Capitol bikes gather dust

Officials and lawmakers may end the House’s bike-sharing program, which as of March had only been used by 175 staffers since its inception.

The Chief Administrative Office (CAO) spent $23,000 to lease and maintain 30 bicycles beginning last July. Eight months later, the bikes had been used by less than 3 percent of the House’s staff.

The 175 people signed up for the program have used the bikes a total of 300 times. That means some people have likely used the program only once, and each bike has been ridden about 10 times.

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That data was provided by the CAO in a March press release. The office does not have more current data on the program’s use.

Staffers suggest the program isn’t being used because it’s inconvenient. To pick up a bike, riders must first pick up a key from the First Call center in the Longworth House Office Building.

They then must take their key to one of the six bike racks stationed around Capitol Hill. After returning the bike, they have to bring the key back to the First Call center in Longworth.

That means using the bike-sharing system can be a time-sucking enterprise.

A spokesman for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) acknowledged the program has not been used as much as lawmakers had hoped.

“Bike-sharing programs can work, but the cost of the House Wheels for Wellness program is out of line with participation,” said spokesman Jonathan Beeton. Wasserman Schultz is the chairwoman of the Appropriations Legislative Branch subcommittee, which oversees funding of the initiative.

“Either we need greater usage or we need less cost,” he said.

Wasserman Schultz and Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, the program’s overseer, are in talks to determine whether there are ways to enhance the program, which was begun to encourage physical activity in staffers and give them more free time, or if it needs to be discontinued.

“The current budgetary climate has resulted in an examination of the Wheels for Wellness program,” said Jeff Ventura, spokesman for the CAO. “The CAO is in the process of determining whether to continue this employee benefit.”

Because the bikes were leased and not purchased, if the program is discontinued, the House will not have to resell the bikes, but can simply cancel its lease.

Some Republicans have criticized the program. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) calls it a “silly” program and said the hours make it unattractive to staffers.

“The bike program is so silly,” he said on the House floor last month. “Why is it silly? It is not available, except for on weekdays from 8 to 5. So when I have an employee come to work, I expect them to be working, not riding bikes provided for by hardworking taxpayers.”

According to a First Call employee, staffers can pick up the key to unlock the bike from the First Call station in Longworth between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 6 p.m.

And an employee familiar with the bike program said that because the bikes aren’t in high demand, officials are more prone to turn a blind eye to someone who takes a bike out overnight.

“Around the second or third day, if you still have a bike out, you’ll get a call,” said the employee, who added that there are no penalties for overdue bikes.

The founder of Congress’s Bike Caucus, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), thinks a different system could increase usage. Blumenauer, a cycling advocate known for wearing a bicycle lapel pin, wants to explore an electronic system that would allow registered staffers to carry cards that would automatically unlock the bikes, according to his spokeswoman.

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The CAO requested $200,000 in this year’s legislative-branch appropriations bill to purchase such a system that would require electronic wiring and more construction to implement.

That spurred Kingston to offer a motion to recommit the bill to committee and strike $100,000 in funding from the program.

Kingston’s motion passed, but it only cut money from the section of the bill that the bike program is under, and not the actual program itself, according to Wasserman Schultz. It is still unclear what area of House operations will be affected by the decrease in funding.

“There are very few bikes that have been checked out, and we do believe that there needs to be a more effective plan brought forward by the CAO to ensure that if the program is going to continue to exist in the future, that more bikes be checked out and that they have an effective plan for doing that,” Wasserman Schultz said during comments on the floor  last month.

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