Housing Complex

Bikesharing is Bikecaring

Juan Botero drives a van so you can ride bikes. (Darrow Montgomery)

It’s 6:30 in the morning, and Juan Botero’s workday has already started. His boxy gray van sits idling on New Jersey Avenue next to the Navy Yard Metrorail station. I lock my bike and rush over to hop in, already late.

“It’s a little bit colder today, so hopefully we don’t get killed,” Botero says, as we peel out for the Southwest waterfront, where the sky is starting to lighten.

Nice weather means crazy days for Botero, the wiry Colombian street team leader for Alta, the company that runs Capital Bikeshare. It’s his job to make sure people who want to bike to work in the morning can find a ride where they need it, and park it when they’re done. Since most Bikeshare members live in residential areas and commute to the commercial core, he and another driver have to ferry bikes back to the neighborhoods as soon as they fill up downtown, like bailing out a ship as it takes on water (the technical term is “rebalancing”). The process continues until midnight.

Plotting his course, though, feels more like a video game. To figure out where to go next, Botero has a laptop with a map of the system that automatically updates every three minutes to show how many bikes are at each of the 109 stations. When one gets completely full or completely empty, he books it over there or sends the other van. The District Department of Transportation’s contract with Alta mandates financial penalties when a station stays full or empty for more than three hours.

“You have to decide all the time,” Botero says later. “If you just drive around and go from an empty to a full system all day, you’re not moving effectively. You’re just wasting gas.”

Here’s a typical couple hours for Botero: After filling the van to capacity at the Southwest waterfront, we high-tail it to Tenleytown and through Woodley Park, where Botero wheels out bikes to replenish nearly empty docking stations. The city has come to life now, and bikes, pedestrians, cars, and buses are slowing our progress. Botero darts through alleys and does U-turns as if he were driving a Miata instead of a Sprinter van. We fill up again at three stations around 14th Street NW and New York Avenue downtown, then zoom up 14th Street to drop them at the Reeves Center and at 16th and U streets NW. It’s hard work; even in the chilly weather, Botero’s taken off his Capital Bikeshare-logoed jacket. Then we’re out to Foggy Bottom to pick up more bikes. A few blocks after nearly emptying the dock at 19th Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue, Botero glances at his laptop—it’s nearly full again.

The Alta team had the relatively quiet months of December and January to work out kinks in the system. But Bikeshare ridership has skyrocketed since then, reaching 64,151 trips in March. Membership has been steadily rising as well, jumping from 6,600 in early April to about 8,800 after a LivingSocial deal last week lowered the $75 annual fee to $37. Then there are the thousands of tourists taking advantage of a new $5 daily rate.

If Bikeshare is to be a viable form of transportation—and knit together a city whose transit system becomes more overburdened every year—it needs to be reliable. Can Alta and DDOT keep up?

—-

Figuring out where to go next. (Darrow Montgomery)

D.C. was the first city in the country to adopt and then ditch a bike-sharing system: The ill-fated Smartbike, which was an afterthought in a 10-year, $87 million Clear Channel contract for bus station advertising. The ad company supplied 120 bikes at 10 racks in 2008, but didn’t promote it. On its best day, the system had 163 rentals (the average was much lower).

Instead of expanding Smartbike, the city decided to scrap it and start over. In August 2009, then-DDOT Director Gabe Klein visited Montreal, which had a system of robust bikes and solar-powered docking stations that just drop onto the ground, instead of being drilled into cement. “I had this romantic love affair with Bixi,” Klein told an audience at Portland State University last week, using the Canadian system’s name. “It’s like an Erector set. And the bikes are absolutely bombproof.”

So Klein decided to bring Bixi to D.C. A little over a year later, the system launched with 1,100 bikes and a P.R. blitz, which turned bikesharing in D.C. from a dinky pilot into a badge of Euro-urban cool. In December, the D.C.-Arlington partnership announced a 40 percent expansion, to 1,300 bikes at 134 stations. Meanwhile, just like government agencies had facilitated corporate memberships for employees, officials have also allowed developers to include Bikeshare stations as part of their building projects. At $50,000 a pop—which covers the station, the solar setup, and the bikes—it’s not a lot for a builder to pay for an amenity that can help sell a new condo or office complex. And it makes it a lot easier for the city to reach its goal of doubling the size of the system within two years.

So far, statistics show Bikeshare is most heavily used in the densest areas of the urban core. Not counting the people who bought the LivingSocial deal, there are 1,317 members in ZIP code 20009 (which covers Columbia Heights, U Street, and Adams Morgan) and 638 in 20002 (northern Capitol Hill, H Street, and Eckington). Membership drops off precipitously after that. As of Sunday, the busiest stations were Dupont Circle (24,271 trips started and ended), 15th and P streets NW (19,043 trips), and Adams Mill and Columbia roads NW (18,116 trips).

East of the Anacostia River, however, is a different story. The seven stations in Wards 7 and 8 have been used a total of 946 times since the system’s launch, and the two wards have only 38 members.

Part of the problem may be that there are too few stations, not too many: The system becomes more useful the shorter the average distance covered. Then there’s the fact that bikes lanes are virtually non-existent east of the river. But the biggest issue is education, both of would-be cyclists and drivers who aren’t used to seeing them on the roads.

“We don’t have the same consideration about bikes here as they have in other places,” Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Gregg Justice told a transportation forum put on by Councilmember Tommy Wells in Ward 8. “If you get on the sidewalk with your bike, you get cussed, you get on the road, you get cussed. You have to create a campaign about bicycling. People don’t know what they are.”

Justice is in luck: The Washington Area Bicyclist Association is fundraising to do just that.

—-

Almost full! (Darrow Montgomery)

Part of running a startup bikeshare system—D.C. is only Alta’s second, after Melbourne, Australia—is constant improvisation. When the system almost got overwhelmed during the Cherry Blossom Festival, and the vans couldn’t get around to each station because of road closures, Alta had to create a depot on the Mall constantly staffed by one person where people could pick up and drop off bikes.

Then there’s the daily grind of maintenance. Each bike has to be checked every two weeks, and Alta has a staff of mechanics—many underemployed bike shop staffers and couriers—who work on bikes at the warehouse and trundle around visiting stations. People will slash tires and even vomit on bikes during late-night revelry (“Mostly in Adams Morgan,” Botero says).

One of the difficult parts is weathering criticism from people who couldn’t find a bike when they needed it, relayed through Twitter and Facebook. Botero, who will leave D.C. soon to start Alta’s system in Chattanooga, Tenn., says sometimes there’s just nothing to be done—and people should adapt, just like they might try to snag a Metrorail seat by getting to their station earlier.

“If you know that every day your rack is empty at 9:30, maybe at 9:15, there are two bikes,” he says. “It’s Bikeshare. You’re not guaranteed a bike.”

  • PCouto

    This is a great article. This is really good timing to put out a piece that details how the operations work and that we as CaBi members need to understand it's a work in progress. It can't be a perfect system, but it will improve, given they increase staff and stations. Again, a great article. Thank you for putting this out there.

  • M.Rock

    I didn't know Tommy Wells was in Ward 8... Otherwise, good read.

  • http://thebrightwoodian.blogspot.com/ The Brightwoodian

    @M.Rock: I think that was a reference to the Ward 8 forum of Wells' "Rediscover the Bus" listening tour, which was held a few weeks ago.

  • urbanette

    Thanks Lydia for another good one. My husband and I talk about this all the time - how do they figure out where to put the bikes, how do they manage to always seem to have bikes whenever we need them,etc.

  • JM

    Interesting... so every few bike trips from a residential pick-up requires a truck trip back the other direction. Doesn't do much for the program's carbon footprint, eh?

  • C

    Thanks for this article -- it's a great inside look. Question about the number of new members from LivingSocial: They really only got 2,200 new members from it? They sold over 8,000 memberships, and considering that the system only had 6,000 members prior to LivingSocial, it seems shocking that they had 6,000 membership renewals through LivingSocial.

  • Urban_Architect

    Awesome article! I love the Capital Bikeshare program and think it's a great idea. However, my biggest concern, is the lack of accessibility to helmets at the actual bikeshare station. The logistics of providing helmets would probably be a nightmare, but it worries me that we're providing the bike, but not the helmet. Props to the website for "encouraging" everyone to "always" wear helmets and then going on to tell someone where to buy one, but for those just renting the bike for a day, I'm not sure that they'll actually do so....and so I think it would be awesome if we could figure out a way for a short term helmet rental as well...Probably wishful thinking on my part...

  • Andrew

    Great article on bikeshare, although I have a message for Adams Morgan

    Slashed tires and vomit? Come on! This is why we can't have nice things.

  • Dave

    @JM Seriously? Your talking about a van that can hold, at least from what I've seen, 20 bikes at a time, and that's mostly during rush hour. They aren't always redistributing the bikes, some of it is organic. In any event, for people who would drive or take a cab, you're talking about a HUGE reduction in CO2 emissions.

    This is an awesome and comprehensive look at the system. I'd be really interested in seeing an article on the details of how the program is funded/subsidized. But frankly, regardless of how we fund it, I'm extremely proud to live in the city with the largest bikeshare system in the US.

  • Scoot

    "so every few bike trips from a residential pick-up requires a truck trip back the other direction. Doesn't do much for the program's carbon footprint, eh?"

    ----

    But not every station require constant re-balancing. 65,000 trips taken in a month is a heck of a lot. The vans probably make a tiny fraction of that number in rebalancing trips.

  • Jacques

    @C -- this is just a guess, but I imagine not all of the LivingSocial buyers have gone onto the Capital Bikeshare website yet to cash in their vouchers and initiate/renew their memberships. Hence the 2,200 new members so far.

    (I would surmise this is a combination of Orange Line folks waiting until the stations go in on the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and other people who will get around to it when they get around to it).

    I don't think even CaBi will know for sure what the new/renewal breakdown looks like, until all of the vouchers have been redeemed.

  • Eric

    Remember that the Living Social deal also included the month-long memberships, which don't factor into the annual members numbers.

  • PleasantPlainer

    Re: Dave and JM, this rebalancing does seem kind of crazy and counter intuitive. You'd think the daily cost would be better absorbed/spent over the life of the project by buying more bikes and storing them at the Metro and/or even have trains bring them closer to where they need to go...I am sure Metro would do it, for a price, right? My sense is that most bike share-ers would be using Metro as a substitute, not cars/taxis. Have there been any studies/surveys done??

  • Grace Jones

    Juan is sexy in those tight jeans.

  • dchillrat

    @PleasantPlainer Metro buses could also be used to re-balance docks. All Metro buses have a rack on the front that holds 3 bikes. Just a thought.

  • noodlez

    @dchillrat-I BELIEVE BUS RACKS HOLD TWO BIKES.

    *********************************************************

    ADDING AN EXTRA STATION WITH MORE BIKES AT HIGH VOLUME STATIONS WOULD SEEM LIKE A BETTER WAY OF CONTROLLING REBALANCING THAN TO HAVE THESE TWO GUYS WASTE GAS DURING THE BUSIEST TIME OF THE DAY. I TOOK FROM THIS ARTICLE THAT BIKESHARE’S REBALANCING IS OFF BALANCE.

    WHY IS NO ONE QUESTIONING THIS JOKER’S DRIVING? HE SEEMS TO BE A TAD BIT WRECKLESS DURING THE MORNING RUSH WITH HIS HIGH-TAILS, ZOOMING, DARTS THRU ALLEYS AND U-TURNS. I CAN READ HEADLINE NOW. "BIKESHARE VAN HITS BIKESHARE RIDER WHILE TRYING TO REPLENISH BIKESHARE STATION."

    @Dave-EVERY LIL BIT HELPS. WHEN SOMEONE THROWS ONE PLASTIC BOTTLE ON THE GROUND AND IT ENDS UP IN THE ANACOSTIA IM SURE THEY ARE THINKING ALONG THE SAME LINES AS YOU. TO JM’S POINT IF ONE OF THE PURPOSES IS TO REDUCE THE CARBON FOOTPRINT THEN WHY ARE THE VANS BEING SCURRIED AROUND BURNING FUEL? I THINK THE QUESTIONS SHOULD BE ARE THE VANS HYBRIDS OR ELEC VEHICLES? IF NOT THEN WHY ARENT THEY UTILIZING ALT FUEL TECH?

    YO ALTA ENUF OF THE AFFIRMATIVE ACTION STATIONS PLACED ON THE OTHER SIDE. BIKESHARE IS NOT COST EFFECTIVE FOR BLACK FOLK IN SE WORKING FROM PAYCHECK TO PAYCHECK. STILL DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY FOLK WOULD LEASE A BIKE RATHER THAN BUY ONE. THEY EVEN PROMOTE ONE DAY RENTALS TO BIKE SHOPS???

    HIGH RISK. LOW REWARD.

  • Will

    Urban_Architect - Helmets are not force fields, so stop pretending that if everyone wore one bike fatalities would end. Two recent high profile fatalities in DC were crushing injuries to women wearing helmets, and I struggle to recall a recent head injury or TBI fatality. To be sure, they happen too, a good friend is still recovering from a TBI he got in a race (while wearing a helmet). There are higher priority safety issues, such as infrastructure and driver behavior that contribute much more to cyclist safety.

    Noodlez - Alta started the program with a pilot electric truck (a Boulder EV model), and it failed. They sent it back to the manufacturer because it didn't perform as advertised and ran out of charge after a short time. Give them the benefit of the doubt, they are a model company trying something brand new.

  • Cheryl

    Thanks for the article. I'm from D.C. and I think bikesharing is wonderful. It's not the only city, nor was it the only city that "adopted then ditched" a bikesharing plan. That happened in Portland Oregon, too, when their yellow bike program (maybe pilot program) ended around 2001-2002. There were lockers around the city, placed at different light rail stations and other spots, but eventually failed because of theft if I remember correctly. I've heard rumors for the last two years that the city wants to start again and that there are a couple of bids.

  • Eric

    NOODLEZ STOP YELLING LIKE AN IDIOT. LOOK AT THE PHOTOS IN THE ARTICLE, THEY CLEARLY SHOW UPWARDS OF A DOZEN BIKES IN THE VAN. THE PROGRAM ISN'T GOING TO DO MUCH TO REDUCE CARBON IF IT IS NOT RELIABLE. NOW CALM DOWN PLEASE.

  • pat b

    Perhaps the Downtown docks need to be made larger, so the residential area docks hold 15 bikes, the downtown docks hold 45, so that people come from the residential areas in the morning, leave a bike there, and, spend their day at the office, then bike back.

    The other thing is where the docks are going empty tells you what the needs are for more capacity.

    Now, that said a van is kind of a silly way to haul bikes, perhaps a specialized trailer, much like a canoe trailer would be better. Something designed to haul bikes just as soda, beer, glass and windshields have special transporters.

  • noodlez

    @Eric-I BELIEVE THE ONLY IDIOCY BEING DISPLAYED HERE IS YOUR LACK OF UNDERSTANDING OF MY COMMENT.

    NOW RE-READ IT AGAIN BUT ONLY AFTER YOU PUT A GEL CUSHION ON YOUR BIKE SADDLE BECAUSE YOU ARE RIDING THAT RUBBER THING A BIT MUCH AND IT'S AFFECTING YOUR THOUGHT PROCESS.

  • bradley saaks

    This is a hilarious article. I used to work for capitol bikeshare and juan did'nt do a single thing, he was horrible at scheduling and screwed up everything he touched. It is nice that you make this article look like he does something and might be good at it.

  • bradley saaks

    capitol bike share...where bicyclists DO NOT DESERVE HEALTH INSURANCE!!!!!

    http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=logo#!/event.php?eid=215546281792439

  • bradley saaks

    Capitol Bikeshare/alta bicycles denies health insurance to employees who ride bikes for the job.

    THIS ONLY HAPPENED TO EMPLOYEES WHO RIDE BIKES FOR THE JOB!!!.

    i quit my job today and i am so happy not to be working for a bunch of incompetent people anymore. when i was hired in november i was a full time employee with benefits and an option to have health insurance after a set amount of time. starting feb. Alta bikes, who is the mother company of Capitol Bike Share, changed thier policy and made me and all of the people in my position a part time employee with out benefits. i/we was also denied any buy in on the health plan they ues for full time employees. then a week or so later, they gave back everything TO ONLY THREE of the 8 people effected and called them managers. the rest were paid the amount of PTO they were alotted for the year (i had around 27 hours) and no longer allowed to work a 40 hour week capping out at 32hrs.
    THIS ONLY HAPPENED TO EMPLOYEES WHO RIDE BIKES FOR THE JOB!!!. the employees who drive vans (rebalancing the system), and station technitions were NOT affected by this change in policy. they all still have a full timer with insurance and benefits.

  • Pingback: Where’s My Bike? The Real Time Capital Bikeshare Map | CityZen: UrbanLifestyle

  • Josh

    Perhaps adding a rebate to pick up a bike from a full rack or to drop a bike at an empty rack and a surcharge for the opposite would help in re-balancing the system a bit.

    Also, the $75 annual fee seems low for unlimited use. For a daily commuter this would be probably lower than maintenance costs on a private bicycle (I think I spend that much yearly keeping my daily commuter running). Perhaps they should be charging more for those that use the system a lot.

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  • http://www.dccondoboutique.com/ Mark Washburn
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  • http://www.highrises.com/city/austin Ellen

    We're definite behind the curve on this one in Austin. Our city council is just now getting around to approving a 500 bike bikeshare program for downtown because traffic has gotten out of control. However it was 112 degrees last weekend... not sure how many people will opt for a bike when we have a summer like this one...

  • http://theaustonian.com/ Michelle

    The Capital Bikeshare program is awesome, BUT they dont have accessibility to helmets! This really scare me because we don't know what will happen next.

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