The Best Bike-Sharing Program in the United States [Slate]

Bicycles are seen in a rack at a bike sharing station January 25, 2011 in Washington, DC.
Bicycles are seen in a rack at a bike sharing station in Washington, DC.
Photograph by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
If you had been handed, a decade ago, a map of the U.S. and asked to predict where the novel idea of bike sharing—then limited to a few small-scale projects in a handful of European cities, might first find its firmest footing, you probably would have laid your money on a progressive hub like Portland or Seattle or the regional poles of walkable urbanism, New York or San Francisco—all of which were scoring higher, those days, in surveys likeBicycling magazine’s list of most bikeable cities. But today, the nation’s largest, most successful bike-share program—in terms of size, ridership, and financial viability—is in Washington, D.C. How did D.C. accomplish this unlikely task?
The program was essentially born late one night, two decades ago, in a library.  
Paul DeMaio, an urban planning student at the University of Virginia, was doing Internet research (“pre-Google,”  he notes) when he stumbled upon images of ByCyklen, a new “city bike” program launched by the city of Copenhagen. Enthralled by the idea, he visited the city, learned what he could about the system, and, eventually, distilled his findings into a master’s thesis on bike sharing. Which had about as much impact as the typical master’s thesis. “No one was picking it up,” he recalls over coffee at D.C.’s Union Station. “I was so upset. But as a 22-year-old, what are you going to do?”