Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Bike Sharing


GGW on the road: Chicago's "Unicorn bike"

How can you generate publicity for a new bikesharing system? Chicago's newly launched fleet of pale blue bikeshares includes one "unicorn bike": a bright red bike, dubbed #Divvyred, that Chicagoans are chasing all around the Windy City.

Photo by the Chicago Department of Transportation.

Chicago's bikesharing system, Divvy, launched this summer with a fleet of pale blue bikes. Except one. As a clever marketing tool, one of the Divvy's 3,000 bikes is painted bright red. Chicagoans who spot the bike can post photos of it on Twitter using the hashtag #DivvyRed to be eligible for daily prize drawings. In addition, the 25th, 50th, 75th, 100th, 200th, and 300th riders get free memberships.

Installing what Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein calls a "unicorn bike" is an inexpensive and fun way to generate publicity for this new city service. Photos of the elusive #Divvyred are slowly appearing on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The random node-to-node transfer path of bikesharing ensures the bike will eventually make its way all around the city, appearing at Wrigley Field one day and in Bronzeville the next.

If Capital Bikeshare added its own unicorn, what might it look like? As we've learned, bright red is a striking color. Few colors, except maybe gold, can outshine red in conspicuousness and mystique. Popular stories prize elusive golden items, from the golden ticket to the golden fleece, so why not add #theGoldenCaBi to the list?

Image by the author.


GGW on the road: Citibike struggles with software glitches

When it opened on Memorial Day, New York's Citibike instantly became the nation's largest bikeshare system. But after an alternatingly fun and frustrating Saturday touring New York City on 2 wheels, I found that the system continues to struggle with crippling software glitches.

Photo by Omar Rawlings on Flickr.

"Excuse me, do you know how this thing works?" I turned to see two middle-aged women fiddling with the bike beside me at the Citibike station in Midtown Manhattan. "Well, this is my first time using Citibike," I replied, "but I use the system in DC regularly, so hopefully this is similar." I must have looked competent, because this was already the third such inquiry I had received that morning.

It's important to note that Citibike is less than 2 months old and is already wildly successful. But the problems that plagued the system early on are still widespread and need to be resolved before it can be a legitimate transportation option for New Yorkers.

One of the system's biggest drawbacks is its unreliable software. Reports say it's the result of a corporate dispute between operator Alta and its partner that led to a switch in software.

Of the roughly 2 dozen interactions I had with docking stations over the course of a 24-hour membership, I experienced more software problems than I have in 2 years with Capital Bikeshare. The first 3 times I attempted to purchase a one-day pass, I made it to the last step of the cumbersome touchscreen process, only to receive an error message, forcing me to cancel the transaction and start over.

After the third time, the line of would-be cyclists behind me had grown so long that I decided to step aside. I walked a couple of blocks to the next station, where I repeated the process, finally succeeding on my second try. My friend, who encountered the same problem, succeeded on her third try, repeating the same steps on each attempt.

Photo by Robyn Lee on Flickr.

With memberships secured, the next hurdle was obtaining a bike. As with Capital Bikeshare, day and weekly pass users must insert their credit card at the kiosk each time they want a bike. There, they'll receive a new, 5-digit access code which they can enter at individual docks to unlock a bike.

However, on several occasions, I had to enter the same code at multiple docks before the dock let me remove a bike. After a night out with friends, I entered my code at each of 5 full docks nearby, only to be rejected each time. I waited a few minutes, got a new code, and tried again with no luck.

Determined, I walked the few blocks to a nearby station, where I repeated the same process several times, again with no success. After a circuitous conversation with a pleasant, but ultimately futile customer service rep, I threw in the towel and hailed a cab back to my hotel, deprived of a leisurely bike ride on a nice night.

There are even more issues, however. Even when it works, the registration process is slow and confusing, taking several minutes per person to complete and resulting in long lines. In tourist areas around Times Square and Central Park, these queues have become prime targets for bike rental hawkers, who pose as Good Samaritans to mislead prospective bikers about the fees associated with Citibike.

Citibike's mobile app was great for finding open docks and available bikes throughout the city, but its information on bike lanes was poor. Hoping to avoid the pedestrian chaos of Times Square as I headed south on Broadway, I followed a bike lane shown on the app. I made a left on 48th Street, then a right on 7th Avenue, and found myself in the middle of 5 lanes of fast-moving downtown traffic with no bike lane in sight.

As a regular bike commuter, I shrugged off the honks and yells from motorists that ensued, but I can imagine the tourists I met earlier being put off by the same experience.

Overall, the system functioned more often than it didn't, and allowed my friends and I the freedom to explore the city at our own pace, while enjoying the beautiful weather and getting some exercise along the way.

And while the glitches were frustrating, the quality and quantity of bicycle infrastructure, everything from protected on-street lanes to recreational paths and bike-specific traffic signals, was impressive, a part of the larger transformation of the city's streets led by Mayor Bloomberg and his transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

And the Citibike system continues to expand; despite the problems, underserved neighborhoods are already clamoring for stations of their own. As it grows, it can become what Capital Bikeshare is for DC: an integral part of the city's larger transportation network. But for that to happen, the system's operators need to iron out the software problems and provide users more reliable information.


Why CaBi employees say Alta is underpaying them

This week, New York City opened its new bike sharing system. It uses the same private operator, Alta Bicycle Share, as DC's Capital Bikeshare. The Department of Labor is investigating Alta for not paying a prevailing wage, and 18 current and former employees of Capital Bikeshare say Alta owes them over $100,000 in unpaid wages.

Photo by James Schwartz on Flickr.

Alta runs Capital Bikeshare under a contract with the District government. That means they have to follow the Service Contract Act, which requires companies who have federal or District contracts to pay their employees federally-determined prevailing wage rates, along with fringe benefits of at least $3.59/hour.

The employees launched a petition this week calling on Alta president Mia Birk to them their back pay and comply with federal law. So far, Alta hasn't contested the employees' claims or offered any public statements other than that they're complying with the investigator's information requests. But privately, Alta has told employees not to speak out about the issue.

The Service Contract Act requires employers to pay their workers wages derived from compensation surveys for dozens of job classifications in their metropolitan area. There are specific wages for desk clerks, truck drivers, and even bicycle repairers.

Federal labor laws also give workers the right to take collective action and speak out about their working conditions, so any retaliation against them for doing so would likely be illegal. Still, it's that much more inspiring that 18 workers are willing to speak out even with pressure from their employer not to do so.

If the employees think Capital Bikeshare is breaking the law, why don't they just sue? They can't. The Service Contract Act does not allow individual employees to defend their rights in court. The DC Department of Transportation and the US Department of Labor are responsible for enforcing the contract and the law respectively.

If Alta is found to have violated the law, it could face significant penalties from DDOT. The Department of Labor could also bar it from future public contracts. That could also affect Alta's contracts in other cities, like Chicago, where federal funds are involved.

The Department of Labor is understaffed and notoriously slow at handling these cases, so workers often need to use public pressure to get employers to follow the law. Hopefully, the DC Department of Transportation and councilmembers who care about workers' rights will help provide the scrutiny needed to resolve things quickly.

Note: My employer, the DC Employment Justice Center, has provided workers with legal information about the Service Contract Act, but is not a legal representative of any of the Capital Bikeshare workers.

Update: Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the DC Council's transportation committee, sent a letter about the issue today to the head of DDOT. It reads:

Director Bellamy,

I am writing to express concern over a recent reports that Capital Bikeshare's operator, Alta Bicycle Share, is not paying its employees a salary consistent with the federal labor laws. On May 6th, The Washington Post published an article, "Capital Bikeshare Possibly Underpaid Workers, ex-Employee Alleges," suggesting that Samuel Swenson, a bicycle repairman, was paid $13.00 an hour when federal labor regulations require that he be paid $14.43 per hour. Now, we have learned that this failure to pay the proper wage may affect not just one employee, but eighteen employees. If true, I find this fact disturbing.

Please advise me what, if anything, your office is doing about this and whether you have been in touch with federal labor officials (the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division) to determine whether they are examining these claims.

Thanks very much,
Mary Cheh


New Yorkers now see why bikeshare is great

Our region's bicycle sharing system is no longer the largest in the nation. That's because this weekend, New York launched its system, Citibike.

Citibike has 6,000 bikes on 330 stations, and will grow to 10,000 bikes in the second phase. Streetfilms' Clarence Eckerson made a video of the launch:

Greater Greater Washington contributor alum Stephen Miller spoke to some riders who had discovered their keys working even before the launch.

The last few weeks have seen a constant stream of articles in the press with people complaining about the new stations. That's common, and we saw the same here; when the stations went in but had no bikes, people could see some small impact from the stations, but no benefits.

Matt Yglesias explained that bikeshare will actually be very good for New York, and may even be better suited than in other cities, since New York is so dense.

Here, complaints quickly evaporated as soon as the system went live. That may already be happening in New York, or at least, the tenor of this weekend's coverage was very different than before.

The system quickly won over Daily News reporter Oren Yaniv, and the Times found bikeshare faster than transit or driving for several trips.

The New York Post, New York's analogue of our Examiner and a devoted foe of bikeshare from the moment it was announced, found all of the negative news it could: some thieves actually stole one bike off a truck before it could be installed at a station, and a few riders didn't get their keys in the mail in time.

Tweets were also very positive, and Gothamist's Jake Dobkin called it very "cool." Riders took over 6,000 trips on Monday before 5 pm.

New York features a few innovations

Paul DeMaio points out a few small yet potentially significant variations on bike docking stations that Public Bike System Company, which makes the equipment, designed for New York. New solar poles can collect ambient light, so that stations don't have to be in direct sunlight. The docks have a credit card-sized slot that could allow a future card that combines a bikeshare key and subway fare.

Photos by Paul DeMaio.

New York's stations also allow cables to bridge over gaps. Some of the station's docks can be on the far side of a a manhole cover or other obstruction. Or, where a station is very long, a section of the station can have a gap without docks, so that people can walk through or carry goods across.

Photos by Paul DeMaio.

Don't forget Chicago

In other bikeshare news, Dan Malouff writes that Chicago is making progress as well. They picked a name for the system, Divvy. Memberships will start going on sale this week for a planned June launch of 75 stations. Dan writes, "By this time next year, DC-vet Gabe Klein is hoping to have 400 Chicago stations online."

Chicago's DOT is working out final station locations. Once they go in, expect a similar wave of negative stories, then positive reactions once the system actually goes live.


Bikeshare and better health go together

Besides having a useful mode of travel, Capital Bikeshare members report getting more exercise after joining, a survey found. But governments can do more to help low-income communities, where obesity is often greatest, take advantage of Capital Bikeshare.

Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

Graduate students at George Washington University conducted the survey in partnership with Capital Bikeshare officials from DC and Arlington. Officials released it and another general survey of CaBi members this morning. The GWU survey collected responses from 2,830 members and asked about their exercise before and after joining Capital Bikeshare.

Between the before and after time periods, members are more likely to exercise at least 3 hours a week. 53% said they got at least 3 hours a week of exercise before, which rose to 60% after. Also, more members (66%) report having very good or excellent health, compared to 59% at the time they joined.

Also, the report says, "Over 30 percent of respondents indicated they had lost weight since joining, 60 percent reported no change, and 6 percent reported weight gain."

However, most members are not particularly joining for health reasons, but for transportation reasons. The report says that 71% said "get around more easily, faster, shorter time" as a "very important" main reason for joining, versus only 27% saying the same for "exercise, fitness."

How can health benefits go to those who need them most?

Many communities with the greatest health challenges are not taking strong advantage of Capital Bikeshare. Almost 97% of respondents in the survey have a bachelor's degree or higher. Members are predominantly younger, less likely to be poor, and slightly more male than the general population.

Most significantly, only about 3% of respondents were African-American, versus about half of DC and a quarter of the region. Wards 7 and 8, which face obstacles of greater poverty, larger hills, and poor bicycle connections to the rest of the city, have only 0.8% and 0.4% of Capital Bikeshare members, respectively.

This is far from a new issue. Darren Buck wrote a graduate paper about how other North American bike sharing systems are reaching out to underrepresented groups. Today's GWU report suggests Capital Bikeshare pursue sponsorships from health insurance companies and state and local health agencies to fund outreach programs, do further studies on why some communities don't join Capital Bikeshare, and other research.

It would also be interesting to find out more about how the lower usage by lower-income and minority residents corresponds to factors, like geography, which nobody can control. In areas that already enjoy mixed-use growth, like Columbia Heights, are residents from underrepresented groups more likely to join Capital Bikeshare than elsewhere in the city? If so, that could point to ways to make the most impact on health in a shorter period of time and with fewer resources.


Bikeshare is a gateway to private biking, not competition

One bike shop owner has grumpy words about Capital Bikeshare riders, while some users run into full and empty stations. In fact, bike sharing gets more people biking in general, and its relatively few frustrations, while problems to solve, also encourage people to use personal bikes more.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

A Washington Post article yesterday rounds up many praises and a few frustrations with Capital Bikeshare. Some people still find themselves "dockblocked," where there's no spot available at a station. A Portuguese tourist couldn't find a dock at Dupont Circle, nor could a Justice Department employee when reporter Mohana Ravindranath was there.

This is indeed a problem which DC can't hope to entirely solve, but when it happens, it does dissuade riders from using Capital Bikeshare even more. Capital Bikeshare has added more rebalancing capacity since the system launched, and should continue striving to keep up.

Capital Bikeshare can't meet everyone's commute needs, and shouldn't

Other riders have stopped using Capital Bikeshare for commuting because there isn't enough capacity at the peak. Ravindranath interviews Aaron Ordower, who gave up trying to CaBi from 16th and U to the World Bank because he couldn't count on finding a bike. But in this case, while it would be nice for CaBi to be able to serve his needs, it's less reasonable to expect that.

Officials point out that Capital Bikeshare isn't really meant to be a commuting tool for large numbers of people. Jim Sebastian said, "This is why many members buy/use their own bike if they know they are going to work and back, or on a similar round trip." Ordower decided to walk to work instead. And that's fine.

One follow-up question for Ordower might be, why not bike using a private bicycle? Does he just not have one? Does the World Bank not provide good enough bike parking?

Capital Bikeshare leads to more private bicycling

I personally started biking a lot more often around DC once Capital Bikeshare launched, since it provided an easy way to take a spontaneous or one-way trip and not have to feel forced to then bike home. In later years, while I've kept my membership (it's still cheap and useful on occasion), I hardly use it. Instead, I use my own bike.

I'm not the only one. Chris Eatough, Arlington's bicycle program manager, says that according to a survey of Capital Bikeshare users last year, "82% of respondents reported increased use [of their personal bikes] since joining Capital Bikeshare, and 70% said that Capital Bikeshare was an important reason."

Bikeshare serves as an introduction to bicycling for many people. That's why it's a shame that Simon Pak, who manages The Bike Rack at 14th and Q, had more critical words for bikeshare riders. "Since Capital Bikeshare started, any incident [I've witnessed] in bike-to-bike collisions have been with Capital Bikeshare riders. They're the most inexperienced riders emulating more experienced riders," he told Ravindrath.

Though Pak also says 1 in 10 of his customers are looking to move from Capital Bikeshare's heavy bikes to a lighter and faster personal bike. It sounds like bikeshare is a great source of potential business for bike shops.

Bikeshare's strengths complement transit

Still, bike sharing is not the same as bicycling. This is why a lot of people get confused about bikeshare if they aren't familiar with it. Some New Yorkers expressed shock that a 4-hour ride would rack up $77 in late fees on their Citibike system. As those of us who've used bikeshare know, people don't ride a bikeshare bike for 4 hours, or if they do, they just return it every half hour and reset the clock.

Bike sharing is, in many ways, more like transit: it transports you from fixed stations to other fixed stations. However, it's also different from transit. Transit has more capacity at peak times when there are more vehicles. It costs money to run a vehicle, so you run it when there's demand. Therefore, bus lines in particular are far more useful at times when there are a lot of buses. At some times of day, they don't run at all.

Bike sharing is the opposite. It has a fixed capacity that fills up quickly, but is always available. Bike sharing is most useful off-peak, when the stations aren't filling up or emptying out so fast. It's always available at night.

For this reason, we can think of it actually as a complement to short-distance buses. Someone who lives on a bus line might find that the bus is a better choice during rush, but bikeshare is better middays. Bikeshare also offers more flexibility, since you can ride to any other station, but isn't as good to travel long distances, because it takes physical effort.

New York's Citibike will launch next weekend, and many observers predict the silly arguments against it will mainly evaporate, as they did here in DC when Capital Bikeshare launched. Even so, some people will always be adjusting to what kinds of travel bikeshare works well for, and where it's less ideal. That's the case for every mode of travel.

Thanks to Capital Bikeshare, we have another mode, one that neatly fills in some needs that transit and walking don't perfectly serve. It happens to be a mode that's been especially cheap to deploy. Personal bikes, Zipcar, car2go, street hailed taxis, Uber, buses, trains, and walking all meet some people's needs and not others, and that's natural.


This is a very long bikeshare station

Reader Steve sent along a photograph of the 67-dock station New York has installed at Penn Station:

If you're the nation's largest city, you'll probably have the nation's longest bikeshare station.

Imagine what it will look like once it's filled with bikes. One of the most popular styles of Capital Bikeshare photograph is the one looking down a long row:

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

New York will launch Citibike on May 27, Memorial Day. Annual members will be able to use it for the first week, and then daily and weekly memberships go on sale on June 2.

Speaking of a lot of bikes, I've seen no announcement yet about whether New York will do a big launch event like DC's, where all the bikes started in one plaza and groups of people rode them out to the various stations:

Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

Now that would be a lot of

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