a concept known as rebalancing.

“In a city like Ithaca it may be a lot easier to have a dockless system because I imagine bikes to be less in the way than perhaps could be the case in Manhattan,” Daniel Freund, Ph.D. ’18 said.

In a report published in June, Shmoys, Hangil Chung ’18 and Freund presented the results of a crowd-sourced strategy piloted in 2015 called Bike Angels that now accounts for over 10% of bikes rebalanced on busy days in New York City, according to Motivate.

The Bike Angels system incentivizes riders to move bikes based on a points and rewards system. Citi Bike even displays a leaderboard of the city’s top 10 Bike Angels, the top five of whom receive additional gift cards.

Developing Bike Angels was only one of several innovations Cornell researchers brought to the bike share industry. Shmoys, O’Mahony and Prof. Shane Henderson, director of the school of operations research and information engineering, co-authored an overview titled “Analytics and Bikes: Riding Tandem with Motivate to Improve Mobility” which was named a finalist in the 2018 INFORMS Wagner Prize for Excellence in Operations Research Practice.

In 2014, Shmoys and Eoin O’Mahony, a fourth year Ph.D. student in computer science, developed an algorithm to determine the optimal flow of bike rebalancing between dock stations.

“Although it is nearly impossible to keep the entire system balanced, this ensures people are not too far from an empty dock or a bike,” O’Mahony said in an interview with the Cornell Chronicle.

In addition to Bike Angels and algorithms that track rebalancing needs in real time, researchers suggested additional ways for bike share companies to streamline operations, like dock relocation.

“Using Citi Bike data and our mathematical models, we wanted to investigate how those docks could be allocated to stations more efficiently,” Freund said. “That is something that Motivate implemented in NYC and Chicago that also gave them a lower cost way of serving more customers.”

Mahony’s paper, Smarter Tools for (Citi)Bike Sharing, won him first place and $1,000 cash prize in the Doing Good with OR Student Paper Competition at the 2014 Annual Meeting of INFORMS, an international association for Operations Research & Analytics professionals. .

Both Shmoys and Freund expressed doubt that dockless systems like the Lime Bikes now ubiquitous in Ithaca would be broadly adopted in other cities like New York.

“The bike angels program is something that we first ran a tiny pilot for in October 2015 while I was based at Motivate. I don’t think anyone anticipated then that it would grow into something this large,” Freund told The Sun.

Shmoys expanded on some possible systems with potential for growth, including geo-fencing and systems that combine docks and dockless bikes.

“I think some sort of hybrid is likely to emerge with both things like parking areas that function like stations and the ability to have a smaller number of bikes that are more flexible in being parked anywhere,” Shmoys told The Sun.