The National Park Service, acknowledging that getting around the District isn’t like it used to be, is preparing to allow Capital Bikeshare stations on the Mall.
The planned additions to the Mall, which have been under consideration for weeks, would close a major gap in the burgeoning, regional network of red bikes and could push more tourists onto two wheels.
Although the District and Arlington have reported growing interest in cycling as they have opened 116 sharing stations over the past year, neither jurisdiction has been allowed to launch stations on National Park Service property accessible to the public, including the Mall and Anacostia Park.
Park Service officials have cited existing contracts with bicycle rental companies and concerns about whether the stations would interfere with the historical significance of its property in the Washington region.
As a result, Capital Bikeshare users wanting to go to the Mall to sightsee or for recreational activities such as softball games have been forced to drop off and pick up bicycles at stations in other areas downtown, which can be up to a half-mile away from some popular tourist and recreational attractions.
But after discussions between city and federal officials, there is growing agreement that the bike-share desert in the heart of the District could soon come to an end.
“There are still a number of issues we need to work out, but we are hoping we can resolve those issues so we can start it up early next year,” said Carol Johnson, a spokeswoman for the National Mall and Memorials Park branch of the National Park Service. “Earlier, we were looking at whether they can get on the Mall, but now we are looking for a way to get them on the Mall.”
Johnson’s statements reflect an effort by officials across the Washington region to prepare for future growth in what is already the nation’s largest bike-sharing system. Since it launched a year ago, the system has grown to 17,400 members, who pay an annual fee. Combined with 60,000 daily rentals, about 920,0000 trips have been taken in the past year.
In the fall, the District and Arlington will spend $4 million to start adding 32 more stations in the city and 30 in Arlington. Federal grant money has been secured to open 20 stations in Rockville and Shady Grove.
Last week, Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) wrote county leaders urging additional funding to also install stations in the Bethesda business district. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to obtain grant money to open stations in College Park.
Alexandria officials are also debating whether that city should link into Capital Bikeshare, which allows users to rent and return bicycles to any station in the system for a daily or extended-usage fee.
“It’s made my life easier, and I don’t have to use the bus as much,” Peter Davidson, 25, said Friday as he picked up a bike at the Van Ness Metro station in Northwest. “It’s really convenient. My gym is downtown, but I go to school up here, so I just bike up here when I can.”
District officials caution that it would be at least several months before any new stations are opened on the Mall. Among the issues that still have to be resolved, the city and federal government must decide who would pay for the new stations.
Chris Holben, the bike-share project manager for the D.C. Department of Transportation, said each 10-bicycle station costs $50,000 and another $23,000 annually to maintain.
But to expedite the approval process for new stations on the Mall, Holben said the District would probably be willing to pay for the installation so long as the Park Service helps with maintenance costs. First, however, the city and the Park Service would have to decide where the stations should be located and draft the appropriate land-use agreements.
“We want to have bike-share stations all over the city where people are, where people work and where people recreate,” Holben said. “We want bike-sharing for both city residents and visitors, and the Mall is a major destination.”
The only bike-share station currently located on Park Service property is on the grounds of the White House, accessible only to its staff.
Caroline L. Cunningham, president of the Trust for the National Mall, a nonprofit organization that raises money to promote and restore the Mall, said she hopes at least one or two new bike-share stations will open on Park Service property within a year.
Longer term, Cunningham said a robust bike-sharing system will help fulfill the Park Service’s goals of promoting increased and safer bicycle usage around the Mall, including the addition of more bicycle lanes or trails.
“We have been doing long-term planning for transportation, looking into the future and trying to figure out ways to provide affordable transportation around the Mall,” Johnson said.
That doesn’t mean those splashy red bikes will suddenly be stationed at the base of the Jefferson or Lincoln memorials, Holben said.
“Any site would still go through environmental and historical reviews,” he said.
But Holben suggested new stations could be located near the Smithsonian museums or Hains Point or at a location closer to the athletic fields on the western side of the Mall. He is also optimistic that the Park Service will allow bicycle stations on its property in other areas of the city, including Rock Creek Park or Fort Circle Park Recreation Trail in Southeast.
Christine Spencer and Paul Drake, both from London, were riding the red bikes near the Washington Monument on Friday, despite no docking station nearby.
“I don’t feel comfortable riding in the streets, and this area is really good for people who don’t have helmets,” said Spencer, 32. “I don’t think more of them would detract from the aesthetics. The National Mall is beautiful.”