Peter Durant was a man ahead of his time, although, I guess he really was a man ahead of our time. On Sept. 26, 1973, Peter invented Capital Bikeshare.
Sure, it would take nearly 40 years for a vast fleet of rental bicycles to actually appear on the streets of Washington, but Peter spelled out its essential premise when he was a recent college graduate starting his first government job.
Peter was reminded of those days when he was cleaning his attic recently. He came across some papers from his time at the General Services Administration: two sets of GSA Form 405, one from September 1973, the other from March 1974. That’s the form employees could fill out and drop in the agency’s suggestion box.
“I believe,” Peter wrote in his first submission, “that GSA should provide bicycles to be used for official travel purposes by federal employees. On short (2- to 3-mile) trips a bicycle can be quick, pollution-free and enjoyable.”
Peter estimated that a bike could pay for itself if it replaced 40 trips that a government employee would normally take by taxi. “Of course, not everyone will even ever want to use the ‘bicycle pool,’ but I feel that there are potentially enough bike riders to merit the investment,” wrote Peter, who was 22 at the time and rode a three-speed around town.
A month later, Peter received a reply: “The suggestion to use bicycles for official travel by Federal employees is rejected.”
The reasons were spelled out in three short paragraphs: It would be too much trouble to control storage and disbursement of the bicycles. Bikes would be stolen. The union was consulted, and its reaction was negative — too dangerous and no place to carry tools on a bike. Then there was the issue of inclement weather.
Peter was nothing if not persistent. Six months later he wrote again, addressing GSA’s objections and reminding them that President Nixon was urging Americans to save energy.
Peter volunteered to oversee bike disbursement in the building where he worked. He said that he had never intended the bicycles to be only for tool-carrying blue-collar workers, but also for white-collar workers such as himself. (“I’ve ridden as far as Alexandria in a suit for a business meeting,” he wrote.)
Thieves could be deterred by locks and also by placing a visible tag on each bike identifying it as federal property and outlining the penalties for its theft or misuse.
As for inclement weather, Peter conceded: “Bicycles are for sunny days.”
GSA rejected Peter’s idea again but in a much nicer, more detailed letter.
“It is gratifying to know that our employees are constantly striving for ideas which may improve GSA operations or effect a savings to the Federal Government,” wrote James F. Steele Jr., regional commissioner for the Public Buildings Service.
Steele wrote that a survey of GSA employees found few who said they would cycle. Bike storage and shower facilities at the GSA and HEW buildings were rarely used. But the real issue was this: “Bicycles are extremely dangerous in city traffic.”
I read Peter’s suggestions to Colin Browne, communications coordinator at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Colin noted that the 1970s saw the flowering of a nascent bike movement, spurred by the energy crisis and environmental awareness.
But cycling in cities then could be terrifying. Said Colin: “The fact that we now have bike lanes and trails in place for people to help them feel less stressful makes it seem like more of a realistic option.”
Peter, 67, agreed. “Isn’t it great what Washington, D.C., has done?” he said. “There are lanes for the bikes. It really has changed to a different place.”
Today 4.1 percent of commuters bike to work in the District, making it the third-most-biked city in the country, after Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis.
GSA may not provide bikes today, but there’s bike storage at its building at 18th and F NW, along with showers and lockers in the fitness center.
And GSA incorporates bicycles into at least some of its planning. I looked at reports prepared for the since-tabled proposal to move the FBI’s headquarters. Each one included information on cycling routes to proposed new sites and the number of bicycle parking spaces at nearby Metro stations.
Peter spent his working life in the federal government, first at GSA, then at such agencies as the Federal Aviation Administration, Office of Personnel Management and Environmental Protection Agency,
“It was just too soon for this new idea,” he said.
But thanks for trying!
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.