Washington’s Capital Bikeshare Launches, Bringing Biggest-Yet System to the U.S.

» 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)

18 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • J

    A couple of notes:

    -Smartbike (seen in the background of the picture) did not allow tourists. Only residents could register, and total registration was capped. Capital bikes allows anyone to rent.

    -I wonder if the Canadian bikes and Canadian technology will be an issue for the TIGER grant, and the buy america clause.

    • hchang

      Canada is exempt from the “Buy America” clause in all stimulus funds. It was an issue up here in Canada because so much of our trade depends on the U.S. and vice-versa.

  • laldm

    The main reason people use Paris’s bike system, along with its high density of bike stations throughout the city and suburbs, is its incredibly low cost. Using a bike for less than a half-hour at a time lets you use an unlimited number of bikes throughout the city for 1 euro per day, and a year pass is about 30 euro. In contrast, Chicago’s new tiny and unused bike-sharing system costs $10/hour, flat fee. Chicago’s system is obviously way overpriced, but Paris’s is priced well, as evidenced by its use. How does Washington’s system stack up?

  • J

    laldm, DC is in the middle. Theres no ad revenue, so prices are higher than Paris, which is part of an ad contract. $5 a day (or 25 a month or 70$ a year) and 30 minute free per ride. After that prices go up just like Paris (steeply to encourage returns).

  • The prices are about the same as in Montreal, where bixi is very successful. I very much agree that it provides a lot of mobility compared to other ways to get around in downtown. The recent study in Montreal saying that bixi does not replace a lot of car trips fueled some resentment against the system and bikers in general, with even some silly arguments about how bixi costs money due to it replacing some metered parking…

    The question whether bike sharing will replace/delay future car purchases is an interesting one, so is whether it makes areas of coverage more attractive to live in, and in how far the system generally promotes active transportation and whether it will cause more people to purchase bikes – both because they learn to like biking, or because the system creates a critical mass of bicyclists, causing more bike paths and just generally making it safer to bike.

    In Montreal it feels that ever since Bixi, the use of bicycles has been increasing faster than the use of Bixi itself.

  • Anon256

    I think the biggest potential benefit here is for bikeshare to take pressure off of DC’s infamously crowded metro transfer stations. People can take one train from their home to the city center, then transfer to a bike to ride to their destination, rather than transferring for a short ride on another metro line. Such in-city-center demand would also be relatively multi-directional.

  • John

    Did DC also provide new bike lanes for all these new bikes or will everyone be riding in traffic or on the sidewalk?

    • Certainly we ought to hope that the more experienced cycle commuters will be riding in traffic. After all, if cyclists are to be denied access to common right of way and restricted to cycle-only infrastructure, then so should cars: park at the Beltway exit and make their way from their by some other means of transport.

      • John

        Yeah, but not everyone’s so gung-ho about sharing a lane with a one-ton or better distracted car. If this system is just for regular commuters then it might be okay but if it’s for anyone for any reason (commuting, errands, pleasure) it’d be nice to make the roads a little less intimidating for the uninitiated.

  • NikolasM

    I think the goal is for this to help truly flesh out a comprehensive bicycle infrastructure – better safer routes, expectations by the driving public that bikes are here to stay, etc…

  • Kevin

    I rode a Bikeshare bike today and it was interesting. Only a 3-speed bike (I’m used to about 18 speeds), but keeps up with the traffic OK. The bell was wimpy and I forgot to turn on the flashing lights. I paid the $5 one-day fee just for the thrill. Used it instead of walking from one office in D.C. to another…cut the usual 20 minute walk to about 9 minutes. I’m probably going to get the $50 annual membership just to make this trip, which I do often. Will bring in an extra helmet to keep in the office for the next time.

  • Lee

    the success of the system depends on the density of the stations. In Paris they have a station every 300 meters throughout the city. In Seville, every 200 meters. In Hangzhou every 100 meters.

    If there were only a handful of places to park a car in DC, very few people would drive everywhere. People drive because you can literally park on every block, and every road is designed with cars in mind. But the same holds true for bikes. What if you design every road with barrier-protected bike tracks with separate bike signals like in Copenhagen, and put subsidized bike share stations every 100-300 meters throughout the city? Now reduce the number of car parking space or increase their price to something closer to the actual market value of the realestate that this parking is occupying… real estate is not cheap in DC. Next thing you know you’re going to have 1/3 of the population biking everywhere – or more.

    I think you’ve forgotten that it takes only a tiny reduction in automobile traffic to make a huge difference in congestion. Especially in a constrained road system like DC. Plus the transit system is already completely to capacity in many areas. So to free up more capacity on transit will make it more accessible to people not already using it. Also bike share users tend to buy bikes and begin using bikes for a wider variety of trips, like shopping. Also transit users tend to fall back on the bikeshare system when other transit options fail them – suppose your bus doesn’t show up, or there is a problem on the red line. Many people make the switch when they realize their plan B is faster and more reliable – even more fun – than their plan A.

  • Lee

    suppose you park illegally, and your car gets towed, or you get into an accident, or it just breaks down? what if your bus or metro brakes down. YOu don’t have a bike on you. There’s no taxi in sight.

    But there’s bike share stations every 300 meters thoughout the city. And it’s only $5 a day? $25 month. $50 a year?

    A bikeshare membership quickly becomes a no-brainer.

  • Lee

    Lets take a taxi example. Gallery Place to Mount Pleasant, heavy traffic. Costs you $10 and take 18 minutes. The 3 mile distance no problem, even for someone who last used a bike 10 years ago and is rusty. The bike share station will cost you $5 for a day pass and gets you there in only 12 minutes. Bike share is a no-brainer for anything 3 miles or less, even if you are rusty. For a more seasoned bicycle user a 5 mile trip like say, downtown to Chevy Chase would be no problem – which in a cab would cost you upwards $12.25 and take 19 minutes… that can add up! You can get a yearly bike shre pass for only $50.

    • Lee

      okay more like 22 minutes Gallery Place to Mount Pleasant on bike if you are rusty (I mistyped) but still that’s only a few minutes difference. The bike trip could be less if you hustle. The taxi could take longer if he takes a backward route like they like to do, plus you have to wait for an emply cab who will pick you up. And there could be traffic.

    • Lee

      If you drive, you have to add in the time it takes to find a parking space – it could take 15 min of circling to find a parking spot. So in many cases driving is actually slower when you add in the parking hassle.

  • Lee

    A cheap single-speed beach cruiser bike runs about $300. You still don’t have gears, or locks, or lights, doesn’t fold. No basket. Etc.

    It would take 4 years of bike share memberships (at the standard $75/year price) to buy a $300 bike. The extras like a basket, bell, lock, etc. will cost another hundred or so. That’s another 2 years membershp maybe.

    A lot of students and interns can’t afford cars, or gas, or insurance, or parking tickets, etc… And have you seen DC’s unemployment rate? Plus the transit fares have all been raised, and what if you bus never shows up? And taxis are really expensive too. And walking just takes too long.

  • Cat

    Just tried one of these bikes tonight and was thrilled. I have a bicyle where I live in VA but downtown, you’re right, its a no brainer. Brought back all those pleasure moments of zipping through traffic in Georgetown! I recommend using this system not only for the efficiency, but also to put a little fun in your day. And its one heck of a lot faster than walking.

Leave a Reply

 

 

 

Comment preview below as you type. You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>


− one = 3

For help if you have trouble posting or your comment is marked as spam, please email:
info (at) thetransportpolitic.com | Comment Rules

The Site / The Fight

by Yonah Freemark

yfreemark (at) thetransportpolitic (dot) com

  • Le progrès ne vaut que s'il est partagé par tous.

Email newsletter

Network

rss feed
comments feed
twitter feed
email update