Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Bike Sharing

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How to make better streets, quickly and cheaply

Changes to our urban landscape can seem daunting at times. But reader thm points us to this TED talk in which New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan shows how New York quickly and cheaply changed its streets, sometimes with only some paint, to improve the experience for all users.

Some of these changes we already have here, such as bike sharing and parking-protected bike lanes. Others, like BRT, are in the planning stages. But are there places in the DC area that could benefit from conversion into a pedestrian plaza?

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Bicycling


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.

Bicycling


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.

Bicycling


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

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