Capital Bikeshare: What’s Not to Like?

On Washington’s public bike network, you can ride cheaply and at whim.

By Carol A. Wood

What could be worse than traveling during the holidays? For me, that would be traveling during the holidays in a snowstorm with a bike.

So when I boarded a Greyhound bus at Port Authority in New York City on Christmas Eve, I carried only a backpack. Rain greeted my arrival in Washington, D.C.; a snowstorm bade me farewell two days later. Amid the seething crowds, I was glad I left the Brompton at home.

But on Christmas morning, the capital’s streets were empty of annoying cars and legislators, and the air was clear and mild. It was a perfect day for cycling around downtown to sightsee and burn a few holiday calories.

Sigh. I would have to settle for a walk. I laced on sneakers and left my friends’ exuberantly overdecorated château, steeled for a long, boring trek.

Three blocks later, a line of tomato-red bicycles drew my eye like an oasis in the desert. I had stumbled upon a Capital Bikeshare station at the Shaw, Howard University metro stop.

I slipped a credit card into the kiosk, and for $7, all of these hefty beauties could be mine for the next 24 hours — in slender 30-minute increments.

From Capital BikeShare Facebook siteElated, I yanked the bike from its dock, adjusted the hard-foam saddle, and headed west on the R Street bike lane. The interface was easy to figure out, but disengaging the bike required some effort.

Within a block of pedaling this massive cruiser, I was stripping off gloves and scarf, unzipping my coat and sweater.

Yes, I had yearned to breathe free — and now I was almost panting.

Turning south on the 15th Street bike lane, I skirted the White House at Lafayette Square, asking a bike cop if it was okay to ride on the park paths. Yes, it was. “I’ll be very careful,” I promised eagerly; the officer simply shrugged.

After noting to myself that the bleachers here would not be holding supporters of that other guy on Inauguration Day, I headed for the Mall, chugging past the Obelisk and phalanx of Smithsonians. The U.S. Capitol loomed ahead like the fiscal cliff.

But the whole time, my mind was focused elsewhere. I had to reach the next bikeshare station before my 30 minutes ran out and or face penalties: $2 for the second half-hour, $6 for the third, and exponentially upwards. As an underemployed freelancer, I must avoid extra costs at any cost.

While I understood the rationale for the 30-minute limit — to keep the bikes in constant circulation and boost ridership — it still seemed too short. (And without my wristwatch, hard to track.) A pocket map of the stations would have helped too; my memory of the big maps at each station evaporated quickly.

These minor gripes, however, did not diminish my joy at being on a bike on a nice winter day. Nor are they widely shared, according to Chris Holben, Bikesharing Project Manager of the District Department of Transportation (DDOT). “People don’t complain” about the 30-minute window, he said in a phone interview.

Annual memberships are $75, which are generally held by D.C. commuters, and those users have an average trip time of 12 minutes with a length of about 1.5 miles. Tourists and day users average about 45 minutes per leg.

“They don’t mind paying the extra usage fee,” for the convenience of a rental bike, Holben said. He obviously didn’t mean me.

I left my Brompton at home for this trip

To navigate the system, Holben advised using any kiosk, computer or smartphone to obtain real-time information on the district’s 138 stations and 1,226 bikes.

A pdf map is available online, but already outdated, as are the kiosk maps because the system has grown continuously. Despite my fondness for printed matter, this decision to prioritize infrastructure is pretty hard to fault. The program’s managers should update the pdf map, though.

The D.C. bike weighs in at an excruciating 50 pounds, despite having an aluminum frame. Still, it is fun to ride. Like a good teacher, it forces you to sit up straight and pay attention. By maxing out at a low speed, it pretty much prohibits the terrorizing of pedestrians — which probably explains the bike cop’s shrug.

The highest of its three gears feels like you’re grinding an 81-inch fixed gear, while moving at a mere 8 mph or so.

The plus side of the bikes’ large size is their resistance to the elements. They’re designed “for sturdiness and durability,” Holben said.

“They are meant to be outside 24/7 in all weather, from freezing cold to 100 degrees, and we don’t bring them in unless there’s a hurricane.” He added, “In fact, we had a hurricane but haven’t lost any stations or bikes.” Hmmm. Wouldn’t they have been helpful in New York recently?

Other features are a basket-like slot in front with bungee cord for stowing a pocketbook, manpurse, or briefcase; a chainguard; fenders; and kickstand. Made by Canadian manufacturer Devinci, the bike is based on Montreal’s bikeshare model.

Some fine day, New Yorkers may even see a similar bike, docking station, and keycode system on our streets.

To my great surprise, I felt comfortable riding around helmetless, a sensation I’ve enjoyed only in Florence and Copenhagen. And if I’d really wanted to burn some calories, I could have picked up and dropped off my bike all around D.C., as well as in Alexandria and Arlington, Virginia. Parts of Maryland are soon to join the system as well.

The program’s visual campaign conveys civility and friendliness. The red used on the bike frame and graphic design is eye-catching and assertive — cute but not cloying.

There are no corporate sponsors, no advertising or logo-litter. (Corporate “partners” of the D.C. program buy memberships for their employees.) It’s a relief to see a program in the capital touted simply as a public utility. One big difference between D.C.’s bike share and New York City’s soon to launch program, is that the capitol’s program is subsidized by the U.S. government.

Despite accumulating snow and now gusting winds, one hour before my membership expired, I checked out another bike and rode to Union Station. Now the advantage of its heavy frame and knobby tires was obvious. I plowed through the streets like a Sherman tank. Cars halted at intersections as I rumbled through.

With 20 minutes to catch my bus, I hustled to find the kiosk tucked away by a parking ramp. I was relieved to find many open docks. But what would I have done if I hadn’t located it–or indeed a space with which to park my bike?

Aha — Capital Bikeshare has anticipated this problem and many others in their facts section online.  In addition to providing real-time data on close alternatives, stations are built with about twice as many docks as bikes (19 docks versus 10 bikes on average). Imbalances still occur, so the contractor continuously adjusts the supply, Holben said. The supply will increase with another 54 stations and 540 bikes to be added beginning this month. And let’s face it — users need to factor in extra time just in case.

Importantly, the D.C. bike network is accessible to people without credit cards, boosting the program’s ridership and equity. By opening an account at a local bank or credit union, you can get a debit card that’s accepted by the kiosks, as well as a discounted annual membership and a subsidized replacement cost in case of theft. This “Bank on DC” option is part of a city-sponsored effort with a coalition of banks, unrelated to bikeshare, offering low-or no-minimum bank accounts to city residents.

One hundred members have joined this way in the past year, Holben said — noting that more time and effort is needed for that number to grow. May I suggest that one simple way to do this would be to increase the visibility of, and links to, the program’s hard-to-find Web page.

Launched in September 2010, Capital Bikeshare is managed under contract by Alta Bicycle Share, which will also run NYC’s once-and-future program.

Capital expenses are paid through federal highway funding — an average of $54,000 to build and install each station on public land. Stations are made by PBSC Urban Solutions of Quebec, which also bundles the complete systems that are purchased by customers.

According to Holben, operating costs are roughly covered through membership and usage fees ($24,000 per year per station, including damage and maintenance). There have been about 22,000 annual members and 250,000 day-users.

The day that I used it sure was fun. A low-cost, nearly self-supporting public program that benefits commuters and sightseers, residents and tourists; promotes public health and transit independence; generates very little waste; and reduces trauma for intercity travelers like me.

That’s a pretty good cost/benefit ratio. Honestly, what’s not to like about the D.C. bike share?

Carol A. Wood is the author of a not-for-profit Web site for cyclists and pedestrians,, and editor of Why I Ride: The Art of Cycling in New York .

Flickr photos:

DDOT photos

DDOT bikeshare launch


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