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SmartBike: Do it right for the long term

SmartBike's expansion might not be happening as quickly as we'd once thought. Georgetown Metropolitan heard that Clear Channel, which operates the SmartBike system in exchange for putting ads on bus shelters, isn't so interested in running a much larger system. And, GM adds, Clear Channel is even less interested in expanding to Arlington, which doesn't allow bus shelter ads.

As a result, DC officials are considering dumping Clear Channel altogether. That might slow down Phase 2, but it's probably the right move in the long run. Our goal isn't 50 or 100 stations, it's a thousand. That'll take time, but it's important to grow with a partner that's interested in growing to that size one day.

Clear Channel is not a bike sharing company. They're an advertising company that runs a bike sharing program on the side. That means they're never going to really put a lot of effort into the program. They got their ad contract, and will do the minimum necessary to keep it. And, as we're seeing with Arlington, even if a jurisdiction wants to pay for stations, they won't be interested. Getting money in exchange for running bike stations doesn't enhance their core business, and good companies avoid having a lot of peripheral businesses that don't contribute to their central mission.

A world-class bike sharing program means more than just more stations, as well. SmartBike subscriptions are only available annually. That's fine for residents, but provides no way to try out the system, and doesn't work for tourists. Paris's Vélib lets people subscribe for a day, a week, or a year. You can sign up with a credit card at a kiosk in Paris, but can't in DC.

Our SmartBike vendor ought to be interested in exploring new pricing schemes and technologies to make the system as useful as possible to everyone. A company only interested in the bus ads, instead, will simply run the program as cheaply as possible in a way that complies with the contract. Better to have a vendor which makes more money as more people use the system.

The Clear Channel deal allowed DC to launch a pilot system quickly. Now we've seen it can work in DC. It's time to think big, and long-term. The region should find a partner that's interested in growing a system from today's 10 stations all the way to something as great or greater than Vélib. It may not happen all at once, but we need a partner willing to travel that route with us. That partner needs to be flexible enough to work out different deals with different jurisdictions that met their particular needs.

The contract should anticipate future growth and also provide the right kinds of incentives for the vendor to innovate and improve the system in ways we haven't yet conceived of. And, most of all, it should give us the freedom to switch vendors without losing the capital investment or membership data if the vendor stops sharing our bike sharing vision. It might take a little more time, but it's easier to change horses with a 10-station system than with 100, and will pay off in the long run.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Agreed. It was a good way to demonstrate proof of concept, thought the lack of improvements is frustrating. And kudos for not bashing ClearChannel - that only distracts from the problem.

by Jad on Jun 22, 2009 1:33 pm • linkreport

Aren't the bike systems in Barcelona, Lyon and paris also run with the same ad-sharing partners (clear channel or JCDecaux).

I will say the Paris system is far far nicer than the Clear Channel systems. Barca is particular is trying to make sure tourists can't use them system.

by charlie on Jun 22, 2009 2:07 pm • linkreport

Public-private partnerships are great, but any bike system should be at least partially managed by WMATA. This is, after all, a personal rapid transit system.

by цarьchitect on Jun 22, 2009 2:13 pm • linkreport

Maybe Montreal will sell us a bixi franchise:

Montreal has 3000 bikes, 300 stations all solar-powered, so no dealing with Pepco. Not funded via ad contract.

by C on Jun 22, 2009 2:24 pm • linkreport

yes. bravo. agree. well said. long term. long term. long term.

i'd be curious what a smaller player like Bike and Roll could do. award them a contract to take over the existing system, then slowly expand it. they would not be allowed to make more than 10% profit -- that's the trade-off if they want the huge business. something like that.

else -- maybe we'll see a real public bike system, publicly-run and accountable to the public, just like other mass transit systems.

by Peter Smith on Jun 22, 2009 2:27 pm • linkreport

Agreed with Jad re: no Clear Channel bashing. I am also glad that your entry (unlike the GM post) did not suggest a public partnership to run this (e.g., WMATA). A private company will be much more suited to handle this, negotiate b/t VA-MD-DC needs, etc. Nothing against WMATA, but like Clear Channel they are probably best suited for buses and trains.

I am disappointed to hear this (when does anything ever get done in this city?!?!?!?!), but it is probably for the best and hopefully the project will not just die off.

by JTS on Jun 22, 2009 2:33 pm • linkreport

As stated above DDOT needs to look to groups like Bixi or B-Cycle to complete a through and comprehensive bike sharing program that connects the inner core of DC to the outer parts of the city as well as adjacent jurisdiciton's MoCo, Arlington, Alexandria, etc. The idea of connecting in with WMATA would be grand provided they made room for cycle stations at each (or most) metro stations and a deal was worked out to be able to use Smartrip as a fully integrated transit card. Significant changes would be required to WMATA's Smartrip system(i.e. the cards would have to be individually registered to a specific person/credit card) but it would result in increased ease of use and accordingly frequency of use.

I noticed the other day that the US Nat Parks Service has a B-Cycle station at their location on Hains Point. One of the great things about this system as opposed to SmartBike is that it is solar powered which helps to lower the initial costs associated with infrastructure. A couple mil could go a really long way to jump starting this program (i.e. not 10 stations, actually creating a critical mass).

One thing that the B-Cycles that I saw on Hains Point lacked was a good sturdy rack/basket. This, along with fenders, chain guard, and skirt/jacket guard, are absolute musts for a solid city sharing bike. By the looks of what is on the B-Cycle website they have made some adjustments to the design.

You can go here: to send a letter to Fenty letting him know that you want B-Cycle (or a comprehensive cycle sharing program in general) in DC.

As for the vandilization issue. I think that one of the reasons that SmartBike has had relatively little when compared to Velib is that it does take much more work to use SmartBike. By making the process of accessing the bikes more involved (difficult?) ClearChannel has been able to better protect their investment. There needs to be more work done on how to protect cycles while still creating an easy/accessible system. Cameras could be mounted that snap a photo when the bike is returned. That way when one is determined to be damage, you will be able to see at which point the bike left undamaged and returned with issues and bill the credit card on file accordingly. Don't know that this is the solution but an idea none the less.

by mhoek on Jun 22, 2009 2:50 pm • linkreport

Why not Clear Channel bash? The idea that they thought there would only be 10 stations is ridiculous. Maybe they'd win a lawsuit, but they're clearly violating the spirit of the agreement. Not susprising. Companies like this and Comcast have been modern-day trusts/monopolies that don't have to care what customers or citizens think. We can thank our federal (and local) governments for allowing them to treat us with contempt.

by SG on Jun 22, 2009 2:51 pm • linkreport

I think the comments about ClearChannel bashing mean that criticism should focus on the issues at hand with the bike sharing system, not the larger corporate issues many have with the company, most of which are irrelevant to the situation at hand.

by Alex B. on Jun 22, 2009 2:55 pm • linkreport

Re: WMATA, I simply heard from my source that having a WMATA-type public agency run it was viewed as the optimal solution. Personally I don't have a strong preference either way.

When I was in Europe recently I saw bike sharing programs in Vienna, Munich, and Paris. Paris was by far the most prominent, and I saw them being used everywhere. But Munich was close behind. Munich's was interesting in that the bikes weren't tied to a station. You could just leave them wherever. To use it you had to call in to a number and have it remotely unlocked. I can see several potential problems with this system (e.g. theft, lack of reliability, etc.) but it seemed to work pretty well.

I read somewhere that DC has only one year or so to spend stimulus money on bike sharing, so hopefully the delay won't be too long.

by The Georgetown Metropolitan on Jun 22, 2009 3:00 pm • linkreport

Gonna throw this out there: What are the odds that Eric Cantor called up some friends at Clear Channel?

Nobody said anything about keeping Cantor out of this!

Seriously though, assuming no Cantor meddling, the notion of WMATA running this would likely render stimulus money inaccessible because of the time it would take to accomplish anything. Again, not WMATA bashing, but they would essentially have to create an entire new office to manage this, hire mechanics and specialists, acquire insurance, blah blah. Much better to buy the system fom Bixi or BCycle and find an independent contractor to manage the system. Contractors can be switched out as the sytem is upgraded or modified, etc. I mean, all of the R&D for the bikes/kiosks has been paid for already. The city could buy 500 stations for a steal. Definitely the way I'd persue it.

by JTS on Jun 22, 2009 3:11 pm • linkreport

The Clear Channel system seemed like a good idea, presumably, because they would be paying for it. But the problem is they're an ad company, most efficient at running ad programs, not bike sharing. Fine. So why not bid out the ad space to maximize profit for the city, then use the money to fund bike sharing through a separate, specialized service. Then everyone has maximum incentive to do their part efficiently and effectively.

by RichardatCourthouse on Jun 22, 2009 5:13 pm • linkreport

>>>>>One thing that the B-Cycles that I saw on Hains Point lacked was a good sturdy rack/basket. This, along with fenders, chain guard, and skirt/jacket guard, are absolute musts for a solid city sharing bike.

Actually, B-cycles have all of these things. Take a closer look at the website, or have a look at this photo:

by Roto on Jun 22, 2009 7:56 pm • linkreport

@roto: yes, as i acknowledged in my following sentence. It is good to see that they have made improvements from what I saw at NPS:

by mhoek on Jun 22, 2009 10:33 pm • linkreport

Clear Channel ruined radio in many cities. I'm sure they can do the same with bike sharing systems.

by ksu499 on Jun 23, 2009 8:31 am • linkreport

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