15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice

Donald Trump may demonize refugees but it’s impossible to look at a suffering person and not feel compassion.

That’s why photography is so important and why the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies recently hosted a panel of photojournalists and an accompanying photo exhibit.

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice examined the impact of photojournalism and creative storytelling on policy.

But when we say policy, what really mean is people. Immigration is a policy; seeing a photo of a child saying goodbye to a deported father is heartbreaking reality.

After the photographers presented the work, a large part of the discussion centered around how to share their photos with the wider world. The set of people willing to go to JHU on a weeknight for a talk on social justice and photography is self-limiting. It was an audience sympathetic to the plight of the dispossessed.

But in an era when people can select their own reality, how do you break through the Fox News bubble?  In his work, Salwan Georges depicts a view rarely seen on network news – the Arab community of Dearborn, Michigan. These are Americans who have given their children in service to this country but their stories are rarely told. Salwan had touching photos of imams at work, not just providing religious instruction, but visiting with their congregants and even arranging marriages, a portrayal of the Muslim faith that never reaches conservative media.

Bridging this gap requires reaching out. It means that photographers and advocates must invite not just the familiar universe of liberals but also other groups, such as churches and veterans. None could look at 15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice and go away unmoved.

The Johns Hopkins photography panel was just the first of several to occur this year, leading up to Focus On the Story, a new photography festival, coming this summer.

 

Mapping BikeDC: Photos from the Nation’s Capital

The BikeDC Flickr map displaying photos tagged BikeDC from around the city.
The BikeDC Flickr map displaying photos tagged BikeDC from around the city.

What does biking look like in Washington, DC? Find out with the new BikeDC Flickr map created by Michael Schade.

It’s a heat map of Flickr photos of bikes and bicyclists in DC. Areas with the most photos glow red while those with none are gray. See the favorite spots for pictures of bikes, taken by people on bikes, and ponder the empty quarters of the city. Zoom in to find your favorite trail and zoom out to see an overview of  the Washington region.

How it works

When you take a photo on your iPhone, location data is captured. If you upload it to Flickr, that geolocation is included, joining a worldwide map of photos auto-generated by this online service.

Another little-known feature of Flickr is the ability to tag photos with keywords. Doing so helps you and others find your photos.

To build his map of biking in DC, Michael used Flickr’s map and limited it to photos tagged with the BikeDC keyword.

Surprises

The BikeDC Flickr map corresponds neatly with the Strava heat map of biking in DC. Most biking occurs in the Northwest section of the city. People go on bikes go to their jobs downtown and then on the trails during the weekends. Still, there are surprises in the data.

Anacostia Trail – why so few riders? This gorgeous new trail follows the Anacostia upstream by Kenilworth Gardens and the Bladensburg battlefield.

No one bikes to H St? After wrecking on the trolley tracks, I’m not a fan of biking to this neighborhood. But I know people do.

The Metropolitan Branch Trail is underrepresented. This urban trail is lined with beautiful murals and is an active commuter route. It needs photos!

BikeDC really loves Dupont Circle. It’s a convenient meeting spot and where the DC Bike Party starts so it’s a flaming red hot spot.

15th and P – en fuego! Okay, this is my fault. I’m a prime contributor to BikeDC photos and this is my neighborhood. I take a lot of photos of the 15th St bike lane, especially when the Awesome Foundation cheered on bike commuters.

Cyclecross in the City – BikeDC doesn’t just happen on the roads. If you pan up to Park View, you’ll see a bunch of pictures from DC Cyclocross, where city cyclists go off-road at the Old Soldiers Home.

BikeDC is just not DC – The BikeDC photo blob extends across the river, following the Arlington loop of bike trails as well as extending south to Alexandria and north to Silver Spring, MD.

How you can help

Got a favorite bike spot that you don’t see on the BikeDC Flickr map? Know a neighborhood or trail that’s underrepresented? Upload your photos to Flickr. Make sure that your pictures include location info (if not you can add it in the Organizer) and tag them with the keyword BikeDC. Help build a pictorial representation of biking in the city.

If you have questions about the map, contact Michael Schade. He generously created this project on his own time. It’s still a work-in-progress but demonstrates the breadth of BikeDC across the city and beyond.

The Worst: 2017 in Review

inauguration protesters set limo on fire

Most Americans voted against Trump. Elected by a disaffected rump of the population, the crass New Yorker governed like a tyrant, his models being Putin, Erdogan and Chavez. The country was saved solely by the incompetence of the man, who turned out to be more Mussolini than Der Fuhrer.

Still, 2017 was a deeply traumatic year, where the infection of politics found everyone, even those who sought to avoid it, like myself, naively thinking that I could ignore the new President as helicopters whirred overhead on Inauguration Day.

That was the moment I was radicalized, hearing Trump speak of American carnage while I watched real carnage on the streets of DC. I spent my life avoiding politics in Washington, feeling it to be a pointless exercise. Yet, by the end of the year, it seemed essential that every American, including me, resist incipient tyranny.

reading at Kramerbooks

Ironically, a few weeks earlier, I was sympathetic to Trump voters, representing my beliefs in the short story Victory Party, which won the City Paper fiction competition. Yet, after my reading at Kramerbooks (the highlight of the year for me), events pushed me left.

My journey, and the journey of millions like me, was summed up in a tweet:

Running was a consolation, even in mid-winter, pounding around the monuments useful stress relief. I aimed for 300 miles this year. Not much for some, but more than I’ve ever run, and nearly got there except for injury.

Women's March crowds on 14th St

In March, cherry blossoms bloomed and then were covered in snow – it was that kind of year. By then, protests had filled the streets for months, from the comedic geekery of March for Science to the staggering crowds of the Women’s March, every one of them exponentially larger than the paucity of people that greeted the Donald to DC.

The year saw me increasingly politicized, especially after witnessing the heartless attitudes of Trump tourists toward refugees and visiting a South clinging to Civil War memories. The eclipse brought the country together, but only briefly.

eclipse in black and white

Meanwhile, I was thinking of The Swamp, doing some freelance work while I hammered my comic novel into place. Originally titled Drone City, and about 90% done at the start of the year, I revised it extensively for an era that was stranger than fiction, my selection of the title a clapback at the Trumpkins who think America can survive without a government. In my book, I gave them their wish.

My books are a cynical look at DC, while my photography is a romantic vision of the city. I like wandering the streets and taking photos, even in the snow, like the shot of the Spanish Steps which won the Mitchell Park Photo Competition and admission to the French Ambassador’s residence, a fancy event I attended in a ripped jacket.

A better fit for me was the wonderful Community Collective show, square views of the city curated by friends of mine. In addition to being the unofficial photographer of #BikeDC, I was also a Brand Ambassador for Enterprise CarShare and took trips to Gettysburg and Little Washington.

2017 was the year that money seemed to slosh through the economy, just out of reach for real people, but readily available for questionable notions like coworking and dockless bikesharing.

this could be a millennial-themed ad

Some of that free stuff found its way to me. I got to sample Uncle Nearest, the bourbon with a fascinating backstory. My bike dreams came true with a Brompton for a day. Through my friends at InstagramDC, I got to experience the interactive art of Artechouse.

But this was the year that America, and its Baby Boomer overlords, said, “Fuck it. We’re not even going to try anymore.” Their parents won a war, built infrastructure and sent a man to the Moon. Boomers spent money on themselves as America fell apart around them. I asked, Does Anybody Make Real Shit Anymore?

I won’t blame Boomers for one loathsome plague: brunch. Sloppy, gross and everywhere, it defined the horror show of America, 2017 edition. One of my last memories of the year was waiting for a friend to finish brunch (I refused to go) while Millennials arrived by Uber and were removed by ambulance, unable to handle their mimosas.

Just when you think that things couldn’t get worse, it got worse with Nazis marching and murdering in Charlottesville. The year saw me reading about the collapse of democracies and how ordinary men ended up standing over death pits with guns in their hands.

Tyranny is no longer academic in America, for a good chunk of the population longs for dictatorship – that’s the lesson of 2017. And why you should resist in 2018.

Elizabeth Warren

Our institutions are under attack. I worked for a few months at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a wonderful agency designed to protect poor people from financial scams. The Trump administration is now taking it apart from the inside. Elizabeth Warren came to protest, trailed by a media scrum worthy of a presidential candidate.

Thank god for biking, and a record year of it for me, and for books. It was the kind of year where you read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, as well as great novels like The Sympathizer and A Friend of Mr. Lincoln. Plus, some less great books that I picked up at Carpe Librum (used books for less than $4) like A Good Year, a wine caper that I thoroughly enjoyed, and reads from DC’s rejuvenated public library system (hello, West End!) including Everybody Behaves Badly.

The Swamp - proof

After much editing, rearranging and reorganizing, The Swamp came out toward end of the year. My friend Lynn Romano edited it, while Rachel Torda did the cover. Publishing through Amazon, the book is available in print and Kindle. If you’re in DC, I’ll sell you a signed copy for $10.

The Swamp starts with a meteorologist who thinks that he can predict the weather, if only he had a little more data. Things go badly from there. The theme of  the novel is that it’s foolish to think that you can forecast the weather – or anything else.

I will make no predictions for 2018. But I know what I’ll be doing. I’m going to write and resist.

Winter: A Time of Deep Crankiness

Rosslyn at sunset

I unleashed a volley of obscenities at the two (two!) cars parked in the middle of the bike lane. After a minor fender-bender, these two drivers decided the best course of action was to move their cars into the protected bike lane of 15th, thus forcing people on bikes (me!) into traffic.

I cursed; they cursed back. At the next light, a woman on a bike pulled up next to me. “That wasn’t helpful,” she said.

“But,” I started, thinking of all the different ways the bike lane is blocked daily by cars, construction and utility companies determined to dig up every bit of asphalt in this city. However, I’ll admit when I’m wrong and I was. Yelling at them did not help matters nor did it make me feel better. It just left me with a hangover of rage.

It’s a tough time of year. I dread these days when the sun sinks lower in the sky until it just barely seems to get above the horizon. You go to work under gray skies and leave when it’s black.

A time of deep crankiness, when schedules are packed with commitments while you’re pressed with a tyrannical demand to appear jolly. Humans, however, are cyclical animals and this is the low end of the year, a sputtering conclusion to a particularly bad one.

Thank god I can run. On Monday, after wrestling with “Run? Don’t run?” I plodded toward Georgetown as the sun set. Running along the waterfront it occurred to me that perhaps the way to conquer winter was to embrace the darkness. Cold temps bring a stillness to the city, banishing the fair-weather tourists. I ran alone by the dark Potomac. Light lingered in the west, across the river.

I stopped to capture the moment. Pretty photo but I’m never going to love winter. Move faster, earth, and spin these dark days away until we reach spring.

The Swamp – Get This Funny New DC Novel

The Swamp - coverMy new novel, THE SWAMP, begins with a bad weather forecast. A meteorologist predicts snow for Washington, DC. But snow turns to rain over the city, for it is protected by a layer of hot air.

How much hot air? To determine this, the meteorologist sets a drone aloft over the skies of DC, triggering a comic chain of events leading to the end of the country as we know it. Welcome to THE SWAMP.

DC always seems to be on the rain-snow line and with another questionable forecast in the air, I decided this weekend was the perfect time to launch THE SWAMP. This dark satire of DC is now available in print and Kindle on Amazon.

A five-star review described the book as a “dystopian thriller that will have you wondering..what if? or if only?”

THE SWAMP is set in a mercifully Trump-free era. It’s an alternate history of DC, in which sleazy TV correspondents, mommy bloggers and jaded politicos struggle to control a world spinning away from them. If you like dark comedies filled with complex characters and ironic plot twists, then you’ll love THE SWAMP.

Letter from Washington: Endgame

Protest in support of the CFPB

Never a good sign when there are people picketing the office. I started a contractor gig at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently. Monday morning, I was greeted by protesters in front of the brutalist home of the agency a block from the White House.

But they were in support of the CFPB, not opposing it. The Director had left the week before and had tried to appoint one of his deputies as Acting Director. The Trump administration had countermanded this order and sent over Mick Mulvaney, the OMB Director, to run the CFPB. He arrived Monday morning with donuts.

Outside, the media asked, “Who’s in charge?” Inside, there was no confusion: Mulvaney, because the agency’s General Counsel said so. Americans have an admirable belief in the rule of law, even when it harms their interests.

Mulvaney settled into the executive suite with a small team (including his own Jonah – life imitates VEEP) and immediately put a hold on all activities. Innocuous communications work, like the type I was hired to do, will be allowed to continue but Mulvaney will put a stop to enforcement actions, such as penalizing Wells Fargo for creating fake accounts and bilking consumers.

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren came to protest on Tuesday, trailing the largest media contingent I have ever seen. Presidential, I would describe it, a scrum of reporters, TV crews and giddy supporters so chaotic that I couldn’t hear anything she said about the agency she helped to found.

Inside, we were instructed not to talk to reporters. I would gladly talk to reporters, if I knew anything. We work for the people. They have a right to know.

Inside, the line was: Mulvaney will change us, but we’ll change him too. CFPB is staffed by relentless, Obama-era optimists.

Lincoln weeps for the nation

Thursday night, I went for a run, ending up in front of Lincoln, dead and forgotten in his memorial. Republicans, what happened to you? The Great Emancipator freed people from bondage while today’s GOP works to put consumers in debt traps, provide tax breaks for the wealthy and collude with Russia to destroy democracy.

Just before starting the CFPB gig, I finished reading A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, which takes Abe off his pedestal, revealing his early life as a scrambling politician. Born poor, he worked for the common man, trying to bring canals and railroads to the frontier, always on the side of farmers and tradesmen, believing that government worked for the people.

If Lincoln awoke today, he would be appalled, recognizing in today’s GOP the exploitative planter class that he destroyed during the Civil War. For abandoning the beliefs of Lincoln in favor of a charlatan, Republicans have disgraced themselves for eternity.

The week continued with the chaos typical of the Trump regime, with rumors of Tillerson being forced out at State and a nightmare of a tax bill being forced through the Senate.

Then, a Friday morning bombshell: Flynn pleads guilty! The odious former National Security Advisor made a deal with the Special Prosecutor, who is working through the Trump administration, as if he were rolling up a Mafia family.

Because Trump can’t stop tweeting, even on the weekends, he had to comment on Saturday about Flynn, seeming to incriminate himself in obstruction of justice.

How does this end? Nixon had the decency to resign. A member of the Greatest Generation, he left office to preserve the country (and his party).

Donald Trump, the ultimate representation of the crass and selfish Baby Boom Generation, lacks the honor of Nixon. A con artist, draft dodger and rapist, he will not surrender office willingly.

As justice draws near, I see three possible endgames:

1. Trump fires Mueller. The country is thrown into chaos. 2018 is a year of mass demonstrations and widespread resistance until the midterm elections. Then, with a crushing Democratic majority, Trump is impeached.

2. Trump is charged with obstruction of justice, but Republicans refuse to impeach. Again, widespread domestic chaos hopefully ending with a Democratic majority.

3. Trump goes to war against North Korea to distract from the Mueller probe. Like World War I, a regional conflict spirals into a global catastrophe, leaving millions dead and the end of the US as a superpower.

I hope to be proven wrong but if 2017 has taught us anything is that each week brings ever-growing chaos and peril, as American democracy comes under sustained attack from without and within. It’s up to us to resist.

Photos from 3000 miles of biking

Last year, I biked a little less than 2000 miles. More than I had ever done before but I was a little disappointed in myself, seeing the mileage number at 1948 or so in Strava. So close!

In 2017, I vowed to do better, shooting for 2500 miles. I passed that in September then kept on going, breaking through the 3000 mile mark in November.

For people who don’t bike, 3000 miles will seem unfathomable, like biking across the country. My bike commuter friends will look at 3000 miles and think, “I did that over the summer.”

For me, it’s not about the miles. It’s about the experience. It’s about going someplace new, drinking coffee and taking lots of photos – that’s what biking is about for me.

Biking a century (100 miles) was the highlight of the year, riding to the end of the WO& D Trail in Purcellville and learning that you can’t eat enough on a long ride.

While most of my rides were around DC, I also participated in Bike to Work Day in Savannah, cruised around New Smyrna Beach in Florida and visited Asheville twice, stopping at New Belgium Brewery both times.

My ten-year-old Specialized Sirrus faithfully carried me on all these adventures, a bike that just refuses to quit. Most of routine city riding was done on Capital Bikeshare. In 2017, I also tried out a Brompton folding bike, sampled the junky new dockless bikeshare bikes and rocketed down a trail on a JUMP electric bike.

Here are highlights from 3000 miles of biking!

Unshaven on Ross Drive

The Field School bus

Ed and Ricky - with cake!

Mellowdrome in Asheville, NC

Foggy morning for bikeshare

Northeast Branch Trail

my bike on the CCT

made it! the end of the trail

Flannery O'Connor Free Library

John on a cruiser

made it! Peters Point

Rachel is behind the handlebars and ready to roll, off to do battle with bureaucracies and bad drivers #bikedc

steep!

cleanest, nicest alley in DC is off U St

beer for better biking

deep crossing in Holmes Run

sad to say goodbye to this bike

Resist/Persist

Lake Anne in Reston

90 degree turn + slippery boardwalk = crash

Trump Chicken rules the roost in DC

I'm at New Belgium. Again.

everyone bikes - even Juggalos

Biking back to DC from Great Falls

Kitty at the Capitol

this could be a millennial-themed ad

Looking sexy as hell, DC Bike Party

Sharrows has all the WABA socks

free trailside coffee from WABA!

JUMP pedal-assist electric bike

Nelle is outgoing

Sam and Rudi

Look out, Limey!

MPD blocks the bike lane at 15th and K

My old Specialized Sirrus

Biked to Port City!

Unpresidented: Days of Rage and Rebirth on the Streets of DC

Unpresidented panel at FotoWeek
Mukul Ranjan, Chris Suspect and Joe Newman (seated, l to r)

If you get hit with tear gas, flush your eyes out with milk. Flashbang grenades make a lot of noise but aren’t harmful. The DC police are very professional but will lash out if they feel trapped. These are the things you learn at a FotoWeek panel. The subject was UnPresidented, a great photo book documenting the Trump inauguration protests.

Joe Newman organized some of D.C.’s top street photographers to document the contentious inauguration of Donald J. Trump, which was met with rioting, peaceful civil disobedience and one of the largest protest marches in U.S. history. The images from the three days of the inauguration — which included President Obama’s last full day in office, the day before the inauguration, and the massive Women’s March on Washington, the day after — were published in UnPresidented: The Inauguration of Donald J. Trump and the People’s Response.

Joining him for this panel discussion at the Mexican Cultural Institute were Chris Suspect and Mukul Ranjan, who documented a weekend of chaos on the streets of DC.

Protests in DC typically have a routine quality to them, a polite display of signs and chants. But the inauguration protests were different in size, scope and level of anger. I was on the streets and saw things I never expected to see in DC, like people getting punched and a limousine on fire.

But I was also witness to the start of something. Days of rage gave way to the inspiring spectacle of the Women’s March, the largest crowd I have ever seen, stretching from the Capitol to the White House and beyond. It was a nation finding its voice: The Resistance.

These momentous days of protest and and rebirth are captured brilliantly in UnPresidented.

Letter from Washington: Things Fall Apart

The man who would be king

Every morning, I bike by the White House.

Blocked off from traffic, the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue is peaceful and calm. Just after dawn, I slowly pedal by, just me, a few joggers and the Secret Service. In the warm light of morning, the White House looks serene.

Inside, however, a President rages as a conspiracy is revealed.

A plot against America, carried out by the President’s campaign. If this was a season of House of Cards, it would strain credulity. Democrats and Republicans, while they have their differences, all believe in democracy – right?

No. Trump and his family colluded with Russia to win an election, gleefully aided by a Republican party willing to do anything to win.

At first glance, the scandal seems like a black comedy cooked up by the writers of Arrested Development, the Bluth family writ large, a global scheme to launder money and filled with bit players such as a George Popadapoulos, catfished by Russia into thinking he was meeting Putin’s niece. Funny, right?

But then you remember that this isn’t TV. It’s not HBO. It’s your country and the scandal is an attack on democracy, an act of collusion between a corrupt candidate and a Russian adversary eager to upend the global order.

Our external enemy (Putin) has joined with our internal one (red states) in an alliance to bring down the country that they hate: America.

Over the weekend, I watched Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. She too was cursed to live in interesting times, the 1970s, and used her talent to document the disorder she saw in brilliantly-written essays that reported on the decline. Combining a literary eye for detail with a pitiless examination of her personality, she captured what life was like when things fall apart.

We tell ourselves stories to live.

Joan Didion

The thing about the 70s is that no one knew how it would turn it out. As a kid, I remember seeing maps on the spread of communism, from Angola to Yugoslavia. The Russians were going to win – just look at the map. During the Carter era, we were stuck with a combination of inflation and stagnation that economists said couldn’t exist: stagflation. Or maybe another Ice Age was coming. Seemed plausible. Anything did back then, because we didn’t have a defining story, a vision of the future.

Like the 1970s, we’re in a hinge moment. The narrative of democracy has collapsed. A new era of tyrants has emerged, promising a revenge saga of blood and iron. To quote Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

In the evening, I return home past the White House. Tourists gather by the fence to snap photos, like they always have. This symbol of American democracy remains a powerful one, despite its current occupant.

And the strength of our story, the American story, endures, as it waits for a new storyteller, and a new vision of the future, to bring us together once again.

The unremarkable rise of dockless bikesharing

LimeBike outside Tonic
Dockless bikes, like this one from Lime, have become a familiar part of the Washington, DC streetscape.

What’s remarkable about the rise of dockless bikesharing is how unremarkable it has become. An apocalypse was anticipated. Washington Post readers gleefully predicted failure, with the bikes stolen and destroyed (like in Baltimore) or begriming the streets in vast piles (as in China).

But what if a revolution occurred and no one noticed it? The bikes, first green ones from Lime, and then a rainbow of other colors, appeared on the streets of DC, lined up and ready for use, part of a pilot program. Photos were snapped – by me, and others – entranced by the novelty of these seemingly unsecured bikes in a city where anything left outside gets stolen.

Mobike comes to DC
Mobike mo problems?

The bikes then dispersed, taken by riders young and old (I saw kids in school uniforms on them) to surprising places in and out of the city. A couple were left by National Airport. Others made their way deep into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, despite the fact that they were supposed to be kept in DC. Without the requirement to dock the bikes, people left them in alleys, Metro stations and on top of cars.

Checking the Lime app to see where the bikes had gone became a popular activity on Twitter. I wondered about the cyclist near Seven Corners, navigating suburban highways on a small, rickety bike.

For the bikes are subpar. Biking a couple miles on a Lime required an inordinate amount of work – the geometry is off. Ofo is better though its airless tires (a feature of all the dockless bikes) make the ride a rough one on the mottled streets of DC. You can’t be tall on any of these bikes, for the seat doesn’t go up high enough to accommodate long legs.

JUMP pedal-assist electric bike
JUMP pedal-assist electric bike.

There is one major exception to my dockless critique: JUMP. Dockless with a difference, JUMP is a pedal-assist electric bike. And it rocks! Get on this sizable steed, pedal a couple times and the electric motor kicks in, rocketing you down the street at a speed that’s actually a little scary. The more you pedal, the faster the ride gets, ferrying you to your destination without breaking a sweat.

The advantage of dockless, whether it’s Lime, Mobike, ofo or JUMP, is that you can pick up and leave the bike anywhere you want. It works through an app on your phone. Check the map to find a bike, scan the code on the back of it and ride off. When you’re done, leave it and slide the rear-wheel lock into place (every bike should have one of these).

15th St needs to be widened
More bikes than cars on 15th St during rush hour.

DC needs more bikes. We have a great bikesharing service – Capital Bikeshare – but in many neighborhoods, the docks are empty by 8 AM. And while CaBi has saturated Northwest DC, there are many neighborhoods, particularly east of the Anacostia, where bikes are few and far between. Dockless offers the potential to change that, to address issues of equity that are present in any DC debate.

Also, more bikes means safer cycling for everyone. The advent of Capital Bikeshare slowed down the crazed commuters that fill this city every morning, by making drivers aware of cyclists. They’re more cautious around me when I’m on a big red CaBi, than on my regular bike, because they assume I’m a lost tourist. Adding more bikes might make MD Driver in DC hesitate before running that red light. Maybe.

According to Wired, dockless bike sharing is the next Uber. There’s big money in cheap bikes, with the Chinese startup Mobike valued at $3 billion. That’s an astonishing valuation for $1 an hour bike rides. Investors believe that dockless bike sharing is a new kind of business that can operate on scale, offering a service that urbanites will eagerly adopt.

Seems so easy. Create an app, flood a city with bikes and profit. For users, the experience is seamless – no humans required. Find a bike with your phone, scan it, and go.

But if investors think that bike sharing is a new people-free business model, they are mistaken. An unseen army is busy at night fixing bikes, moving them around and retrieving lost ones.

Ofo launch party in DC

Ofo had a launch party recently near Dupont Circle with free lemonade and swag. Started by a Chinese college student, they’re the original dockless bikesharing service, with 400 bikes in DC now. An ofo rep said that someone rides every bike every day to make sure it works.

Dockless also depends on the goodwill of a city and its residents, for the bikes occupy public space such as sidewalks. The ofo rep I talked to recognized that they had to be good corporate citizens. It’s a business, like much of the new economy, that uses the commons for corporate profit, with no requirement to benefit society, unless we demand it.

While talking at the launch party, we saw JUMP and Spin bikes cruise down R Street. A couple biked by, one on a CaBi, the other on a Lime. A Mobike was parked on the sidewalk. The ofo reps offered free rides on their bikes to people coming up from the Metro. It seemed so unremarkable, as if these brightly colored bikes had always been with us.

Critics claimed that it would never work. Yet, in just a few short days, dockless bike sharing has gone from novelty to just another part of the busy urban landscape, the city and its residents rapidly adapting to the latest advance in transportation.