The metropolitan Washington DC area’s economy has stayed relatively strong compared to other areas of the country, and has the traffic to show for it. The city’s rail system, Metro, has expanded but has hardly kept up with the region’s population growth. Plans for a street car system in DC are in the works but it will take years until they supplement Metro’s rail and marginal bus system. Meanwhile in the suburbs, especially on the Virginia side of the district, traffic is a nightmare, from I-66 to the Mixing Bowl.
In steps Capital Bikeshare, the first municipally-operated bikesharing system in the U.S. The system dates back to 2008 when SmartBike DC opened 10 stations with 120 bicycles. Arlington, VA joined the District to expand the bicycling system in 2010, and last year neighboring Alexandria came on board. Now, the system has 1,800 bicycles shifting between over 200 stations. The system has had its share of growing pains, but after a three day test ride, I found it both a huge time and money saver. And for local businesses, the bikesharing stations can be a boost for the bottom line, too.
The first thing to remember about Capital Bikeshare, which is also the case in the new bikesharing system New York copied from DC, is it is designed for local commuters, not necessarily visitors. If you want to go for a leisurely bike ride along the Tidal Basin or on the trails along the Potomac, rent from a local bicycle shop. But, if you can keep your bike rides under 30 minutes, Capital Bikeshare is a cost-effective way to see the city: $7 for a one-day membership, $15 for three days (locals have additional options and score a key instead of having to enter codes at every station). Once you keep a bicycle over 30 minutes, the fees start adding up—keep a bike too long and you may as well join Edward Snowden in Venezuela. The system is easy to use: you swipe your credit card, receive a 5-digit code to unlock a bike, then dock it at the next station. Then, repeat.
Download the Spotcycle app on your smartphone (far more updated than Capital Bikeshare’s own spiffy maps), and you gain accurate information about nearby bicycle stations with the number of bikes and empty docking stations. If you arrive at a station that is completely full, you can request a 15-minute extension to wait or cycle to a nearby station. I took more than 40 trips over three days and found all the bicycles well-maintained, and only came across a couple docking stations that were janky—and they all have a button you can press to report a problem or repair. And for an evening of drinks on the Georgetown waterfront, or if you are stuck in the office, the bikes have rear and front flashing LED lights so you can ride on all those numbered, letters and confusing streets named after states that butcher DC’s grid. The stations are all over: by large apartment buildings, in quiet residential neighborhoods, massive office buildings and, of course, by landmarks from the White House to the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.
Again, Capital Bikeshare is designed for Washingtonians and their suburban brethren, so for accessories and important equipment such as helmets, bring your own. And that is where the business value comes in. I did not think to bring my helmet, but it did not take long to convince me that a $40 helmet is a solid insurance policy compared to an emergency room visit (last count: Capital Bikeshare reports 69 incidents and no fatalities). At a sporting equipment shop near the Verizon Center, the cashier who rang up my new Bell helmet told me they fly off the shelves. The relentless humidity for which DC is notorious caused me to rehydrate constantly at either indie shops or a behemoth such as Starbucks. Everyone with whom I chatted, managers, baristas and clerks alike, told me cyclists, locals and visitors, added a stream of business. Everyone needs to eat or drink, and commuters from Foggy Bottom to Crystal City forget things or pick up items from stores located near one of the bikeshare stations. Emerging evidence suggesting cyclists along with pedestrians are a boon for business while they save money is true in the nation’s capital as well.
Sure, logistics are still an issue: the Lincoln Memorial was overwhelmed with cyclists in need of an empty docking station; other stations near Foggy Bottom’s George Washington University and in the Georgetown area were generally empty or had only one or two precious bikes available. “Rebalancing” Capital Bikeshare’s stations is one of the service’s biggest headaches—moving bikes in vans across the area would be enough to cancel out all those reduced emissions. Nevertheless, the benefits are clear: more freedom, reduced transportation costs, more exercise and less time on the roads. Cities could learn from Capital Bikeshare’s successes: after all, New York did, despite the rather noisy and vitriolic fuss.
Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).
[Image credits: Leon Kaye]