As Capital Bikeshare expands, service feels growing pains


The Bikeshare program continues to grow and is adding more stations, such as this one at 5th and F Streets NW. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
August 2, 2013

Liz Ragland was just steps away from a Capital Bikeshare station in LeDroit Park recently, purse and helmet in hand, when she saw a young man racing to get the last bicycle.

But Ragland was faster, and she beat him to it. On a cool, overcast morning perfect for cycling, she pedaled to her job at a nonprofit organization in Dupont Circle.

The Bikeshare station at 3rd and Elm streets NW was installed only a few weeks ago, and residents of the Northwest neighborhood are already rushing each morning to get bicycles, said Ragland, 27. She had claimed the last bike in the rack about 8:30.

“There’s a lot of young professionals that want to use Bikeshare here,” she said.

Born in 2010, the bike-share service has spread to Arlington and Alexandria, signed a contract for expansion into Montgomery County and this year is approaching 1 million trips logged by subscribers. In some ways, such rapid growth is a nice problem to have. But it can still be a problem.

Interactive graphic

Find out how Capital Bikeshare has grown.

Those who have paid $75 for an annual subscription for unlimited trips of up to 30 minutes sometimes can’t get wheels when they want them. Other times, they get the bike but not the slot to dock it in. And workers constantly struggle to balance the number of bikes and empty spaces in bicycle stations across the city. In 2010, one van shifted about 300 bikes a day. Now, six vans move 1,000 bikes daily, from 5 a.m. to 1 the next morning.

“It’s hard, because we are stuck in traffic like everyone else,” said Eric Gilliland, Capital Bikeshare’s director of operations.

Despite the logistical issues, more area residents are using Bikeshare for their daily commute. According to the most recent tally, subscribers had taken 908,949 trips this year. Casual users, who usually are tourists, have taken more than 200,000 trips.

Nicholas Alexiou, 32, who lives in Columbia Heights, sometimes feels like biking to his job downtown. But as a practical matter, he said he is able to use the service only in the afternoon.

By the time he heads to work at 9 a.m., the Bikeshare station across the street from his apartment on 14th Street NW is empty, he said. And even when a bike is available, it’s hard to find a spot to park the bike in the city center.

“At this point, it’s sort of a lost cause in the morning,” Alexiou said. “You think you are saving time in your commute, but you end up wasting more time trying to find a dock for your bike.”

Alexiou uses Spotcycle, a smartphone app, to check the availability of bikes at each Bikeshare station, but it can still be hard to find a rack with an empty spot. He could ride his own bike, but he prefers the service because it allows him to ride to various places after work without worrying about where he will leave his bike.

Some point to other reasons why almost 8,000 trips a day are typically taken during the evening rush, compared with about 6,000 during the morning traffic.

Drew Hunter, 36, wishes his office building had showers. Every morning he takes the Metro from Ballston to McPherson Square. Last March, he started using Bikeshare to get back home.

“If we had a shower [downtown], I would probably not use Metro,” Hunter said.

Ragland reached a similar conclusion. “I usually want to bike home in the evening,” she said. “I don’t want to be all sweaty when I get to work.”

On the trip home, an outsize number of bicyclists head north through the city.

“Bikes go anywhere above U Street after 5 p.m.,” said Ralph Lucas, who monitors the migration of bicycles at stations across the city throughout the day, keeping track of Bikeshare patterns on three computer screens at the service’s headquarters in a warehouse in Southwest, near the site where a new soccer stadium is planned.

Gilliland said Capital Bikeshare’s growth seems to just keep going. There are 174 stations in the District and more than 200 bike stations altogether. Kim Lucas, a bicycle program specialist for the District Department of Transportation, said her agency is working to find spaces where more stations can be added, especially downtown.

“People weren’t really sure about how Bikeshare was going to work,” and now “we have nearly 5 million rides since we started,” Gilliland said.

Capital Bikeshare is operated by Alta Bicycle Share, which also runs services in Boston; New York; Chattanooga; Columbus, Ohio; Melbourne, Australia; and other cities.

Those services, Gilliland said, “just reach the million rides.” Capital Bikeshare has become sort of a “Bikeshare training academy” for other cities, he said.

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