Sharing is something we’re all supposed to learn in elementary school, but often forget promptly afterwards. Some of us regain that ability when entering serious romantic relationships or living with friends. But few of us think seriously about sharing with complete strangers – after all, what circumstance would prompt us to do so? Which is what makes collective services like car and bike sharing rather counter-intuitive. But despite my (and many others’) initial “why?” response, the Capital Bikeshare in D.C. (CaBi) – the largest bikeshare in the U.S. – has been tremendously popular. Now having ridden the bikes a few times, the answer is immediately obvious to me – the more you ride, the more useful you realize the service is.
As I said, I was skeptical when CaBi was first announced. This was in part because I had gotten very excited about its predecessor, SmartBike DC, and then was later disappointed. SmartBike DC was a pilot project, with about 100 bikes in 10 locations in the city. If you had asked most DC residents about it, they wouldn’t have had any idea it existed. It was just too small and half-hearted to succeed.
Thankfully, D.C. learned its lesson well. The Capital Bikeshare designers went all-out, making sure that people knew it was launching and where the bikes were. Although it is far from the Hangzhou bikeshare in China – the biggest in the world with 50,000 bikes – there were more than enough bikes and stations to make it very publicly visible. It started with nearly a 1,000 bikes, has added more, and has several stations in the works.
In addition to local lessons learned, the planners also learned from bikesharing failures in other countries. Amsterdam, city of bikes, had an unsuccessful bikesharing program in part because idiotic tourist stoners would take the bikes and chuck them in the canals. Besides having fewer legal recreational drugs, D.C. took the key step of making the bikes very unappealing to steal. First, they’re bright red, with the words Capital Bikeshare in down the side, making it really obvious if you’ve made off with one. Second, they take your credit card when you check one out and charge you more than $700 if you fail to return it. If you wish to be an asshole, you’re going to pay through the nose for it.
After watching people pedal around D.C. for a number of months, I decided I was indeed going to get a CaBi membership. However, I was a bit wishy-washy on the price, until they offered it half-off ($35 for the year) through Groupon. I – along with thousands of other people – were sold.
I finally used my own membership for the first time a few weeks ago, to bike up to Ecolocity. Sticking my key fob in the slot and putting my lunch box in the front basket, I gently tugged on the bike, to no avail. A bit more wiggling did the trick, freeing it from its stand. I swung my leg over the top – and immediately realized how weird it was to be using someone else’s bike. The seat was all wrong! The pedals were much lower! It had fewer gears! It was very disorienting.
To begin with, the CaBi bikes are cruisers, with a smaller pedaling radius than my hybrid. These are bikes made for the equivalent of strolling, and only have three gears. Because you are getting less power with each rotation, you have to have a high cadence to gain any speed at all. In addition, they also have much less responsive brakes than my bike, even before I had the pads replaced. It may be a function of being used constantly, but needing to hammer on the brakes to slow down was a little scary. Although I’ve gotten used to most of the quirks, the seat is still troublesome. Every time I try to set the height, I always end up locking it in place sideways. But the major problem I’ve had is isn’t even the bikeshare’s fault. Because D.C.’s bike lanes aren’t completely connected and it’s very hard to pull up the bike lanes on the mobile version of Google maps, I’ve had a heck of a time figuring out the best route. This is about as much CaBi’s fault as my getting lost while walking is the sidewalk’s fault. I just have to learn a new way to navigate.
Despite these frustrations, I still find the bikes really fun and convenient. I found that if you are making the effort to crank it, you can actually get up some decent speed. In addition, they are geared easily enough that you can get up good sized hills – of which DC has a few – without wanting to die. Going up 11th Street NW, I passed a few people on their own bikes, which gave me a bit of a confidence boost. Being cruiser bikes, they have very low top tubes, making it possible to ride them in a skirt or dress. I actually hopped on one the other day to get to a meeting, wearing a dress that it would be physically impossible to wear on my normal bike. On my hybrid, I wouldn’t have just been flashing people – the height I would have to raise my knees would have ripped the lining in two. But it was possible on a CaBi bike, making them a legitimate alternative to a taxi for work transportation.
But most importantly, they made the logistics of riding a bike in the city a no-brainer. Living in the ‘burbs, I don’t ride into work every day, meaning that I often lack access to my bike in the city. CaBi entirely changes that equation. In addition, I no longer have to worry about what to do with my bike once I reach my destination – where to lock it up or how to bring it home. You can ride on CaBi to meet friends at a bar, and then walk with them back to the Metro.
In terms of sheer practicality, they are most useful in locations that are not currently well-served by Metro. Unlike many other cities with comprehensive subway systems, DC has large swaths of the city that are just far enough from a Metro station that they are sort of a pain to walk. The Emergence Community Arts Collective, where Ecolocity meets, is very much one of these places, just about a mile from three different Metro stops. So you either have to take the Metro and then walk briskly for 15 minutes or take the Metro to a different place and catch a bus (the option I go with in the winter). I’ve taken bikeshare there a few times, and it’s so much nicer to bike the entire 3.5 miles from work than stand in the station and wonder when the right train will come.
Overall, Capital Bikeshare has been a major success for both the city and me personally. I look forward to using it to get to neighborhoods and places that have always been inconvenient. (I’d love to bikeshare to the National Cathedral – that’s a beautiful neighborhood, so it would be perfect.) It’s even gotten Chris to ride a bike in D.C., a major feat! Considering this, I was particularly excited to find out that Rockville has received a grant to expand CaBi to our neighborhood. I just hope that the Rockville Bicycle Advisory Committee can prepare the community and infrastructure enough for it to be as much of a success here as it has been in D.C.
I hope you bring your helmet with you. That’s the only down side I see – people riding the city with no helmet yikes!
I do try to bring my helmet when I plan on using bikeshare, like on Ecolocity meeting days. As for everyone else, it seems like helmet-wearing and careful cycling are about even with the general cycling population, or even higher for bikeshare users. In terms of safety, in its first seven months, there have been 330,000 trips and seven reported crashes, none life-threatening: http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2011/05/01/bicycle_sharing_program_boston_plans_already_huge_hit_in_washington/?page=1 That’s actually a really good statistic.
Also, correction to my own article: Capital Bikeshare started with 50 stations, not 100. However, it doubled to 100 in less than a month.
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