Capital Bikeshare – the idea that almost didn’t happen

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We’ve all seen the red clunky bikes everywhere and the 350 bike stations that seem to crowd every Metro entrance and major tourist location. They’re so commonplace that they almost blend in with the setting. Capital Bikeshare, owned by the Dept. of Transportation, found a way to turn riding a bike into a business.

In 2005, DDOT Dan Tangherlini had an idea to add rental bikes to the long list of D.C.’s modes of transportation. After three long years, the project was finally approved, and the business partnered with the advertising firm Clear Channel Outdoor.

SmartBike DC made its debut with 10 stations and 120 bikes—the first system of its kind in North America. The idea was that revenues would be collected through advertising and rental subscriptions. The business showed promise as it gained popularity with the public, but unfortunately it didn’t last long.

The cost of feeding electricity to the stations was tremendous, and Clear Channel backed out of its partnership when it decided the business couldn’t be profitable. However, the idea was still alive, and new DDOT Director Gabe Klein had some ideas on how to bring the business back.

DDOT was skeptical on restarting what had been a failed project, but Klein had plans to make the business more innovative.

Relying on electricity for power limited where stations could be placed and added a significant amount to operating costs, so Klein implemented solar panels at every station to power the stations with renewable energy.

The new business Capital Bikeshare partnered with Motivate Inc., a company that specializes in bike rentals in major cities. Now that stations could be located anywhere, they were placed near every Metro entrance in the city and several frequently visited areas.

With inexpensive rental fees and strategically placed stations, the business finally gained the traction it needed to kick off.

Over 350 stations and 3,000 bikes are in the system today, and Virginia and Maryland are now included in the business. The business has exploded in popularity with a daily ridership of close to 6,000 persons.

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