MOTU Goes to Washington — Part 2

This is the second post in a 2-part series about MOTU’s Bicycle/Pedestrian Program Planner, Aaron Ritz’s, recent trip down to Washington, DC to further understand DC’s bikeshare program. If you haven’t already, check-out the first post here

Operator, Operator

After Aaron Ritz experienced some of the features of CaBi first hand, he met with the folks at Alta Bicycle Sharing, the firm that operates the bike sharing system for Washington DC.  As might be expected, operating expenses for bike sharing are quite low when compared with other forms of transit.  The customers provide most of the energy in getting themselves where they want to go, the bikes themselves use no fuel and the kiosks are solar powered, providing enough energy to run the cell-phone based registration system.

ReBalancing Act

That said, bike sharing is a type of transit, and there are costs associated with any system running optimally.  Capital Bikeshare employs 45 people full time to do everything from fixing flat tires to managing the IT demands of the system. The biggest single expense associated with running a first-class bike sharing system is the re-balancing of the bikes throughout the system during the peak commute times.  Every day thousands of commuters head into work in Washington DC by CaBi, leading to an emptying out of bike sharing stations in the outer parts of the city, and a surplus of bikes at workplaces in central DC.  To make sure that the system works well for as many people as possible, CaBi has a small fleet of vans (shown below) that pick up bicycles at full stations and drop them off at empty or close to empty stations.  The operators’ contract states that stations must not be completely empty or full. According to Eric Gilliland, Capital Bikeshare’s general operations manager; the rebalancing trucks are out early in the morning through the late evening hours making sure that bikes are located where people need them when they need them.  Gilliland also has shift dispatchers who monitor system conditions throughout the day in real time, allowing 5 fleet vans to serve nearly 200 stations throughout the system.


Maintaining the Bicycle Fleet

The bikes themselves require service at regular intervals; tires go flat, chains can break and cables can fray and need replacement.  If a customer has a problem with their bicycle, they simply park it in the nearest dock and press the service key on the dock (the button that looks like a wrench).  The wounded bike then gets locked down and an alert is sent to the dispatcher.  If it is a quick fix, one of the roving mechanics can head to the bike and fix it on the spot, but bigger problems get repaired back at the warehouse.   According to the mechanics, each bike is given a check-up every month to assure that system users have a bike that is safe and fun to ride.

Shown in the photograph below, one of the mechanics describes fixing these heavy duty bikes.  Each repair is a multi-step process since the bike parts are unique to bike sharing bikes and have special theft-resistant features.   From the bolts on the handlebars to the non-removable seat, these bikes are designed to stand up to the rigors of daily use. Gilliland said that most of the the 14 thefts that Capital Bikeshare experienced happened in the first few months of the system opening.  Once thieves figured out that the bikes could not be easily stripped of parts or sold, reports of stolen bikes dropped off.


Once repaired the bikes are tagged and set aside for redistribution to the stations.


Expanding the System

Alta Bike Sharing also manages the installation of new CaBi bike sharing stations throughout the system.  When Aaron toured the facility, CaBi was getting ready for an expansion to keep up with demand.  Below is a picture of new bike parking docks ready for installation.


With all of the excitement of new systems rolling out seemingly every few months, it’s easy to think that bike sharing is obvious or even inevitable.  From the system managers and planners at the District Department of Transportation to the on-the-ground operations experts at Alta Bike Sharing’s Capital Bikeshare group, there is a common sense that that a new way of getting around the city is here to stay.  Three years ago when the Capital Bikesharing rolled out its first 50 stations, success was far from sure.  At that time, only the Montreal, Denver and Minneapolis systems were fully operational. The European examples in Barcelona, Lyon and Paris were still going through significant growing pains as they struggled with reliability and theft.   Even the oldest bike sharing schemes in the world are under 10 years old.

Next Steps

Going forward, we can clearly see that bike sharing is here to stay and will continue to expand as a useful alternative to other forms of transportation in vibrant urban centers, campus settings and even smaller communities.  We can expect the systems to grow, evolve and mature a lot over the next few years.  For our part, Philadelphia has an opportunity to take the best features of the existing systems around the world and create a bike sharing program that meets the needs of residents, employees, students and visitors to our city.   Come join us to learn more at our upcoming forum where we’ll meet representatives from Washington DC along with Boston and Denver as they discuss their successes, and lessons from implementing bike sharing systems in their cities.


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