Smart Bike DC at Metro Center in 2009 by Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz licensed under Creative Commons.

Of the flood of improvements in Washington-area bicycling over the past 15 years, none has been more consequential than the rise of the region’s bike-sharing program.

By making bikes available, convenient and affordable, Capital Bikeshare has been a game-changer that’s driven a huge increase in all kinds of recreational and purposeful cycling. This includes not only trips that are pre-planned but also spur-of-the-moment solutions for transportation problems.

By 2021, in the seven participating area jurisdictions, there were 650 Bikeshare stations, 6,000 Bikeshare bikes, and Washingtonians were taking an amazing 3.3 million annual trips on them.

Interestingly, Washington has the third-largest shared-bike program in the nation. Surprisingly—for a cautiously bureaucratic city that is usually a late adopter of innovative ideas—Washington was actually the pioneer of the concept in the US.

In Part 1 of this historical series, I’ll talk about the history of sharing bikes up to the failure of the first major attempt to bring bikeshare to the Washington region. In Part 2, I’ll talk about how the Capital Bikeshare we know today came together.

Inspirations from Europe

The concept of sharing bikes was invented in the late 1960s in – where else? – Amsterdam, Holland. The idea, known as “The White Bike, was put forth as a communalistic paradise, where bikes would simply be left in public places, never locked, used when needed, and returned to the public sphere for the next person, with the cycle repeating forever. It was a breathtaking concept, but theft, damage and vandalism cut it short; many of the white bikes were eventually found at the bottom of the city’s canals.

The idea went into hibernation but it didn’t die. In the 1990s a more realistic – but still free – version was tried in Copenhagen, Denmark. That one, called Bycyklen, used lockable bikes that were unlocked through a coin deposit, with the coin being refunded when the bike was relocked. The costs of the program were picked up by outdoor advertisers.

The idea was still unknown in the US, but in 1996 Paul DeMaio, a University of Virginia student (and Washington Area Bicyclist Association member), did a semester in Copenhagen and fell in love with the concept. When he returned to the US DeMaio began a blog (which is still active today) about bikesharing which soon became the worldwide go-to place for information and encouragement.

“When I started,” DeMaio said, “it was difficult to understand who had the right skills for setting up a bike-sharing system. Is it the bike people? The transit people? Some other group? It would take some time for local governments and the private sector to figure out how to do it: who sells the bikes, who places the stations, who develops the technology to rebalance the bikes where they need to be, and so on. My goal was to make this information available for everyone.”

When DeMaio got a job with the city of Alexandria, he tried to promote the idea locally, but he couldn’t find a corporate sponsor to foot the bill. There was also universal cynicism that any kind of “white bike” scheme could ever work in the US.

Meanwhile, upriver in Washington, DC, District Department of Transportation (DDOT) director Dan Tangherlini also liked the idea and even offered to have the city “buy some bikes,” according to DC Bike Coordinator Jim Sebastian. But there was no obvious plan for moving forward.

Bike-sharing is not a profitable enough enterprise to succeed through the private sector, and even the public sector is reluctant to take it on purely as a community benefit. The only way it can gain political traction is as a subset of public transportation—supplementing the bus and subway system both by reducing crowding and by connecting people to transit stops for the “first mile” or “last mile” of a longer trip.

A solid solution quickly flames out

One day, DeMaio’s blog revealed that some of the European systems were being funded through contracts with outdoor advertising companies. “It was a huge conceptual breakthrough,” recalled Sebastian. “Finally we had a possible funding source.”

Fortuitously, at that moment, DC happened to be rebidding its contract for outdoor advertising on bus shelters. One of the bidders, Clear Channel, already had some experience – in Barcelona, Spain, it had an advertising contract that included a bike-share program. DC added a similar requirement to its request for proposals, and in 2007 Clear Channel was selected.

“This was a very big deal that got us started,” said Sebastian. “They got a contract to put ads on 700 bus shelters around the city. As a part of that, we were also going to get 10 bike stations and 100 bikes out of it.”

By this time—2008—DC had two other important champions—Mayor Adrian Fenty and DDOT director Gabe Klein, both of whom were strong bicycle advocates, who were open to new ideas. The city selected a company named Smart Bikes for the equipment but the technology didn’t make things easy. Each dock had to be hard-wired into the electrical grid, meaning not only coordinating with the power company but also digging street trenches at each location. It took nine months to install 10 stations.

“We had immediate interest from the public,” said Sebastian. “Twelve hundred people signed up for membership right away. But the program was too small, there were too few destinations, and the company wasn’t really interested in expanding it. The money for them was in advertising, not bikes.”

At the time, only one North American city was taking clear leadership on the bikesharing concept – Montreal, where the experiment was being led by its parking authority.

In my next post, I’ll walk us up to how Montreal’s model became our model in DC.