To function efficiently, there needs to be enough bikes to borrow, and enough spaces in the rack to receive returned bikes. Capital Bikeshare has a staff of 25 that tries to keep that delicate balance in order by redistributing bikes around the city.
But at 11 a.m. one recent weekday, the system broke down.
“This is a little embarrassing,” Joseph Parez, a Portuguese tourist, said as he circled the station, searching for an available dock.
He’d bought a 24-hour membership that morning, and the terms required he return a bike after a 30-minute ride or face an overtime charge.
After taking a bike from 24th and N streets NW and biking to Dupont, he hoped to take a short break from sightseeing. Instead, Parez said he felt under pressure to find a space in 15 minutes.
A few minutes later, Chris Merriam biked up, on his way to a haircut from his office at the Justice Department. Though Merriam had checked online to make sure there were spaces available when he left his office about 10 minutes before, there were none by the time he reached Dupont Circle.
He was more fortunate. A Capital Bikeshare team arrived just then to begin redistributing bikes. Merriam handed his two-wheeler over to them. If he had waited a little longer, he might have been able to take advantage of the space vacated by George Washington University freshman Adam Starkman, who planned to bike back to campus after his own haircut in Dupont.
It is a dance repeated all over town, everyday. At another station near the corner of New Hampshire Avenue NW and T Street NW, Nick Hritz, a Capital Bikeshare employee, was redistributing about 20 bikes he’d picked up near the State Department and the Transportation Department. A dispatcher had alerted him that the New Hampshire station was empty — Hritz planned to leave a few there and a few more at a station near 17th and Corcoran streets NW.
Hritz usually drives a Capital Bikeshare van around the city from about 5 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., based on when and where bikes are needed.
“We can improve performance with more docks and stations, but we may never meet all demand at all locations. This is why many members buy/use their own bike if they know they are going to work and back, or on a similar round trip. This is unique, but you can’t always get the bus when you want, or find a seat when it comes,” said James R. Sebastian in an e-mail. He helps oversee the bike-sharing program for the District Department of Transportation.