How DC Became The US Leader In Bike Sharing

The way of leadership is best in example. I don’t think the White House is blind or deaf to peak oil, but oil pressure in DC is strong. Tar Sands and Occupy movements have surrounded the White House to bring home our hope that environmental concerns are not only for the tried and true naturalists, but for a better life for every global citizen. From urbanites to country folk, the circles of activists have been diverse. Those beautiful circles around the White House must be part of what is inspiring quicker change.

washington dc bikes

Being the change is how to live. So one might have expected Washington DC to get a bike share, and why not the best in the country? Today, the nation’s largest, most successful bike-share program — in terms of size, ridership, and financial viability — is in Washington, DC.

Like many, perhaps most of these wonderful programs, which are now sprouting within our country’s infrastructure, one looks to our role models in Copenhagen. As with all subcultures becoming more mainstream, we strive to catch up with Copenhagen, Barcelona, BerlinRio, Bogota, Paris, BaselAmsterdam, and most certainly Utrecht, Groningen, Amsterdam, and the entire Netherlands.

Currently, no one is ahead of the Northern Europeans, with their parks set up to teach children safety how to bike in traffic (already 50 years ongoing) — they saw the future with consideration of resources, clean air, safely, and time, long ago. We have to start again, pick up speed, with citizen programs for bike safety, bike-routes combining mass-transit (a well loved favorite), and educational parks for safe biking lessons for our youth. Sounds like I am dreaming bike utopia. But this is the way many of these programs have begun, and in this particular case, the beginning of the DC program was essentially born late one night, two decades ago, in a library. Paul DeMaio, an urban planning student at the University of Virginia, dreamt it up, and eventually made it a reality.

Portland or Seattle once were this country’s most progressive regional poles of walkable urbanism, or 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 new reports are in. Today, the nation’s largest, most successful bike-share program — in terms of size, ridership, and financial viability — is in Washington, DC.

capitol bike share


The Old and the New

As we have found in other places, many times, it is an urban planning student, high on living the good life, that changes the world. In this case, Paul DeMaio came upon images of ByCyklen, a new “city bike” program launched by the city of Copenhagen.

Eventually, DeMaio 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 the idea rose to prominence in other cities and countries, most notably Paris and Barcelona, DeMaio hoped to one day get a program implemented nearby. Eventually, due to a cooperative effort tucked into the many-page request for proposals submitted to the local jurisdiction, was a “very short mention of bike sharing.” One hundred bikes, 10 stations were promoted and swam through channels of formation, reformation.

One of the big questions in the process that rose up included how to fund it. Clear Channel, which funded the Paris Velib bike-sharing program wasn’t up for it. Other private sponsors also weren’t. Heads of local government were only if it could be done in a very cost-effective way, and if it could become a big success. Questions posed to DeMaio included:

“Can it be the best out there?” DeMaio said, “yes.”

“Can it be the biggest in the US?” DeMaio said, “yes.”

“Can you build it such a way that it will be cost-neutral to the city?” DeMaio said, “I think so.”

Launching a sponsorless bike-sharing system intended to break even, or even make money, was unprecedented. And having no sponsor made raising capital a challenge, but DC-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 DC, 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.

Image Credits: thisisbossi; randomduck

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