The Nuts & Spokes with Capital Bikeshare Director Eric Gilliland

Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a new series of in-depth, one-on-one conversations with thought leaders, policy and industry insiders, entrepreneurs, advocates, and figureheads from across the bike sharing world that we’re calling “The Nuts & Spokes.” This is where we pull back the curtain to get a good look at what makes them and bike sharing tick. Keep an eye out for more in this ongoing series.


Capital Bikeshare Director Eric Gilliland

Working his way up from bike messenger all the way to Director of Capital Bikeshare (“CaBi” to those who know it best), some might say Eric Gilliland has lived the American Bicyclist’s Dream. I had the chance to catch up with Eric earlier this week and talk bike share as his team was prepping to install CaBi’s 200th station.

Matt Christensen: To get started, here’s an easy one for you. Do you use CaBi to get around?

Eric Gilliland: I ride my own bike, generally. But on a day like today, for example, it’s snowy and wet here, so I took the Metro close to our operation center and took a CaBi bike from there. And I’ll probably use it to get home.

MC: It seems as though the DC community has heartily embraced CaBi. Can you describe how you’ve seen the system become part of DC’s urban fabric?

EG: Bike share was quickly adopted in DC. We had a decent bike culture and decent infrastructure, but it has been interesting to see the community that has developed around bike share. There’s a common courtesy that has developed around it. For example, we’ll see people try to get past the 30 minutes by docking the bike and taking it out–but if someone is waiting for a bike and it’s the only one, they might give it up. We’ve also seen the mascots of the Nationals ride Capital Bikeshare bikes in the ’Presidents Race’ which happens each game. We even had one guy do the bike part of a triathlon on a Capital Bikeshare bike.

MC: What do people like about it compared to other forms of transport?

EG: People tend to be much more excited about taking a bike share bike than they are about taking the bus. The best comments that we see over Twitter, Facebook, or email are from people who say that we should run the metro system. We spend a lot of time and resources making sure that bikes are available when they need them, that the bikes function extremely well, and that the stations are always up and running.CallOutBox3

MC: How supportive of cycling and bike share have your jurisdictions been?

EG: In terms of infrastructure, they’re adding bike lanes, making sure trail construction moves forward, and are interconnecting the lanes that we do have. There’s also the education and safety side where the city has partnered with WABA to offer free ‘Confidence City Cycling’ classes to Capital Bikeshare members who might be very interested in riding but don’t have the experience or skills to do so in an urban environment. On the planning side, we’re working with the DC Office of Planning to change the zoning code to allow developers to offset some of their parking requirements by purchasing a Capital Bikeshare station as part of their new developments.

MC: More bicyclists riding around sounds like a good thing. But what about safety? Helmets have been a hot-button issue in the bike share community recently. What are your thoughts on them?

EG: We’re trying to move toward greater helmet use. In addition to the education opportunities, we offer new members and renewing members a discounted helmet. So, for 16 dollars, they can get a decent CaBi branded helmet. As far as legislation, I don’t think there is much of a stomach for mandatory helmet laws in DC or Virginia, although there is one that is being debated in Maryland.

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A CaBi rider pedals down the two-way bike path in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. Photo credit: M. Christensen

MC: Another issue in bike share has been social equity as its users tend to be higher income, well-educated white people. Is Capital Bikeshare working to get bikes in the hands of low-income people and people of color?

EG: The initial build-out of the bike system here was focused on areas where people were riding all the time. Now that’s starting to spread to areas where it hasn’t been before. From the infrastructure side, the city is placing more emphasis on expanding facilities and trail development in areas that traditionally haven’t had it.

The biggest challenge we have for lower-income users is the need for a credit card. So, we’re working with them to get credit cards in the hands of people who don’t have them. We work with a group call Bank on DC. Bank on DC shares in some of the risk of usage by helping to offset the cost of a stolen bike.

We’re also working to get rid of the current hold that’s placed on the credit card. When you use the system, a $101 hold is placed on your credit card for up to five to ten days depending on the bank. For people who don’t have that much disposable income, that can be a lot. Hopefully, this spring we’ll be getting rid of that which should make it easier for lower-income groups to get a bike.

MC: Addressing social equity and bike safety are big challenges. As an operator, do you have any others?

EG: We have a lot more people who want to use CaBi than we have bikes that are available. The rebalancing of the bikes is our biggest daily challenge because of the way DC is set up. Most of the employment is downtown, and most of the residential is outside of that, so, during the week, it’s a very heavily used system by bike commuters. All the bikes in the neighborhoods flow downtown where we need to make sure we have space. Then we try to return those bikes as quickly as we can back to the neighborhoods to give people another opportunity to ride into downtown.

MC: Despite its challenges, CaBi is still a very large and successful bikeshare program. Why is that?

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A CaBi bicycle technician waves to a rebalancer who pulls up to a station near Dupont Circle. Photo credit: M. Christensen

EG: There is a lot that goes into solid operations. Good communication between the operator and the partner jurisdictions is critical. But I think it all begins with the quality of the staff that is hired, and the leadership at the top–not to toot my own horn. It’s important to communicate the overall goals of the company and make sure that every person, from senior staff to part time staff in the field, knows how they contribute to the overall goals and that their duties are clearly defined for them.

MC: And what are those goals?

EG: The overall strategic goal of Alta Bicycle Share is getting more people on bikes. In terms of our internal goals, we want to give people the opportunity to ride as often as they want and make sure they’re safe while they’re doing so. From an organizational standpoint, I want to make sure that we’re functioning as efficiently as we can and we’re providing the best service to our customers and hopefully making a little money in the process.

MC: Speaking of money, some cities and bike share critics insist that bike share systems be financially self-sustaining. Should this be a measure of a bike share system’s success?

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Disabled CaBi bikes with seats turned backwards sit waiting to be fixed and re-deployed at the Capital Bikeshare headquarters in south DC. Photo credit: M. Christensen

EG: Thankfully, in DC, it’s about a 100% farebox recovery. But I don’t think it’s a great way to judge the value of the system because it is a transit system. People don’t expect roads to pay for themselves; people usually don’t expect metro systems or bus systems to pay for themselves either. Our jurisdictions here in D.C., Arlington, and Alexandria have made investments into this program because of all the benefits they see associated with it. It has increased mobility, increased health, decreased congestion, and decreased GHG emissions. Not to mention the fun factor of it. They really see it as a compliment to transit, and in that way it is a public good.


MC: Will private money, namely sponsorship and advertising, play a role in CaBi’s future?

EG: We currently don’t have any sponsors or advertisers. But our jurisdictions are looking into both of those because it could be helpful to offset some of the operational costs that aren’t covered by membership and usage fees. And a system sponsor could allow a city to expand more than they have already.

MC: Let’s talk about data and technology. You guys make a lot of trip data available to the public. What do you think of how people are using it?

EG: On the whole, it’s been fantastic. We’ve got a lot of smart people in the DC area that know what to do with all this data. They’ve developed tools that we have been able to use internally. For example, someone early on developed CaBi Tracker which allowed us to see what stations were full and empty and for how long. A key part of our contract in the rebalancing side is we’re not allowed to have a station full or empty for three hours, which was difficult to judge without any tools. CaBi Tracker gives us what wee need and it’s something that our rebalancers use on a daily basis.

MC: Do you have a favorite visualization or tool?

EG: The work that Michael Schade has done on the trip origins and destinations has been very helpful. We provide that information to our rebalancing teams to show them the directional flow of where the bikes are going. It’s also been helpful from a planning standpoint with our jurisdictions to see what stations need to be larger and where more stations need to be located. That’s been the most broad-based and helpful that we’ve seen.

MC: It almost goes without saying now that bike share really took off last decade after technological breakthroughs. What’s the next step in bike share technology?

EG: Chicago, New York, and San Francisco will be using GPS on their bikes, and we’ll be able to get a whole new wealth of finely grained data for transportation planners and health officials. And improved solar collectors will decrease the cost of batteries. We’re also starting to see more stationless systems and hopefully these new technologies will lead to more manufactures, which will hopefully lead to decreased cost for the jurisdiction and the consumer.

MC: What’s your advice then for large programs, like New York and Chicago, launching this year?

EG: Every system is unique in some ways. The equipment is all the same, but the operational challenges are always different. The scale of Chicago and New York’s operations will be the biggest hurdle–they’re just immense. New York will be three or four times the size of what we have here. One of the major challenges in New York will be with rebalancing in heavy traffic, and station siting will certainly be more challenging. But making the financing work will likely be their biggest challenge. In Chicago, which I’m pretty sure they’re going to be operating 365 days a year, the cold weather may be the biggest challenge there. And in San Francisco, the geographic spread of the system between San Francisco proper and the other areas may be a challenge.

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Bike racksnear the National Mall. Proof that bike racks can both be functional and artistic. Photo credit: M. Christensen

MC: And lastly, what interests you most about bike share?

EG: It’s a game changer. For bicycle transportation in cities, prior to this, bicycling was seen as a fringe mode of transportation. Bike share is breaking down barriers and allowing more people to get into bicycling, and it’s starting to transform the way cities are operating. It’s helped us to get better bike facilities which is better for the pedestrian environment, it reduces car ownership, and you get people using all forms of mass transit–so there’s this transformational aspect of it, and we’re watching it unfold here in DC.CallOutBox2

And we always refer to it as the gateway drug to bicycling. We’ve heard many stories of people who hadn’t biked in twenty years and saw our system and gave it a shot. Tourists come to town and they never even think that bicycling would be an option to get around, and then they rave about it after they try it because its so inexpensive and convenient. So, there’s a lot of things. I’m passionate about bike share, in particular, because I think it is transforming transportation.

Next week, will be talking with Claire Hurley from Madison B-cycle as they get ready to relaunch for the spring season. And if you have someone in mind who you think we should interview, please let us know!


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