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Technology Aids Bicycle Share Availability

By Larry Ray*

Images accompanying this feature can be viewed in the current issue PDF

Is it magic? One passes the Super Giant on Park Road just off 14th Street in Columbia Heights at seven in the morning7 a.m. and there are no red BikeShare bicycles. By 7:15 in the morning, there are five. How did this happen? District of Columbia Department of Transportation (DDOT) BikeShare Program Manager Chris Holben calls it “deployment art.” In DC, there are 100 bike docking stations and 1,000 bikes. One of the jobs of the contractual partner Alta Bicycle Share is to ensure that bikes and docking spots are available.

Alta has a system of vans that circulate around the stations and by means of a software program, they know when a bike is removed, returned and what stations are involved. Based on analysis, patterns emerge. Holben says that weekdays are more predictable. Between 6:30 and 8:00 a.m., many residents in neighborhoods such as around 14th & U, Columbia Heights and Petworth pick up bikes to get to work. Many head downtown and park the bikes at 13th and H, 8th and G, and other downtown locations. The Alta deployment vans stand ready in the morning hours to re-deploy these bikes out of the downtown locations; these logistics are a combination of research and “art.”

As part of this “magic” or art is the iPhone application, the Spotcycle app. One can click on “nearby” and Spotcycle will show all the stations nearby, show the distance, the number of available bikes and the number of available docks.

What is the history of BikeShare? Holben states that the idea began about seven years ago, when it was decided to join the likes of London, Melbourne, and Minneapolis and promote bike sharing. DDOT initially contracted with Clear Channel which sponsored SmartBikes. Last October, following the decision to expand and partner with suburban jurisdictions, this initial contract was terminated and the one with Alta Corporation and Arlington County was implemented.

How were the stations sited? As Holben explained, the siting was a challenge. First, DDOT needed to identify public space that measured six feet by 40 feet to accommodate one docking station. For each station, public space permits were issued in order to have a clear public space database. The stations are cleverly constructed. First, they are solar powered so no wiring is required. Further, they are so heavy that they do not need to be attached to the sidewalk and they come in sections which can easily be moved by crane trucks and relocated in just a very few hours.

After these sites were identified, notice was sent to all of the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and to each Single Member District commissioner in whose district the station would be located. Most neighborhoods welcomed BikeShare. There were a few concerns expressed by residents of Georgetown and Capitol Hill about whether the stations might be “attractive nuisances” with respect to trash, noise and loiterers. DDOT collaborated with those residents and resolved the issues and assured them that there would be careful monitoring. Further, Alta is responsible for cleaning and maintaining the stations and the bikes.

What’s the reaction of the users? In the past three months, there have been 11,200 users. The following comments were secured from the BikeShare Users station at Dupont Circle:

▀ “I love BikeShare. I have not driven my car in three months and I used to drive every day.”

▀ “I was wary of buying a bike because of all of the DC bike thefts so now I can bike ride and not worry about thievery.”

▀ “I like BikeShare but the seats are hard and DC streets, bumpy, making for a difficult ride.”

▀ “With BikeShare now I can easily shop at Trader Joe’s, about two miles from my home.”

One user has hit the 100 rides mark. He remarks that two percent of the time when he went to find a bike, there were none and that two percent of the time when he tried to dock a bike, there was no space so he rode to the next rack; later on, this problem dropped to one percent.

What about accidents and mishaps? So far, there have been reports of only a very few accidents. There have been some calls about damaged bikes or graffiti on the bikes or stations. Holben speculates that bike riders are riskier with their own bikes and more careful when on a share bike.

What about bike thefts? Initially, there were several, but the police retrieved these. Each of these bikes cost about $1,000. However, because they are only three-speed and are so distinctive in appearance and markings they are not especially attractive to bike thieves.

A bonus for disabled? One advantage of BikeShare that had not been considered are benefits for persons with certain disabilities that affect the feet and back; while difficult to walk, riding a bike is easy. One user with gout reports using the bikes regularly, as does another user who had a recent back operation.

What is the future? Holben sees a bright future. One overall goal of BikeShare, he says, is to promote economic development by making it easier for customers to get around to local businesses. DDOT plans to install 20 more docking stations with 200 more bikes. Also being explored is a possible partnership with Zip Car.

*Larry Ray is an occasional contributor to The InTowner. An attorney, mediator, and executive coach, he is a former ANC commissioner both in Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights and has also served on the DC Police Commission and Taxi Commission.