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.

Tagged: bike sharing

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. 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 lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.