» Nation’s first modern bike sharing city replaces its fleet. Program could bring dramatic change to one of the nation’s more vibrant inner cities.
When Washington’s SmartBike DC system began operating in 2008, the city was doing something no U.S. municipality had yet attempted: Betting that locals and tourists would excitedly jump onto public bicycles, encouraging the growth of a transportation mode that has too often been left behind by automobile-oriented planners.
Unfortunately, that bet failed to come through: The system was never frequently used, with an average of only about one hundred daily riders. For those of us used to using bike sharing networks, there were good explanations for the system’s difficulties: It was confined in too small of an area; it only offered about 100 bikes total; and it only had ten stations. European standards, grounded in model schemes in Lyon, Barcelona, and Paris, suggested that the most promising systems were those with thousands of bikes spread out over whole sections of the city. Fortunately, Washington didn’t have to use public funds for the ad-sponsored SmartBike project.
But the city’s progressive leadership learned its lesson and has launched Capital Bikeshare, a network that will soon feature 1,100 bikes that will be accessible from 114 stations in the District of Columbus and Arlington County, Virginia, just across the river. The network opened today with 49 operating stations and 400 Bixi bikes imported from Montréal’s successful program. By the end of the year, the system will be the largest in the United States. Moreover, if it receives a federal government TIGER grant this fall, it could feature more than 3,500 vehicles throughout the region by next year.
I argued earlier this summer that bike sharing may be technically difficult to implement in American cities thanks to their monofunctional job centers; in addition, Washington’s network specifically may suffer because of the lack of density planned for the first phase of stations, which could cause difficulties for average riders.
Nonetheless, will Capital Bikeshare “change everything,” as local website Greater Greater Washington proclaimed this morning? It all depends on what kind of expectations we have for this system.
Despite what is often said about investments in bike sharing, the program is unlikely to dramatically reduce rates of automobile use in the nation’s capital. A review of similar systems suggests that only five to ten percent of trips made on public bikes would have otherwise been made by car. Indeed, the vast majority of travel replaces transit or walking trips. This means that from the standpoint of reducing carbon emissions or eliminating traffic, bike sharing doesn’t seem likely to produce many significant benefits directly.
On the other hand, the systems seem to be increasing the mobility of their users dramatically. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that if most of the riders otherwise would walk or take transit, they don’t possess or cannot afford automobiles. For the District of Columbia, this represents quite a large share of the population: 35.5% of households, according to the most recent Census estimates. In some cases, this means bikes provide more direct transportation than existing transit; in others, it means bike sharing can serve as one part of a multi-modal trip, perhaps replacing slower walking. About 70% of travel on existing systems are to and from work, so the bikes are not being used mainly by tourists.
For non-work trips, bike sharing can play a very important role in the life of a city’s residents by providing fast travel without forcing them to keep their vehicles with them at all times. This reduces the fight for parking in popular places experienced by both bikers and drivers, and it eliminates a fear that someone will steal one’s vehicle — in bike sharing not a problem for any individual, since the system is public. (Of course, there are cases of vandalism, but that affects the system, not the user.) In addition, it encourages freedom of movement throughout the city for people who have previously been constrained by sometimes limited bus and rail routes.
What studies thus far have failed to demonstrate is whether the presence of bike sharing system prevents the future purchase of cars by users. It is quite possible that the option to use a bike in most places in the city decreases the demand for automobiles for people who are looking for an easier way to get around. The more extensive a system is, likely the greater this effect.
For the city in general, though, bike sharing’s biggest advantages may come from the fact that it prioritizes biking as an acceptable mode of travel. The installation of bike docks at hundreds of prominent intersections throughout the region promotes the idea that just like cars, which get parking on every block, cycling has an important role in the broader mobility system.
Image above: Capital Bikeshare Station at Dupont Circle, still without bikes (but in front of SmartBike DC station), from Flickr user DC9T (cc)