D.C. unveils country's largest bike share program

Sleek, solar-powered stations accommodating more than 1,000 bikes have arrived in the nation's capital. D.C. introduces its $5 million bike share program, modeled after Montreal's.

Two blocks from my rowhouse in one direction, and four blocks in the other direction, are solar-powered stations filled with brand new, red, three-speed bikes with flashing LED lights. They seemed to appear overnight, and everyone in Washington seems to be talking about them. I’m smitten.

Capital Bikeshare--or CaBi, for those in the know--rolled into town in late September and is the largest and one of the first such programs in the U.S. Rates are $5 a day or $75 for an annual membership--which includes an electronic key. The first 30 minutes of riding is free for members, and charges increase with time after that.

One of the first things the city’s Bikesharing Project Manager Chris Holben explained to me is that the system encourages users to ride short distances and get bikes back in circulation. (If you want a bike for the day, go to a rental shop.) Bike sharing is for getting from point A to point B, not so much for a recreational ride. With 100 stations in the District (and 14 in Arlington, Va.), it’s easy to find a station near your destination, whether it’s work, the barber shop or the bar.

The program falls under the  District Department of Transportation, and it has created such goodwill with these bikes that we might even forgive the city’s potholes. Last week, I talked to Holben about the ins and outs of the program—including the story of how body paint ended up on one of his bikes. Excerpts of our conversation are below.

We’re almost two months into the country’s largest bike share program. What stats do you have?

It started September 20, and through November 8 we have:

  • 52,000 trips, 38,000 of which were by members versus day users; and
  • 4,480 annual members.

Dupont Circle has been the busiest station, followed by 14th and U streets. There’s definitely a rush hour trend during the week and more casual users on the weekend.

How do those numbers compare to what you expected?

We felt it picked up quickly, but it’s not a super big surprise. The speed of us reaching 4,480 is very successful for just a month and a half of usage. We’ve been lucky with a fairly nice fall.

There are 100 stations now. What’s the plan for expansion?

We’re looking to add about 20 more this spring and then it’s really more an issue of political will and how the budget looks. I know we’re interested in expanding.

I’ve worked for D.C. government for close to 10 years and usually things work very slow here, which is typical for big projects like roads and bridges, so being able to install this many of anything in a month is remarkable. The system is so elegant that you can put down one [station] in an hour, and you flip the switch and it’s online. You bring by a truck an hour later and deliver the bikes.

It’s surprising to me that Washington now has the country’s largest bike share program. Why is that?

There’s only two others in the States--Minneapolis and Denver.

In the European cites they’ve had it for four or five years now and have gotten lots of press. The Paris and Barcelona systems are huge compared to anything over here. People don’t quite understand it here. To really make it work you need to make a big splash at one time. You can compare it to a bus stop—you need to be able to walk to a bike station from your office or home or a Metro station. The use potential expands exponentially as you add more stations.

And it’s expensive to start up a big system like this.

How much of the cost of the program is covered by the city versus user fees, and how might this shift down the road?

Right now, the city covers all the costs. We’re recouping revenue on a monthly basis and that includes the membership fees and usage fees (if you take the bike out for more than 30 minutes).

The capital cost is about $5 million for 100 stations and the operations for 100 stations is about $2.3 million a year. So we’re hoping and expecting to cover at least 50 percent of the cost of the operations on a yearly basis through membership and usage fees. If and when D.C. is able to accept advertising or sponsorship, that percentage will go much higher.

There’s a law that prohibits advertising on District-owned property without special legislation. A special legislation was passed to allow advertising on bus shelters. It is something we’re looking into.

I assume maintenance is a good part of that $2.3 million?

Yes. A crew goes around and looks at every station and touches every bike at least once a week. They have tools and can repair bikes in the field. If they’re broken, a van comes by and will take it to the warehouse to do a full repair.

But another part of operations is rebalancing the bikes--removing bikes from stations that are full, putting them in stations that are empty. We have nine full-time positions for that and warehouse staff.

So they just go around the city riding bikes from one station to another? What a great job.

Yeah, that’s right. We’re looking at innovative ways to do that like using an electronic vehicle to haul the bikes around.

I’ve been wondering about the reshuffling. So there are more spots than there are bikes? It’s not like musical chairs?

No. There are approximately one-third more slots. D.C. bought 1,000 bikes, and our 100 stations contain 1,500 slots. We don’t have the complete fleet of bikes out yet. Right now we have it at a lower percentage while we’re figuring it out and fine tuning our redistribution.

How do you know when a bike needs maintenance?

So this morning I rode the bike in. The back wheel was rubbing a little bit on the fender. I knew it should be looked at. So when I [left it at the station] there’s a button that has a wrench, and it locks the bike into the system and sends a signal that that bike is out for some reason. We hope to rely on members to let us know that something is broken.

What if a bike is really damaged or someone crashes it? Do you electronically track down the last user?

We’re working with each individual case. Recently we had a situation after a rave type party at a nightclub on First Street Northeast. It was a body paint party. I guess there was paint on the sidewalk and there was fluorescent green on our bike. Luckily, it’s water based so we could wash it off pretty easily. So we wouldn't go after the member that rode that bike last.

We’ve actually had two accidents so far, and both times they called up the call center—a 24-hour 800 number--and we tell them if you’re hurt call 911, if not put the bike back on the rack and get a police report if you think someone else is at fault. If you are at home and have the bike for a week, we will charge you. But if the bike is stolen from you and you provide a police report we won’t charge you. If that happens to you three times we’ll have a different discussion. We give them the benefit of the doubt.

I see there’s a message at the stations about wearing a helmet, but it looks like a lot of people aren’t. Are you doing any public service messages around that and things like drunk cycling?

Drunk cycling—we haven’t heard of an issue with that any more than drunk cycling normally. I shouldn't say there have been no issues--our two accidents have been late at night and we never saw any police report. They were not injured; they just wanted to report an incident with the bike.

As for helmet, the law is no helmet required for 16 and older. A number of bike shops offer discounts if you come in with your Capital Bikeshare key. But it’s something we need to do more of and promote more, especially for the casual day user.

Where are the bikes made?

The frames are made in Canada. Most of the parts are made in Asia. The majority of the station is made in States. The bikes are assembled in our warehouse.

Who is the contractor?

Alta Bicycle Share. They purchase the equipment for us. They do the back-end membership support, they did all the installation, they did the bike and station construction, and they will do all the maintenance and operating pieces. I work for the city. Everyone else works for Alta.

Alta runs the call center in Montreal. Some of the issues at the beginning were geography-based. The call center was trained more on intersections, and callers were talking about landmarks. So now they know their D.C. geography and landmarks.

What do people call about?

Credit cards not working, or a station is full or empty. One of the biggest questions is what if I get to a station and it’s full. Right now you can go to the terminal and get your extra 15 minutes and it’ll tell you what stations are closest and how many slots are available.

What cities did you look to as a model?

We have our own SmartBike system (which will end in the next couple months). The program manager of SmartBike is now our operations manager of Bikeshare. Also Montréal, they’ve been going for two years now so we looked to them.

Any other technologies that will be added in the future, such as connecting it with Metro’s SmartTrip card or adding ATM machines?

We are looking at a multiple use card, and [SmartTrip] is the holy grail because everyone has those. But there are other things w e can do like using our own key to access the Circulator or the Arlington ART bus.

Our key physically needs to be entered into the system; it’s not just a RFID swipe. The system is solar powered and when it’s not being used, it powers down. So to flip on the system you have to enter the key. Because it’s solar powered, everything on the system is very energy stingy. So something like an ATM would probably require a hardware electrical. Another thing is GPS on each bike—which would be really interesting, both for us and the users.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com