Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Capital Bikeshare recoups a surprising amount of operating costs

February 7, 2012 - 09:48 AM
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(Photo: flickr/SLOCountyBicycleCoalition)

Color me impressed. Arlington County's Capital Bikeshare manager Paul DeMaio is reporting some solid numbers about the amount of revenue versus the operating costs in the fledgling bikeshare system that's rolled through our city in the last year and a half. Here's the verdict according to DeMaio:

Capital Bikeshare (Arlington): A ratio of 81% in 2011

Capital Bikeshare (D.C.): A ratio of 120% in 2011

Not too shabby at all. The numbers are slightly less stellar when you consider that the Arlington marketing and management costs of $142,000 aren't included. Add in those costs and you'll see just a 53% cost recovery and a far greater distance from breaking even for Arlington's service. But even 53% seems like a strong amount of recovery so early in the system, especially compared to much of the world's transit.

For context, look at WMATA's proposed 2013 budget, in which revenue will only cover about 55% of WMATA's overall cost. Looking just at the Metrobus numbers, it's even more stark as the ratio is below 30%. WMATA manages to operate thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies, as with most major transit.

Arlington now has 23 Capital Bikeshare stations and 145 bikes, according to DeMaio, which Alta Bicycle Share ran last year for a sum of $270,000. Arlington bikeshare revenue from memberships, user fees, and sponsorships came to $218,000, just $52,000 (plus the, to be fair, plentiful marketing and management costs of $142,000) short of breaking even. (Updated 10:26 a.m. to include Capital Bikeshare's D.C. numbers). In D.C., Capital Bikeshare performed even better, earning $2.5 million in revenue and spending $2.1 million in operating costs, according to the District Department of Transportation's spokesman John Lisle. But Lisle makes sure, like DeMaio, to clarify that these numbers don't include marketing and management expenses, and unlike DeMaio, he wasn't forthcoming with what those marketing and management expenses come to. The idea that Capital Bikeshare D.C. is recouping costs at 120% is, like Arlington's number of 81%, a little deceptive for not including those other very real costs. But hey, the revenue still beats operating costs for D.C. That bodes well for the system.

These numbers, of course, concern operating expenses and not all the money that our local governments have spent installing the stations and getting the bikes in the first place. Here's Arlington County's contract with Alta Bicycle Share from mid-2011 that entails around $2.16 million in station installation and operating costs and a second from fall of 2011 for $3.6 million. Each sturdy red bike costs between $1,100 and $1,300 or so. A complete bikeshare dock costs about $850, and a complete terminal just over $11,000. We know from the contract that even the bikeshare station's paper comes with a price — $10, 10 cents.

But the bikesharing service has certainly attracted its riders. In Arlington, more than 50,000 people began trips in Arlington and more than 50,000 ended them there in this first year from Sept. 20, 2010 to Sept. 19, 2011.

The bikeshare program has increasingly looked to sponsorship to help raise money. Arlington's Capital Bikeshare service already offers detailed pricing for how businesses can sponsor or adopt the Northern Virginia stations and get prime logo placement. This additional sponsorship money bodes well for recovering the marketing and management costs, at least, and raises the possibility of the service breaking even. The service will essentially double in size in the coming months, with 21 new stations and 144 more bikes. In D.C., expect much of the same extraordinary expansion, as well as expansion into Alexandria and likely other surrounding counties.

But know this much — regardless of the expenses, Capital Bikeshare is still orders of magnitude cheaper to install and run than any other transportation infrastructure in sight here. Just look to WMATA's $1.6 billion budget and the $1.5 billion going into the D.C. streetcar network for proof of that.

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