After years of discussion, Prince George’s County is studying whether a bike-share network would benefit its communities and whether the Capital Bikeshare system would best fit its needs.
Capital Bikeshare has more than 3,000 bikes and 350 stations across the District and Alexandria, and Arlington and Montgomery counties. Fairfax County is launching a program in Reston next year, leaving Prince George’s as the only major jurisdiction in the immediate Washington area that doesn’t offer the amenity to its residents.
Some Prince George’s biking advocates and riders say they are hopeful the feasibility study, which is expected to deliver recommendations early next year, will lead to putting the distinctive red Bikeshare bikes on county streets.
“Everybody is ready for it. The communities are ready for it,” said Aaron Marcavitch, executive director of Maryland Milestones/Anacostia Trails Heritage Area, a nonprofit group that has been involved in finding ways to increase bicycle tourism in Prince George’s. “We are a suburban area, and it takes a little bit of legwork to get the pieces in place, but there is very much an enthusiasm to get it done.”
Prince George’s slow pace in tackling growing demands for bike infrastructure has frustrated riders and advocates. It took the county more than two years after it received grant money for the bike-share study to hire a consultant for the job.
And when it comes to bike infrastructure and facilities, the county is playing catch-up. For example, it was only this year that Prince George’s transit system added bike racks to its buses. Metrobuses have had bike racks for years, and Montgomery County equipped its Ride On buses with bike racks more than a decade ago. Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax buses also have them.
But some advocates and residents say they have reason to be optimistic. Prince George’s recently hired a bike-and-pedestrian coordinator tasked with shaping the county’s biking vision — although it took six months to fill the newly created position. The coordinator is expected to help the county build the biking infrastructure that neighboring jurisdictions began years ago.
Advocates note that the installation of bike lanes and availability of rental bikes through Capital Bikeshare has spurred bike commuting in the Washington region, particularly in the District, where more than 15,000 residents travel to work on two wheels, according to Census Bureau figures. That helps take cars off the road and out of the region’s notorious traffic congestion.
Bike commuting also has started to pick up in some suburbs, where governments are promoting cycling and Capital Bikeshare as a convenient public transit option.
Capital Bikeshare, the fast-growing bicycle-sharing network, launched in the District in September 2010 and has surpassed 11.7 million trips and nearly 29,500 members. And it has grown exponentially inside and outside the District boundaries despite complications from a vendor’s bankruptcy nearly two years ago. Now, Bikeshare member jurisdictions are planning a major expansion, including the addition of nearly 60 stations starting this fall.
Still, bike commuting remains concentrated in the District and in high-density inner suburbs. In the suburban sprawl, cyclists have to contend with vehicles traveling at higher speeds as well as longer distances and a lack of bike facilities. That has been the case in Prince George’s.
“We’ve got all those great bike trails, but they need to be connected a little bit better, and bike lanes on the streets are still pretty spotty,” said Greenbelt resident Jeff Lemieux, an avid rider and activist with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “They are few, and where they are, some of them are just a line of paint on the road so it’s not safe when traffic is moving fast.”
A bike-share program, he said, would help because it would lead to more riders on the roads, more awareness among drivers about their existence and more pressure on the county to invest in bike facilities.
There already are more county residents biking, particularly in the densely populated communities inside the Beltway. But the county’s transportation department has lacked a cohesive bike plan. Director Darrell B. Mobley said the new bike coordinator will help develop measurable goals and targets for improving infrastructure and safety.
Mobley said the county has been incorporating bike lanes into most major road projects, but funding cuts for resurfacing have limited the county from making progress on that front. He couldn’t provide an estimate of how many miles of bike lanes the county has built in the two years since he took over the department.
A bike-share program is key to the county becoming more bike-friendly, Mobley said. The feasibility study should provide “better direction on how we want to move forward with the bike-share program,” he said, declining to provide a timetable for when such a program could launch.
“We think it is important to try to get it right and not just rush to implement something just because our neighboring jurisdictions have done that,” he said. “Our system is a little bit different. We have urban areas, we have rural areas and we want to make sure that we are taking our time to get this program correct.”
The study focuses on communities in the Route 1 corridor in close proximity to the District and that have good connections to the Anacostia trails system. It also is focused on the growing National Harbor development in southern Prince George’s, an area that has been identified as a potential candidate for Bikeshare because of its proximity to Alexandria and the connection to trails leading to the District.
“We have 1,500 residents here at National Harbor, and a lot of them take Metro, so there’s a great opportunity for people to bike-share to King Street Metro,” said Deborah Topcik, a marketing manager for National Harbor.
Topcik said bringing Capital Bikeshare to the waterfront community would not only offer a good amenity for tourists but also provide an alternative mode of transportation between southern Prince George’s and Northern Virginia. National Harbor is serviced by a couple of bus lines; there is no Metro station.
Many National Harbor visitors use the Woodrow Wilson Bridge trail to travel between the two jurisdictions, she said. National Harbor envisions several bike stations, including one at Tanger Outlets on Oxon Hill Road. She said a station might also be good at the MGM casino that is under construction and slated to open next year.
In Greenbelt, where city officials have been discussing a bike program for years, plans stalled pending the county’s study, which officials say is necessary to seek funding. City leaders also see a bike-share program as a way to improve transportation.
Fred Shaffer, the county’s bike and trail coordinator with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, said the feasibility study is expected to identify locations where a bike-share program would work, and opportunities and constraints in those areas. Conclusions and recommendations are expected by spring.
One of the challenges, Shaffer said, is that the county wants the program to be self-sustained, but even in the most successful areas the amount recouped is generally 80 percent to 90 percent. And that percentage is much lower — about 30 percent — in some suburban jurisdictions.
In the District, where Capital Bikeshare was fully federally funded for the first three years of operation, membership and advertising revenue now pay for operations. Kimberly Lucas, the program’s coordinator, said some months the revenue exceeds the cost of operations, excluding administrative and marketing costs. However, the city still uses federal grants for capital purchases, she said.
If Prince George’s chooses to implement a bike-share program, it also will be faced with the choice of whether to join Capital Bikeshare or pursue its own system, as College Park chose to do. In September, College Park closed a deal with Zagster to operate its program, expected to launch in January. The three-year contract provides for 14 bike stations and 125 bikes across the city and the University of Maryland campus.
College Park tried to join Capital Bikeshare, but the deal fell apart after the system’s main bike vendor went bankrupt. Now, city officials say they will be getting more for their money than they would with the more expensive Capital Bikeshare.
Many bike advocates and officials say joining the regional bike network would be critical for Prince George’s and the region. Not only are many residents familiar with Capital Bikeshare, but they also would benefit from using the system across jurisdictional lines.
So questions remain about who would run the program and funding. For others, the main uncertainty is whether the county will move beyond planning mode.
“It’s not for a lack of enthusiasm,” Marcavitch said. “It is taking that enthusiasm and ready-to-make-it-happen attitude and turning it into actual implementation.”