Why D.C., of All Places, Has the Best Bike Sharing in the United States

People who accomplish great things, and how they do it.
Jan. 7 2013 5:45 AM

The Best Bike-Sharing Program in the United States

How D.C., of all places, made it happen.

Bicycles are seen in a rack at a bike sharing station January 25, 2011 in Washington, DC.
Bicycles are seen in a rack at a bike sharing station in Washington, DC.

Photograph by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

If you had been handed, a decade ago, a map of the U.S. and asked to predict where the novel idea of bike sharing—then limited to a few small-scale projects in a handful of European cities, might first find its firmest footing, you probably would have laid your money on a progressive hub like Portland or Seattle or the regional poles of walkable urbanism, New York or San Francisco—all of which were scoring higher, those days, in surveys like Bicycling magazine’s list of most bikeable cities. But today, the nation’s largest, most successful bike-share program—in terms of size, ridership, and financial viability—is in Washington, D.C. How did D.C. accomplish this unlikely task?

The program was essentially born late one night, two decades ago, in a library.  

Paul DeMaio, an urban planning student at the University of Virginia, was doing Internet research (“pre-Google,”  he notes) when he stumbled upon images of ByCyklen, a new “city bike” program launched by the city of Copenhagen. Enthralled by the idea, he visited the city, learned what he could about the system, and, eventually, distilled his findings into a master’s thesis on bike sharing. Which had about as much impact as the typical master’s thesis. “No one was picking it up,” he recalls over coffee at D.C.’s Union Station. “I was so upset. But as a 22-year-old, what are you going to do?”

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And so the idea, in the U.S. at least, lay dormant, as DeMaio left school and went to work on traffic-calming projects for the city of Alexandria, Va. But DeMaio nurtured the idea, one of a small band of enthusiasts in the world of bike advocacy and in the fringe of city transportation departments, as it rose to prominence in Europe with popular programs like Paris’ Velib and programs in Stockholm and Amsterdam, among others. And then one day he was talking with a local colleague—Jim Sebastian, the bicycle coordinator with D.C.’s Department of Transportation. The district’s contract for bus shelter advertising was coming up for renewal. “I said, ‘Hey Jim, this is what they’re doing in Europe—they’re offering bike-sharing services as part of an outdoor advertising contract.” The DDOT, then led by Dan Tangherlini, got behind the idea. And, so tucked into the many-page request for proposals was, he says, a “very short mention of bike sharing.” One hundred bikes, 10 stations.

Paul DeMaio, MetroBike LLC
Paul DeMaio

Courtesy Paul DeMaio.

And so, in 2008, a few decades after DeMaio’s Copenhagen epiphany and a few years after the RFP—Clear Channel, the winner of the bus shelter contract,  “wanted to get all their bus shelters out first, and then … look into this weird bike thing,” jokes DeMaio—Smart Bike DC launched. It was, by most accounts, a noble failure. There were too few stations and bikes to form a meaningful and useful network. The system offered only long-term memberships, rather than offering short-term access via credit card. In fact, it didn’t take credit cards at all (so much for capturing the tourist market). Building stations took a lot of time and money. DeMaio himself says he used it only a handful of times.

But D.C. had launched the first commercial bike-sharing program in a major U.S. city, so the idea was planted. And even as Smart Bike was foundering, the ground was being laid for a new, larger, regional bike-share system. DeMaio, who now runs his own transport consultancy (and who, in a historical irony of sorts, recently worked on a newly reinvigorated bike-sharing program for the city of Copenhagen), began talking about an improved bike-sharing system with Chris Hamilton, the head of the Commuter Services Bureau of the transportation division in Arlington County, a portion of Virginia just over the river from D.C. “He basically said, ‘Why aren’t we doing this yet?’ ” says DeMaio. Dennis Leach, Arlington’s transportation director, also signed on. “He’s a bike commuter,” says DeMaio, “and when we bring him an idea of how we can make bicycling in Arlington better, he jumps at it.”

Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) Commissioner Gabe Klein
Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) Commissioner Gabe Klein

Photograph courtesy of Gabe Klein (CDOT)

In D.C., Gabe Klein, a former VP at car-sharing pioneer ZipCar and political neophyte, was appointed head of the DOT. He had an “action agenda,” as he calls it, with more than 100 items on it—one of which was to launch a larger bike-share system. “Having come from ZipCar,” says Klein, now transportation commissioner for the city of Chicago (which, like New York, is launching a big bike-share system this spring), “I knew that any sort of nodal business was only as effective as the number of nodes you have.” While SmartBike was useful in terms of getting early adopters onboard and the public used to the idea, it was a trip to Montreal, with its Bixi system, that hinted at what a bike-share system could look like. SmartBike stations, Klein says, “were a construction project. It took months. You had to get PEPCO [the local electrical utility] out there, it had to be wired.” Bixi’s stations, by contrast, were solar-powered and modular. Where it could take three months to build a SmartBike station, Bixi stations could be set up in three days.

Shortly after his appointment in 2008, Klein, who had worked with Arlington County on ZipCar, began conversations on creating a regional bike-share system. It soon became clear that ClearChannel, which had sponsored the SmartBike experiment, was out. He then went to Adrian Fenty, D.C.’s newly elected, and popular, mayor, and said he wanted to launch a new, larger bike-share system. “He said three things. Number one: Can it be the best out there? I said yes. Can it be the biggest in the U.S.? I said yes. Can you build it such a way that it will be cost-neutral to the city? I said I think so.”

Launching a sponsorless bike-share system intended to break even, or even make money, was unprecedented. And having no sponsor made raising capital a challenge, but D.C.-area governments scavenged for the money. “We got lucky,” says DeMaio. In Arlington, the Virginia Department of Rail kicked in $200,000; a business-improvement district in Crystal City matched that. The county chipped in more. In D.C., the government used money from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) improvement program. It also tapped its own innovative revenue stream. Through an “enterprise fund” within DOT—funded by things like parking revenues (which, Klein says, had gone up some 400 percent thanks to new technologies like “pay by phone”)—Klein says there was “money to match the ongoing growth of the program.” Bike sharing, like all politics, is the art of the possible.

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