Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Just over a year ago, Capital Bikeshare launched with great fanfare. Looking back to the program’s start last September, most people agree that it has been far more successful than anticipated. How much more successful? Membership, the number of riders, and revenue have all exceeded expectations in CaBi’s inaugural year.

According to a Capital Bikeshare press release, CaBi managers were “aiming to attract 8,000 members in the first year and hoped they would take 500,000 rides.” With approximately 18,000 (other sources report fewer) members and 1,000,000 rides to date, the reality appears to be far more impressive.

Incidentally, CaBi manager Chris Holben wins the prognosticator award. Back in late May he called the exact day that CaBi would hit 1,000,000 trips. “How long before a million?” he was asked. “An exciting date would be September 20, 2011. And we think we can make that,” he projected. They did.

During the same time, CaBi riders racked up around 1.79 miles per trip, higher than the predicted 1.5 miles. Although August and September numbers have yet to be released, we can deduce that riders pedaled approximately 1,790,000 miles in the first 365 days of use.

In addition to higher than expected ridership, revenue is significantly stronger as well.

With 18,000 annual subscribers and an additional 66,534 short-term users, (approximately 2,000 of whom held monthly memberships), CaBi more than exceeded projected earnings from member dues. According to revenue numbers provided by DDOT they made about $1,500,000 in membership revenue for the first year, which is well above what they expected.

Overage fees add up, too. About 1% of trips by annual users and about 8% of trips by casual users run long (down from 15% of trips that were longer than 30 minutes under SmartBike), and these trips garner additional fees. As a result, according to DDOT, they made an additional $770,000 in overage fees.

This results in a total of $2,270,000 in revenue. In their TIGER II application the organization estimated $942,000 in revenue, assuming an $80 per year annual fee.

Not only did they vastly exceed revenue, they report that when they compare DC’s monthly O and M cost to revenue (membership/usage fees) generated, they have a surplus of $300,000. A statement they’ve echoed elsewhere, according to Josh Moskowitz of DDOT and Scott Kubly (formerly of DDOT) “the operations and management for Capital Bikeshare is entirely self-sustaining—even profitable for the department.”

It’s not unreasonable to think that Arlington has had similar success.

If we consider the positive external benefits, CaBi looks even better. As DCist noted, the system has proven itself to be “a vital component of moving around the city during an emergency.”

A study of the Barcelona system showed that their bike-sharing network saves lives, reduces CO2 emissions and provides health benefits that are 77 times greater than the risks. And by getting more people on bikes, it’s making biking into a more normative behavior, leading to more bicycle sales.

To try to quantify the benefits of CaBi within the DC metro area, I tweaked the worksheet CaBi submitted with the TIGER II application by replacing projections with the actual ridership and membership numbers that the system experienced this year. According to those calculations, CaBi created around an additional $1,500,000 in environmental, health, safety, access, travel time and travel cost benefits. This means that with both external and internal benefits considered, the system made approximately a $1,800,000 return.

And while the gains were higher than expected, the downside was not nearly as bad as some feared. Vandalism has not been the problem that some projected it would be. Nor has safety.

One specific criticism prior to the system’s launch was that the stations weren’t placed densely enough. Transportation blogger Yonah Freemark expressed this concern:

This could potentially cause significant problems for the users of the new U.S. capital system.

There are two main reasons for this: One, light station density makes short neighborhood commutes via public bicycle more difficult, reducing the chance to attract occasional riders; Two, insufficient density can cause logistical problems in situations where stations either run out of bicycles or, inversely, run out of dock spaces — not infrequent issues, at least considering my own experience using the Parisian system extensively.

Based on the massive number of day members, even without access to the National Mall, it’s hard to back up the claim that CaBi has had trouble attracting occasional riders.

And the problem of empty docks or full docks is not unique to CaBi. In fact, both Montreal and Paris have serious problems with that issue, as well.

Catherine Maurency of Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique has analyzed bike-sharing data and notes that almost every city that’s tried bike share has experienced some version of the problem. As Maurency points out, “if there’s a subway breakdown you will have issues because there will be no more bikes and all these regular patterns will disappear. If it rains in the morning and it’s sunny in the afternoon, then all the patterns change.”

It’s possible that a tighter placement of stations would have worked better. It’s also possible that a looser placement would have been more successful. It’s hard to say. But, at this point, it’s even harder to say the numbers that CaBi is posting are indicative of a poorly functioning system. There is no definitive consensus on the appropriate dock density, and more likely than not, it differs from city to city anyway. However, this does not change the fact that DC’s Capital Bikeshare is getting a lot right.

Another early concern, and one that led to a small controversy, was about the potential for a bike-sharing station to make a neighborhood more dangerous. Specifically, this was an issue with the Lincoln Park station, where neighbors were concerned about traffic, safety, trash, and so forth. But looking back, the whole issue seems rather silly. No one has asked that a station be moved further from his or her doorstep. Lincoln Park seems to have embraced the idea. And, indeed, most docks enjoy a warm reception.

It’s exciting to see that Capital Bikeshare has exceeded expectations. The model has been more popular than expected, and it has cost less than projected. At the same time, it has been safer and more manageable than many anticipated. These are nothing if not solid indicators of a thriving, new system.

But perhaps the greatest testimony to its success is that not only is CaBi expanding within DC and Arlington, and to Rockville, Alexandria, and possibly Bethesda, but that other cities such as Chicago and New York are also following suit.

Crossposted at the Washcycle.

David Cranor is an operations engineer. A former Peace Corps Volunteer and former Texan (where he wrote for the Daily Texan), he’s lived in the DC area since 1997. David is a cycling advocate who serves on the Bicycle Advisory Council for DC.