Washington, District Of Cycling

How hard can it be to create what is arguably the best bike-sharing program in the country? As it turns out: very. Grab a helmet and take a spin through Capital Bikeshare's jealousy-inducing network.

Few modes of transportation are more basic than the humble bike. Heck, people have been straddling them for some 200 years, far longer than we’ve been moving about town in streetcars, subways, or our own cars. And so this seems a bit counterintuitive: A citywide bikeshare system is a remarkably complicated thing to create.

You’ve got your bike design: They need to be easy to ride but hard to steal. And your network design: Stations should be obvious to find, seldom full and never empty. And then you have to plan for actual people. Most of us won’t bike uphill. And we have a particularly hard time crossing rivers and railroad lines. Oh, and this entire system--it can't be tested on a small scale.

Wheel Talk

“By its nature, in order for it be a worthy investment, to have that return on investment, you have to have a large-scale system,” says Josh Moskowitz, a program manager for the Capital Bikeshare system in Washington, D.C.

The District piloted the country’s first bike share in 2008 and then launched Capital Bikeshare--or CaBi--two years ago as the large-scale prototype for systems that later spread to Boston, Miami and a dozen other towns, and that will come next year, finally, to Chicago and New York City. For reasons that Washington officials did not count on at the time, the nation’s capital may well have been the right place to kickstart the program.

“It wasn’t necessarily that people were clamoring for it,” recalls Chris Holben, CaBi’s other program manager. Some of the city’s transportation officials had been interested in the idea dating back almost a decade, and a bus shelter advertising contract with Clear Channel Communications had created the 120-bike pilot program in 2008, at no expense to the city. But mostly, officials in Washington had simply seen it work in places like Montreal and Paris and suspected it might work in the District, too. “It was nothing more beyond that,” Holben says. “It really was: Build it and hope they will come.”

Come they have. In two years, the system has expanded to 189 stations in the District and Northern Virginia, with more than 1,700 bikes and 2 million trips already taken. Now 17,000 people have annual memberships, and as of the end of the July, the self-sustaining system was nearly a million dollars in the black. The idea of bikesharing has turned out to be a cozy, aerodynamic fit for the area’s geography and changing demographics. Residents aged 20-34 now account for about a third of the District’s population (and nearly all of its population growth over the past decade). Nationally, this is also the demographic for whom biking is most popular.

Size Matters

The city itself is compact, relatively flat and small, all key characteristics for a system that relies on the right terrain as much as the right ridership. As large as Washington looms in the public imagination, it’s just the 24th most populous city in the country. And its physical footprint is not much larger than twice the size of Manhattan. In that sense, Washington may have been the ideal place to nationally test a bikeshare system on a modest scale--and without the harshest of winters--while still cementing the impression that such an idea could work in a major American metropolis.

As locals have embraced the system, it has dovetailed with the city’s shifting character. “D.C. itself has always had the identity of Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital,” says Daniel Gohlke, a local cycling enthusiast and IT specialist. “But we’re really starting to see the District of Columbia come out.”

And the District, away from Capitol Hill, turns out to have a fairly rabid biking culture, and one that fuses in surprising ways with the city’s more traditional wonkish, data-geek style. Not long ago Gohlke, a bikeshare member himself, built his own web platform--CaBiTracker-– to track public data about usage patterns in the system and when individual stations run empty. His platform was eventually acquired by the private company, Alta Bicycle Share, that operates CaBi (and will run New York City’s system) to help it manage demand and “rebalance” bikes around the network. Gohlke is now a full-time employee of the company.

“The fact that we attract people like that is a huge boon,” Moskowitz says. When CaBi released anonymized data from more than a million trips over its first 15 months, a startling number of members dug into the numbers and produced their own analysis and visualizations. One member tracked a year’s movement on a single bike. Another created a scatter plot of bikeshare usage by temperature. And this guy actually used the data to calculate that the average biker was riding downhill at an elevation loss of about 1.94 meters. Who needs a hobby when you have data?

The Tech Behind The Rides

Some of this advanced cycling nerd enthusiasm may be unique to Washington. But all of these projects also underscore a fundamental truth about modern, popular bikeshare systems: “Cycling itself--it’s two pedals, two wheels and a seat--is very, very low tech,” Gohlke says. “Yet the things that are happening with bikesharing are anything but low tech.”

Washington’s system, for example, runs on RFID key fobs, solar panels, and wireless data transmission. Those early pilot stations back in 2008, on the other hand, had to be hardwired into the city power grid. “That made each individual station a construction project,” Holben explains, saying each can take up to six months to install. Now, with solar power, new stations can be dropped onto a block in an hour.

The non-Washingtonian officials who now call on a weekly basis to inquire about bikesharing often fail to realize all of this. “They’re like, ‘Oh, bikes, they’re cheap, you can get one for 500 bucks,’” Holben says (actually, each full station runs about $60,000). “It’s not seen, at first, as a whole new transportation system.”

Mayor Vincent C. Gray, Councilmember Jack Evans and DDOT Interim Director Terry Bellamy standing with the bikes.

Looked at that way, it makes sense that bikesharing might spawn its own cottage industries, in much the same way that cars have. Soon enough, other innovative people created a route-planning platform and high-tech support tools and accessories. This summer, there was a successful campaign on Kickstarter to fund the production of a swanky lady’s handbag meant to fit on the front of a CaBi bike (for later transporting that not-so-stylish helmet). That kind of entrepreneurial spin-off project points to another kind of success for the Washington system.

Holben and Moskowitz, though, shy away from the suggestion that they had to prove that this complicated thing could work here. “I think we wanted to do it right because we wanted to keep our jobs,” Holben says. “We couldn’t worry that if we failed, it would fail in other places. But we do feel that we now have loads of information to provide.”

[Images: Flickr user DDOTDC]

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