Capital Bikeshare program looks to spread into the Washington suburbs

The sturdy red bikes that arrived in the District and Arlington County as a curiosity and now blend into the urban landscape will swarm into suburbia this year.

By summertime, the bikes should be rolling through the streets of Rockville and Alexandria as the popular Capital Bikeshare program expands into several outer Washington communities. If grant applications come through, they might also appear in the inner-ring areas of Bethesda, Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Friendship Heights and Forest Glen. The development of White Flint and Wheaton make those neighborhoods likely candidates as well. College Park, with thousands of students looking for cheap transportation, is also a tempting location. Greenbelt is in the mix, as are Frederick, Howard and Prince George’s counties.

A key reason the bike program has flourished in the District and Arlington has been the expansion of bike lanes and bike-related improvements to encourage cycling. As Bikeshare moves to areas outside the city, the same accommodations are important, said Shane Farthing, director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

“I do think that the next places that come along are going to have to step it up a little bit to make sure that conditions are right, that people are safe, that there’s space for people to bike, and that drivers and cyclists are educated on how to ride responsibly,” Farthing said.

(VOTE: If Bikeshare moves to your neighborhood, would you use it?)

The purpose of Bikeshare is to provide an alternative to driving, primarily to and from work. The challenge of suburban expansion is to introduce the program to communities large and compact enough to make a “short-hop” bike service viable. In Bethesda, for example, Bikeshare riders might pedal around town or to and from Metro stations into the District.

Since its inception in 2010, the Capital Bikeshare program has grown more swiftly than almost anyone imagined. It has more than 1,100 bikes in more than 130 locations and 15,000 annual members.

“The District and Arlington were the places that had the most [bike] infrastructure, and it was a good place to test whether bike share, as a concept, worked,” Farthing said. “I don’t think that other jurisdictions can just assume that that groundwork was unimportant. There needs to be some intensive investment accompanying bike share that will bring things up to a standard [in which] people will feel comfortable biking. It’s all about the comfort and the ease.”

Rockville and Alexandria invested in creating a cycling-friendly environment, as have the communities that might get Capital Bikeshare programs this year.

“Rockville is pretty advanced,” Gary Erenrich of the Montgomery County transportation department said. “They have a pretty good network of bike lanes and bicycle facilities. The infrastructure in Bethesda and [at the Walter Reed National Military] medical center also is there, and we’re continuing to add bike facilities.”

Rockville is planning to install Bikeshare docking stations at 20 locations with 200 bikes to follow. Alexandria plans to deploy 70 bikes at eight locations and has sought federal funding to install docking stations at nine more locations.

Montgomery County has applied for state grants to fund an ambitious program to install 29 new stations that would put 204 more bikes inside the Capital Beltway in communities adjacent to the District. Prince George’s and Howard counties also have applied for some of the $2 million that the state plans to dole out, as have Greenbelt, Frederick, Baltimore and College Park, in partnership with the University of Maryland.

The solar-powered bike stations feature a kiosk and a map panel and are supposed to be half full most of the time. Vans collect the bikes and redistribute them to other stations to keep supply and demand in balance. An 11-dock station that holds six bikes costs $40,000 to install and about $15,000 a year to operate. A station with room for 19 bikes costs $57,000 to install.

Although most counties, Montgomery among them, have been developing a network of bike routes that connect on-street bike lanes with off-road bike paths, the expansion of the Bikeshare program isn’t intended to encourage extended commutes from one county to the next.

“The vast majority of our commutes are under half an hour,” said Jim Sebastian, a Bikeshare manager who works for the District Department of Transportation.

If the funding is approved for the communities snug up against the District, it’s expected that some Bikeshare riders will commute to and from the city. But neither the bikes — built more like tanks than racing machines — nor the Bikeshare price structure make it sensible to pedal one of them in from Rockville.

“The bikes are stable and sturdy, but they’re not fast, so it’s not like someone would be able to do that,” Erenrich said.

Bikeshare membership costs $75 for a year, $25 for a month, $15 for three days and $7 for 24 hours. Long-term members get a key to unlock a bike from the docking station; short-term members get a five-digit code to do it. The first 30 minutes of riding are free, but fees kick in after that until the bike is returned to a docking station.

Because a Bikeshare membership is good throughout the region, planners expect that many Bikeshare riders will use a commuting combination that even includes two bike trips.

“What we’re trying to encourage people to do is called the ‘last mile,’ and it’s the idea that if you get off the Metro and you still have one mile to go to your house, you’ll use a bike,” John Lisle, spokesman for the District Department of Transportation, said. “We’re trying to get people out of their cars for those short trips.”

For the program to work in the new suburban areas, there needs to be interest in using the bikes locally in addition to enough community destinations to require several docking stations.

“You can’t really do it with one station,” Farthing said. “You have to have at least two so that people can go back and forth between them. I’ve heard about some advocates pushing for it in places like Reston, but Reston is difficult because you don’t have enough discrete places within a tight area that people will be going. So you put one in the Reston town center, where else?”

By contrast, Rockville is spread out sufficiently to support multiple stations — what Farthing calls “internal density.”

“You have to have a little bit of a demand either around a high residential area or a high employment area,” he said. “That’s why I think with Bethesda and Silver Spring — while there will be some movement in between them — a lot of the usage is going to be internal, with people who already work in Bethesda or work in Silver Spring and now are living in areas surrounding there.”

More local news:

Why commuters take Bikeshare — and its drawbacks

House approves federal salary freeze

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The District’s hottest neighborhoods

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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