The Spandex-shy can relax: Once-reluctant rider won over by ease of Capital Bikeshare


Jessica Marquier stops to drop her rented bike off at a Capital Bikeshare rack at 21st Street NW near Pennsylvania Avenue in April 2011. She uses bikes to run errands around town. (James A. Parcell/For The Washington Post)
Robert Thomson
Columnist April 16

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

When my Capital Bikeshare membership came up for renewal a month ago, it was a foregone conclusion that I would fork over my credit card for another year of what has become, for me, an indispensable service.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

First, a disclaimer: I don’t wear Spandex bike shorts or carry a bike helmet in my briefcase. I’m not a health nut, and I eat too much processed food. Still, I’ve become not only fond of those somewhat clunky candy-apple-red bikes, but also reliant upon them.

I wasn’t always on Team CaBi, however. A little more than a year ago, I was hesitant to adopt what was becoming an increasingly popular service. I had access to a bicycle already, so it seemed unclear how bicycle renting would make my life easier. Plus, call me a snob, but I’m generally not keen on following the lead of hipsters and Millennials (I don’t have a beard and don’t see the point of Vine).

And to say I live paycheck to paycheck would be an exaggeration of my financial fitness (if you know how to get rich from blogging, give me a call). So although CaBi was interesting in a retro kind of way, it seemed prohibitively expensive with its $75 annual fee and seemingly complicated system of surcharges.


Jessica Marquier stops to drop her rented bike off at a Capital Bikeshare rack at 21st Street NW near Pennsylvania Avenue in April 2011. She uses bikes to run errands around town. (James A. Parcell/For The Washington Post)

Cut to a year later, and I now recognize that the beauty of Capital Bikeshare lies not in how different or new the concept is, but rather in how incredibly useful and easy it is. It seems likely that Steve Jobs, arguably the king of innovators, would have approved of Capital Bikeshare’s ability to become a break-out hit that consumers didn’t even know they wanted.

The key seems to be in the Tribblelike way Capital Bikeshare stations have proliferated across the Washington region. That and the service’s 24-hours-per-day availability give CaBi an advantage (for short trips at least) over bus and rail. Likewise, CaBi’s flexibility in allowing for one-way trips (a must during inclement weather) gives it an advantage over bike ownership.

And what of that supposedly prohibitive cost and the complicated fee structure? Those worries seem adorable in hindsight. Capital Bikeshare, at $75 per year, costs 20 cents per day for a membership. My actual usage? A similarly affordable 19 cents per trip. And, surprisingly, not one of my 385 trips ran over 30 minutes long (my average trip length was around six minutes). That is, I paid $0 in trip surcharges.

Chris Eatough, program manager of BikeArlington [an Arlington County Commuter Services program], told me that my experience matches that of most users, since “well over 90 percent of all trips taken are under 30 minutes” and therefore result in no additional fees.

The result is that, other than walking, I know of no transportation option as affordable. That’s why I put CaBi (along with my Netflix Instant subscription) on my short list of services that you can take away from me only after I’m dead.

Paul Goddin, the District

DG: Vine is a video-sharing app. I had to look it up. So Goddin, an urban planner and consultant, is at least one cut above me in hipsterness. I do recall the reproductive abilities of the original Star Trek Tribbles. I’m old enough for that. But even I can see how the rapid expansion of Capital Bikeshare fits into 21st-century transportation plans.

In the next couple of decades, the urban core of Washington is likely to grow rapidly in population but hardly at all in street space. If travelers don’t want to end up like the inmates of an ant farm, we need to figure out more ways of getting around — ways that aren’t complicated and costly.

That’s the market Capital Bikeshare is tapping into. Now 3 1 / 2 years old, the rental service has expanded its initial base in the city into the nearby suburbs. (Further expansion plans have been on hold because of the financial troubles of the bike equipment supplier, based in Montreal.)

I hope the program will retain the essential elements of the bikes’ design well into the future. The bikes are easy to use, for any skill level, and you can ride in regular clothes. The major downside is that you have to bring your own helmet.

Getting more people to cross the threshold into riding busy city streets is partly a matter of making it safer to do so. The District is preparing for more bike lanes, but the program goes more slowly than many cycling enthusiasts would like.

Still, a bunch of bike lanes are scheduled to open this year. The longest is the crosstown cycle track on M Street NW between Thomas Circle and 28th Street. Other bike lanes are coming to portions of G, I (Eye) and First streets NE, among other places. In total, about 5 1 / 2 miles of lanes are set to open this year in the District.

But another opportunity to get initiated into urban cycling will come May 16 for the Washington area’s annual Bike to Work Day. More than 10,000 commuters participate, leaving from 79 gathering points regionwide and proceeding in convoys to locations near many workplaces. The safety in numbers is appealing to the reluctant biker.

Plus, there are free T-shirts. That’s if you register, which you can do at www.biketowork
metrodc.org
.

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