August 26, 2011

After Tuesday’s earthquake, roads were jammed and Metro slowed, but one mode of transportation sparkled: bicycling. People who had biked to work had little trouble getting home, and the Capital Bikeshare system recorded 1,236 rides between 2 and 4 p.m., more than three times the number for the same period the previous day.

That’s a particularly impressive statistic, given that there are only 1,100 bikes in the system and that the vans that redistribute bikes got stuck in traffic.

Disasters, though, aren’t really what Capital Bikeshare is about. It’s about giving people another option to get around every day. In that, it’s been a rousing success.

Not everyone expected that when the program was launched in 2008. Don’t most people have their own bikes? Bikes aren’t that pricey. Who needs a public one a few blocks away when you could have one of your own at home?

But Capital Bikeshare became one of the region’s biggest recent success stories. It’s obvious that more people, of all shapes and colors, are biking around Washington and Arlington. Many say that drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians are even respecting each other more.

That’s not to say the system is perfect. Too often, Bikeshare users seeking to get or return a bike come upon stations that are empty or full. That can be frustrating, but there are two silver linings to this: It points out the need for expansion, and it encourages regular riders to use their own bikes.

Building roads or trains is expensive, while growing CaBi (usually pronounced “cabbie”) is one of the cheapest ways we have to quickly improve mobility. Consider this: Simply rebuilding the Gainesville Interstate 66 interchange will cost about 18 times as much as setting up the whole CaBi system.

Paris has 20,000 bicycles at 1,202 stations (vs. our 120) in a space smaller than inside-the-Beltway Washington. We should have that many, too, and could for about the same price as that Gainesville interchange. Not that CaBi has to limit itself to inside the Beltway: Rockville is getting a small set of bikes and stations. College Park wants in, too. Something in Tysons Corner could ease the third rush hour that occurs when office workers drive to nearby restaurants.

A fascinating consequence of CaBi’s success has been more people taking their own bikes. Many people started riding around the District or Arlington with CaBi, then began riding more overall. I’m one of those people. Previously, I used my bike only on occasion, but I now ride it, or CaBi, much more often. Even for those who primarily use personal bicycles, CaBi is handy for one-way trips or quick lunchtime errands.

If we want to continue this cycle of encouraging people to cycle, we can take a few key steps.

Keep expanding. The District is adding 25 stations, Arlington 30, Rockville 20. More would be better, and Alexandria, College Park, Bethesda, Fairfax and others should join.

Add bike lanes and “cycle tracks.” Novice cyclists feel especially vulnerable on the roads. Bike lanes, especially the “cycle tracks” on 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, help. The D.C. Department of Transportation has wavered on adding similar lanes elsewhere downtown. It should move decisively to build them and to complete the 60 miles of lanes in the city’s Bicycle Master Plan. Other jurisdictions can do likewise.

Don’t cut federal bike (and pedestrian) funding. Twelve percent of all trips nationwide happen by bike or on foot, but states spend just 1 percent of transportation funds on bike and pedestrian facilities. Yet Congress is looking at eliminating dedicated bike/pedestrian funding entirely.

Add stations on federal property. Look at the Bikeshare map, and you see a giant hole amid Crystal City, Rosslyn and downtown D.C. It’s called the Mall and its associated parks. Yet the memorials are almost perfect places for stations.

Unfortunately, the National Park Service has thus far rejected Bikeshare, with vague and sometimes conflicting arguments. This isn’t just a problem on the Mall. One of the most acute needs is at Archives Metro station, but the Park Service, which controls the Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalks, won’t allow a station there.

CaBi is ideal for our tourist-heavy areas. In fact, daily memberships ($5 at any of the kiosks at stations) are the fastest-growing segment of users; 13,334 people bought daily memberships in July vs. 759 new annual members. (There are now 15,357 annual members all told.)

Once, visions of 2010 meant Jetsons-style moving walkways or personal jetpacks. But we can get around easily and futuristically today with a much simpler high-tech device: the bright red Capital Bikeshare bike.

The writer is the founder and editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington. He participates in The Post’s Local Blog Network.