Friday, August 15, 2008

DC SmartBike vs. Paris Vélib

Today (August 14), Washington DC rolled out its public bicycle system, called "SmartBike". There are 120 bikes based at 10 different stations spread across downtown Washington DC. I'm a little dubious about how it will work, or rather I should say that the system is structured in a way that is unclear. Is the system for locals or tourists? Some aspects of the system seem to discourage tourist use, but others suggest that the system will not work all that well for local commuters.

The obvious comparison is to the Vélib system in Paris, what Parisians have cleverly nicknamed "La Vélorucion". I've had the good fortune to visit Paris 3 times in the past year, and have personally admired Vélib. Rain, shine, night, day, whatever.. you see Parisians on Vélib cycles. You see the stations everywhere. At night, you see trucks full of Vélib bikes being hauled back to the central depot for maintenance. It's really something.

Both systems, Vélib and SmartBike, are subsidized by advertising (billboard) companies in a private-public partnership with the respective city. And the bikes (Vélib top right, SmartBike center right) are not so different, urban highly adjustable upright bikes with full mudguards, and high-capacity front baskets. (The DC program for some inexplicable reason decided to go with differently-sized front and rear wheels, thus doubling their tire inventory requirements for maintenance. And, equally inexplicably, the SmartBikes have no lighting system. No doubt a cost-cutting measure.) There the similarity (such as it is) ends.

In the thematic spirit of Practical Cyclist, let's run the numbers.

Looking at the chart outlining the systems at right, we can see that it's not really fair to compare the Paris and DC systems. (Note: corrected for DC served area.) A quick glance shows that the Paris system has 170 times the bikes, 150 times the stations, and 30 times the density (the Paris system covers approximately 5.5 times the land area). Not much of a match-up there; the American sponsors are being, ahem, a little timid (understandably, I suppose).

An even more striking contrast is apparent when you compare the fee structure between the two systems. To use a bike in DC, you can go up to 3 hours free. To use one in Paris, you are charged a surcharge of 1 euro after your first 30 minutes, and the rate of surcharge increases the longer you have the bike. At 3 hours, the limit of the DC system, you've been charged over 20 bucks on Vélib!

So what's going on here?

Well, it would seem, from the economic structure shown, that the DC and the Paris systems are designed to answer different questions. The Paris system tries to answer the question, "What would a mass-transit system based on bicycles look like?" The frankly punitive surcharges that they levy are designed to get the users to use the bikes to get to their destination and get them back in service. They are trying to create a feeling of reliability, such that you can go to your nearest station and expect to find a bike to use. (Failing that, if your nearest station is out of bikes, the station density assures that there will be another one very nearby.)

The question the DC system is trying to answer is not so clear. They don't cover a broad enough area nor do they have enough density to truly serve the commuter needs. Nor do they have a bike depot at Union Station, where all the train commuters come into town. The 3-hour limit is too ahort for a work day, and seems more oriented towards a tourist use. However, the station locations are not in the right places for tourists, and tourists won't use it anyway because of the annual fee. So I'm forced to conclude that the question the DC system is trying to answer is, "What symbolic but ineffective gesture can we make to show we are a 'green' city?" or, alternatively, "What can we do to further frustrate the cabdrivers of DC?"

I think the SmartBike system could work, even given the major limitation it has (that of being situated in a non-cycling city!) I think that if they situated a huge depot at Union Station, (where they care about how bicycles look,) and situated "receptor" stations around L'Enfant Plaza and the Capitol office buildings, it could succeed locally in terms of visibility and ridership. And that would be a success, indeed.


worldstreets said...

I just copied this good peice over to our Forum to which I also invite you cordally. Eric Britton

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to contrast the numbers. I'm a long time bike commuter headed back to DC after a year away and even though I ordinarily use my own bike, I plan to join the DC program just as a show of support. That said, the first time I checked out the web site, the amount of effort just to sign up for DC Smartbike was irritatingly high. I don't see how the program could possibly be, conceptually, directed at tourists as you have to wait to get your card in the mail before you ever use the system. Well, maybe very organized and motivated tourists who sign up in advance. But they would then be limited to such a small central area for check out and ins. On the whole, I couldn't agree with you more regarding the conceptualization of the DC system, but, I have found the city to be pretty bike friendly in general, and so I am hopeful. Thanks for the interesting post. BTW if you're ever in DC, there's the most amazingly secure bike rack at one of the Cleveland Heights (Red Line) metro escalator stops. It took me awhile to figure it out but once I did, I realized there was no way anyone was going anywhere with my bike while I was gone. Having lost two bikes in one year in DC, that was a good feeling.

Anonymous said...

Hi Robert,

Thanks for leaving this link over at IT,. I haven't had the chance to sign up or try the new SmartBike system yet, but you're right, the scale and mission of the two programs are vastly different. We're looking into a follow-up piece to see how the program is doing in the first few months, so check in for more on the bikes in the coming weeks.

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