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Bostonians on rented bicycles

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  August 2, 2013 09:30 AM

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Last fall Boston's bike sharing system, Hubway, released user data from its inception in July 2011 to the public, challenging design-minded statisticians to find the most innovative ways to display half-a-million bike trips graphically. In November, the Globe's Michael Morisy blogged the results of the "Hubway Data Visualization Challenge," many of which are very cool and worth poring over. A late-breaking entree, as it were, comes from big data analyst Elaine Lee, who studied Hubway trips as part of her recently completed masters degree in statistics from Harvard. Lee's paper isn't meant to have the visual snap of the graphics that won the competition, but her plain old bar charts do reveal a few interesting trends in the way Bostonians use rented bicycles.

This first chart breaks down Hubway trips by distance (measured, inexactly, as the distance between the start station and the end station). Most trips fall in the 1-2 mile range. There's a lot you can't tell from this data, of course, because it's likely that cyclists don't bicycle directly from one rental station to another. That said, Lee's analysis does suggest that the tipping point between "Should I walk it or bike it?" happens sooner than you might expect.

Hubway Distance.jpg

This second chart shows the distribution of start times for bike rentals. During the weekdays you see two big spikes, one in the morning, and the other in the afternoon, suggesting that a lot of people use Hubway to commute to and from work.

Hubway start times.jpg

It's interesting that the afternoon spikes are higher than the morning spikes- maybe people feel less pressed for time on their way home from work (and therefore more willing to bike than ride the T?), or maybe they're less concerned about getting sweaty since they're going home anyway. It's also interesting that the Monday spike is so much higher than the Tuesday-Friday spikes. Does this mean commuters enter the week all jazzed to exercise then get worn down and revert to less strenuous forms of transportation? One other interesting point, that Lee makes in her paper, is that there are a lot more very early morning bike trips on the weekends than the weekdays, which could owe to all-night partiers trying to find their way home. A rented bicycle and alcohol are an entertaining combination, and it might be worth trying to correlate early morning bike rental data with admissions at area hospitals for head injuries.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that Hubway released five years of user data. In fact, it released data from the program's inception, in July 2011, through September 2012.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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