The Story Behind the Best Bike-Share Program in the U.S.

Tom Vanderbilt discusses the development of D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare program - the nation’s largest, most successful bike-share service - which "was essentially born late one night, two decades ago, in a library."

For the inspiration for Capital Bikeshare, Vanderbilt gives credit to Paul DeMaio, who as an urban planning student at the University of Virginia wrote his master’s thesis on ByCyklen, a “city bike” program launched by the city of Copenhagen. Many years later, DeMaio's research and advocacy led to Smart Bike DC - the first commercial bike-sharing program in a major U.S. city. The lessons learned when implementing that foundering system led to a larger regional bike-share system under the guidance of Gabe Klein, "a former VP at car-sharing pioneer ZipCar and political neophyte," who had been appointed head of D.C.'s DOT.

Now the envy of such bike-friendly cities as Portland, Seattle, New York, and San Francisco, Capital Bikeshare can boast of their 1670+ bicycles at 175+ stations across Washington, D.C., Arlington, VA, and Alexandria, VA.

"That D.C has been a leader in American bike sharing is somewhat surprising," says Vanderbilt. "But D.C. has some inherent qualities that helped make this success possible: A relatively healthy number of cyclists (and an active cycling advocacy scene), a young (and getting younger) population, and a robust tourist market. D.C., notes Klein, is also unique in terms of being a city that is not part of an overseeing state, giving it a certain autonomy."

"But all this kindling needed the continued sparking of progressive planners and policymakers having conversations—at conferences, in offhand remarks at the end of meetings—about this ephemeral, European idea."

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