You may have noticed brightly colored bicycles all over D.C. lately. These cruisers are part of a dockless bike-share pilot program that began Sept. 20 and will continue through April. The District Department of Transportation is trying to determine if, and how, dockless bike-share companies should operate in the city. Meanwhile, the five participating companies — Jump, LimeBike, Mobike, Ofo and Spin — are vying for a share of the potentially lucrative D.C. market while working the kinks out of their systems, which require people to locate and unlock bikes using mobile apps.
The results of that experiment won’t be known for quite some time, so we decided to stage another sort of trial: a crosstown bike-share race. To avoid giving any of the companies an unfair advantage, we recruited six triathletes with comparable race times and randomly assigned them to the five bike-share systems plus the long-running (and docked) Capital Bikeshare program.
Our Great Bike-Share Race turned out to be much more dramatic than expected. Blood was lost, tears were shed. Then, there was an eleventh-hour upset that no one could have predicted. Let’s just say we’re glad we had everyone sign liability waivers.
And they’re off
Our triathletes met on the southeast corner of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW in Georgetown and drew slips of paper to determine their bike-share assignments. All of the triathletes wanted to draw Ofo, because one of the bikes from China’s largest bike-share company just happened to be a few feet from our starting line. Heather Prochnow, 33, ended up with that lucky assignment. The bike no one wanted? Jump’s. Even though its bright red cruisers have a 250-watt electric motor to assist pedalers, only four were available in the entire city at race time, and the nearest one was a mile away. Jolene Milot, 37, pulled the short straw.
We set a few ground rules: Bikers could take any route they wanted to get to the finish line at SunTrust Plaza in Adams Morgan, but they had to obey all traffic laws. The athletes downloaded their respective apps and entered their credit card information. Then, on the count of three, they were off, sprinting in every direction with their bike helmets on — a sight that surprised and confused a few Georgetown pedestrians.
Prochnow unlocked the conveniently located Ofo bike and quickly took the lead, passing fellow racers Ellen Wexler, 33, and Rebecca Auyer, 34, as the two women ran three blocks to their respective Spin and Capital Bikeshare bikes. Trevor Albert, 32, was the second to pick up his steed, a Mobike. He dropped onto Rock Creek Park’s paved, multiuse trail at 28th and Pennsylvania Avenue just two minutes behind Prochnow.
Auyer happened to have a Capital Bikeshare key fob already, so getting her bike unlocked was easy. Finding her way onto the Rock Creek Park trail, however, turned out to be more difficult.
“I was almost in tears, but then I found Ellen [Wexler],” Auyer said after the race. The two women located the trail entrance together, but then Wexler quickly fell behind because her Spin bike had only one gear. “It was so frustrating,” Wexler said. “Getting up that hill was impossible.” After joggers passed her by, she got off her bike and pushed it up the hill.
Just ahead of Wexler on the Rock Creek Park trail, Cynthia Steele, 44, was pedaling furiously on her LimeBike. Prochnow continued to lead the pack with Albert a few minutes behind — that is, until she hit a bump, which caused her cellphone to bounce out of her Ofo bike’s shallow wire basket. While she stopped to retrieve her phone, Albert closed the gap and, in Prochnow’s assessment, “drafted off of me the rest of the way up the hill.”
Meanwhile, Milot had to run a mile uphill before reaching her Jump bike at 35th and T streets NW. Then, when she went to unlock the bike, the app said her reservation had expired. It wouldn’t let her reserve the bike again until she typed in her account number and PIN. Once she sorted it out and started pedaling, the bike seemed intent on making up for lost time.
“I immediately could start to feel the powered assistance and it was amazing how much you could fly on it — and a little terrifying,” she said afterward. Luckily, Milot was going only about 10 mph when a car pulled out in front of her. She skidded out on wet leaves to avoid a collision.
Other than a scuff mark on its metal basket, the Jump bike appeared unscathed. Milot, on the other hand, hit the ground hard. When she stood up, she saw that her left elbow and knee were streaming blood. Still, “nothing seemed to be broken,” so she got back on and continued the race.
The surprise ending
Prochnow on the Ofo exited the park trail with Albert on the Mobike right behind her. Albert passed her on Calvert Street NW and came tearing into SunTrust Plaza — docking his bike and sprinting through the finish line just eight seconds ahead of Prochnow, who took second place.
Ten minutes later, Steele arrived, docked her LimeBike and trotted to third place. Soon after, Wexler on the Spin and Auyer on the Capital Bikeshare bike reached the northwest corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW at nearly the same time, but Auyer lost the foot race because she had to leave her bike in a Capital Bikeshare dock across the street. Wexler was able to park her bike right by the finish line, earning her fourth place. Sixth place went to Milot, who arrived bloodied and bruised.
All told, it took between 17 and 34 minutes for our athletes to get from Georgetown to Adams Morgan — a fact that surprised race volunteer Keith Parsons, 35, who was stationed at the finish line. An occasional bike commuter, Parsons told the racers they should have taken city streets instead of the park trail. The triathletes disagreed, so Parsons set out to prove his point. He followed the same rules as the racers, pedaling a Capital Bikeshare bike from Georgetown to 18th and Columbia. He completed the race in 15 minutes and 15 seconds — a full two minutes faster than the fastest of our elite athletes. “I know my way around the city,” said Parsons, who selected a route that was about a mile shorter and less hilly than the one taken by most of the triathletes.
“It just goes to show that pathing is the most important part of city navigation.”
Though the Jump bike came in dead last, the racers agreed that the electric-assist bikes have the potential to be D.C.’s most popular dockless bike-share option. “It would be perfect for when you need to take a one-way trip somewhere and you don’t want to get sweaty,” Albert said.
All the other bikes were essentially dead weight when trying to go uphill, the triathletes said. The worst of the bunch was the one-speed Spin. “I just couldn’t get any power on it,” Wexler said. Additionally, some of the bikes already seemed to be in need of maintenance: The Mobike’s gear shifter worked sporadically, and the LimeBike was missing a kickstand.
Despite those complaints, the racers agreed that dockless bike-sharing is a nifty new option in D.C.’s transportation landscape. “I’d definitely take one again,” Wexler said. “Especially if it was a one-way trip and I was going downhill.”
$1 per 30-minute trip, 400 available
“The gear shifting is rubbish. The seat was easy to adjust. The handlebar grips were strange. Pedaling was fine. This bike was not built for hills,” Trevor Albert says.
Bike weight: 34 pounds
Racer’s top speed: 18.8 mph
$1 per hour trip, 400 available
“It was easy to adjust the seat and change gears. The basket was a little shallow and my phone bounced out once,” Heather Prochnow says.
Bike weight: 35 pounds
Racer’s Top speed: 18.2 mph
$1 per 30-minute trip or $29.95 monthly membership, 400 available
“I liked it! It was easy to ride, though the pedals were a little slippery in the rain. Adjusting the seat was easy. It didn’t have a kickstand — mine might have been missing,” Cynthia Steele says.
Bike weight: 35 pounds
Racer’s Top speed: 16.6 mph
$1 per 30-minute trip or $99 annual membership, 400 available
“The Spin bike had no bell, so I had to yell to people to let them know I was around. It also didn’t have any gears, so it made going up big hills impossible,” Ellen Wexler says.
Bike weight: 39 pounds
Racer’s Top speed: 16 mph
5th: Capital Bikeshare
$2 for a 30-minute trip or $85 annual membership, 3,800 available
“These bikes are just very heavy,” says Rebecca Auyer, who found that the key fob makes it easy to get the bikes out of their docks. “The docks are plentiful,” she says.
Bike weight: 48 pounds
Racer’s Top speed: 18 mph
$2 per 30-minute trip, 100 available
“I liked the assistance the bike provided. I topped out at 26 miles per hour! Also, it had good brakes,” Jolene Milot says of the electric bike.
Bike weight: 70 pounds
Racer’s Top speed: 26 mph