Washington's bike rental system is expanding next year, promising to remain competitive as new, high-tech rivals enter the region's bike-sharing market.
Capital Bikeshare is slated to widen its reach in 2018 with the addition of more than 100 stations, hundreds more bikes and a larger coverage area — investments that are worth more than $5 million of federal, local and private funds.
"When we launched in 2010 there were only 100 stations and two jurisdictions," said Kimberly Lucas, the District's bike-sharing program coordinator. Now, Capital Bikeshare is available in the District and Alexandria, plus Arlington, Montgomery and Fairfax counties. Prince George's County and Falls Church are joining next year.
And they are coming online at a critical time for bike sharing. The District last month opened its market to four dockless bike-sharing companies, allowing each of them to bring as many as 400 bikes to city streets. Some of the start-ups are eyeing expansion into the Washington suburbs.
Transportation officials are keeping close watch on the upstarts, not only to determine whether the dockless systems are safely and orderly adapted to the region's needs, but also to see whether they can coexist with Capital Bikeshare. The dockless model gained popularity in China in the past year but is relatively new in the United States.
So far the new companies have reported solid ridership.
"Right now we are looking at it as a very favorable complement to what we have on the ground," said Henry Dunbar, director of Arlington's active transportation programs, which include Capital Bikeshare.
"We see the benefits of having additional bikes go places where you can't put the docks in," he said. "There is some competition, obviously, so Capital Bikeshare will have to stay competitive, but I don't think in any sense we are thinking this is going to be the beginning of the end of us."
Doubters can look at next year's expansion, officials say, which will put Capital Bikeshare's distinctive red bikes in new territory from National Harbor to Hyattsville in Maryland, and Reagan National Airport and Falls Church in Virginia. The bike program is a collaborative venture of the member jurisdictions, who under a joint agreement hire New York-based Motivate to run Capital Bikeshare operations.
Officials in the member jurisdictions say they have no intention of slowing their Capital Bikeshare plans. But, in welcoming the private bike rental industry, the region could potentially be taking a strategic step to transition into a future of less public funding for bike sharing. The success of the dockless bike systems could influence bike-sharing planning as federal funding dwindles and jurisdictions seek to streamline their budgets.
"That is definitely a potential and it may not be the worst thing," said Adam Lind, bicycle program coordinator for Fairfax.
Bike sharing is expensive, with a 15-dock station costing about $48,000, and each Capital Bikeshare jurisdiction is responsible for the costs of their stations and equipment. They have depended heavily on federal grants to fund capital costs, and some use local revenue to cover operations. In the District, where more than 60 percent of the equipment is located, the usage fees have made the program nearly self-sustainable, officials say.
But that could change if riders are lured to the dockless option, which is cheaper and promises more convenience because rides can be made without having to plan trips around fixed pickup and drop-off locations. The bikes are found through a smartphone app, which also manages the unlocking of the bicycle. Users can leave and lock the bike wherever and whenever they are done. A 30-minute ride costs $1, half the price of Capital Bikeshare.
By contrast, Capital Bikeshare's 4,100 bicycles are found at more than 480 kiosks scattered across the region. Most of them are in high-demand, densely populated neighborhoods and in the downtown core. Because demand is great during rush hour, riders are often left scrambling to find an open dock to park. That challenge, however, hasn't discouraged use. The program has more than 32,000 members and recently marked 18 million trips.
"We are the proven entity. The bikes that we have . . . they are holding up seven years now and still going strong," Dunbar said. "The whole dockless system in North America has only been around for a few months. We haven't even seen these bikes go through one winter to see how they are going to hold up."
Supporters are betting that Capital Bikeshare's record will keep the system booming in a competitive scene. But long term, there is enough demand and potential growth to accommodate dock and dockless systems.
To mark Capital Bikeshare's seventh anniversary, the District last week opened eight stations east of the Anacostia River, delivering on a promise to bring more bike-sharing access to lower-
income communities. And there are plans to add as many as 41 stations in the city next year.
In Prince George's, officials say they are reviewing vendor contracts before putting in an order for up to 325 bikes and 35 stations that will roll out in the spring. The $1.8 million investment will put bicycles in some of the county's most densely populated areas, including National Harbor and in a stretch of Route 1 from Mount Rainier to Riverdale Park.
Alexandria is planning to submit a $650,000 order for equipment this fall, including 10 more docking stations to be installed next spring. The city has funds for 50 stations through 2020, but officials say they will evaluate bike-sharing needs next year before proceeding.
Montgomery, which will have 73 stations at the end of the year, is planning about $660,000 in program expansion in 2018. That includes eight stations in the White Flint and Twinbrook areas and a seven-station network planned for the Rock Spring area of North Bethesda.
Fairfax, the most recent jurisdiction to join the bike network, is adding three stations in Tysons before the end of the year and plans 11 new stations next year in Reston and Tysons at a cost of about $500,000. Fairfax has approved an additional $2 million to expand Capital Bikeshare when more Silver Line Metro stations open in Reston and Herndon in 2020.
And Arlington is moving to acquire 15 more stations next year, including one for the airport. Those additions represent a minimum $600,000 investment, officials said.
Capital Bikeshare's growth will probably slow in coming years as the region moves from expansion mode to maintenance and replacement of old equipment.
Retirement of the programs's first batch of bicycles is set to begin next year, as the bikes reach the end of their seven-year life span. The replacement of docking stations — made to last a decade — will follow three years later. The District estimates that replacement costs will average $1.2 million annually over the next 16 years.
If the dockless concept works, some D.C. officials say Capital Bikeshare could explore going dockless in the future, which could save the city on costly stations. Already the operator, Motivate, is looking at the technology, officials say.
"We have a large investment in Capital Bikeshare, so whatever new bikes the District were to purchase, we would like them to be fully compatible with the equipment that is already on the street," Lucas said.