It’s 6:30 in the morning, and Juan Botero’s workday has already started. His boxy gray van sits idling on New Jersey Avenue next to the Navy Yard Metrorail station. I lock my bike and rush over to hop in, already late.
“It’s a little bit colder today, so hopefully we don’t get killed,” Botero says, as we peel out for the Southwest waterfront, where the sky is starting to lighten.
Nice weather means crazy days for Botero, the wiry Colombian street team leader for Alta, the company that runs Capital Bikeshare. It’s his job to make sure people who want to bike to work in the morning can find a ride where they need it, and park it when they’re done. Since most Bikeshare members live in residential areas and commute to the commercial core, he and another driver have to ferry bikes back to the neighborhoods as soon as they fill up downtown, like bailing out a ship as it takes on water (the technical term is “rebalancing”). The process continues until midnight.
Plotting his course, though, feels more like a video game. To figure out where to go next, Botero has a laptop with a map of the system that automatically updates every three minutes to show how many bikes are at each of the 109 stations. When one gets completely full or completely empty, he books it over there or sends the other van. The District Department of Transportation’s contract with Alta mandates financial penalties when a station stays full or empty for more than three hours.
“You have to decide all the time,” Botero says later. “If you just drive around and go from an empty to a full system all day, you’re not moving effectively. You’re just wasting gas.”
Here’s a typical couple hours for Botero: After filling the van to capacity at the Southwest waterfront, we high-tail it to Tenleytown and through Woodley Park, where Botero wheels out bikes to replenish nearly empty docking stations. The city has come to life now, and bikes, pedestrians, cars, and buses are slowing our progress. Botero darts through alleys and does U-turns as if he were driving a Miata instead of a Sprinter van. We fill up again at three stations around 14th Street NW and New York Avenue downtown, then zoom up 14th Street to drop them at the Reeves Center and at 16th and U streets NW. It’s hard work; even in the chilly weather, Botero’s taken off his Capital Bikeshare-logoed jacket. Then we’re out to Foggy Bottom to pick up more bikes. A few blocks after nearly emptying the dock at 19th Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue, Botero glances at his laptop—it’s nearly full again.
The Alta team had the relatively quiet months of December and January to work out kinks in the system. But Bikeshare ridership has skyrocketed since then, reaching 64,151 trips in March. Membership has been steadily rising as well, jumping from 6,600 in early April to about 8,800 after a LivingSocial deal last week lowered the $75 annual fee to $37. Then there are the thousands of tourists taking advantage of a new $5 daily rate.
If Bikeshare is to be a viable form of transportation—and knit together a city whose transit system becomes more overburdened every year—it needs to be reliable. Can Alta and DDOT keep up?
D.C. was the first city in the country to adopt and then ditch a bike-sharing system: The ill-fated Smartbike, which was an afterthought in a 10-year, $87 million Clear Channel contract for bus station advertising. The ad company supplied 120 bikes at 10 racks in 2008, but didn’t promote it. On its best day, the system had 163 rentals (the average was much lower).
Instead of expanding Smartbike, the city decided to scrap it and start over. In August 2009, then-DDOT Director Gabe Klein visited Montreal, which had a system of robust bikes and solar-powered docking stations that just drop onto the ground, instead of being drilled into cement. “I had this romantic love affair with Bixi,” Klein told an audience at Portland State University last week, using the Canadian system’s name. “It’s like an Erector set. And the bikes are absolutely bombproof.”
So Klein decided to bring Bixi to D.C. A little over a year later, the system launched with 1,100 bikes and a P.R. blitz, which turned bikesharing in D.C. from a dinky pilot into a badge of Euro-urban cool. In December, the D.C.-Arlington partnership announced a 40 percent expansion, to 1,300 bikes at 134 stations. Meanwhile, just like government agencies had facilitated corporate memberships for employees, officials have also allowed developers to include Bikeshare stations as part of their building projects. At $50,000 a pop—which covers the station, the solar setup, and the bikes—it’s not a lot for a builder to pay for an amenity that can help sell a new condo or office complex. And it makes it a lot easier for the city to reach its goal of doubling the size of the system within two years.
So far, statistics show Bikeshare is most heavily used in the densest areas of the urban core. Not counting the people who bought the LivingSocial deal, there are 1,317 members in ZIP code 20009 (which covers Columbia Heights, U Street, and Adams Morgan) and 638 in 20002 (northern Capitol Hill, H Street, and Eckington). Membership drops off precipitously after that. As of Sunday, the busiest stations were Dupont Circle (24,271 trips started and ended), 15th and P streets NW (19,043 trips), and Adams Mill and Columbia roads NW (18,116 trips).
East of the Anacostia River, however, is a different story. The seven stations in Wards 7 and 8 have been used a total of 946 times since the system’s launch, and the two wards have only 38 members.
Part of the problem may be that there are too few stations, not too many: The system becomes more useful the shorter the average distance covered. Then there’s the fact that bikes lanes are virtually non-existent east of the river. But the biggest issue is education, both of would-be cyclists and drivers who aren’t used to seeing them on the roads.
“We don’t have the same consideration about bikes here as they have in other places,” Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Gregg Justice told a transportation forum put on by Councilmember Tommy Wells in Ward 8. “If you get on the sidewalk with your bike, you get cussed, you get on the road, you get cussed. You have to create a campaign about bicycling. People don’t know what they are.”
Justice is in luck: The Washington Area Bicyclist Association is fundraising to do just that.
Part of running a startup bikeshare system—D.C. is only Alta’s second, after Melbourne, Australia—is constant improvisation. When the system almost got overwhelmed during the Cherry Blossom Festival, and the vans couldn’t get around to each station because of road closures, Alta had to create a depot on the Mall constantly staffed by one person where people could pick up and drop off bikes.
Then there’s the daily grind of maintenance. Each bike has to be checked every two weeks, and Alta has a staff of mechanics—many underemployed bike shop staffers and couriers—who work on bikes at the warehouse and trundle around visiting stations. People will slash tires and even vomit on bikes during late-night revelry (“Mostly in Adams Morgan,” Botero says).
One of the difficult parts is weathering criticism from people who couldn’t find a bike when they needed it, relayed through Twitter and Facebook. Botero, who will leave D.C. soon to start Alta’s system in Chattanooga, Tenn., says sometimes there’s just nothing to be done—and people should adapt, just like they might try to snag a Metrorail seat by getting to their station earlier.
“If you know that every day your rack is empty at 9:30, maybe at 9:15, there are two bikes,” he says. “It’s Bikeshare. You’re not guaranteed a bike.”