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Capital Bikeshare e-bikes return as region promotes cycling amid pandemic

The bikes were pulled more than a year ago over safety concerns.

Jeff Marootian, director of the District Department of Transportation rides one of the new e-bikes last week. (Mario Sessions/District Department of Transportation) (Mario Sessions/District Department of Transportation)

Capital Bikeshare’s popular e-bikes will return to the Washington region’s streets Wednesday, more than a year after the pedal-assist vehicles were pulled due to reports of malfunctioning brakes.

Capital Bikeshare is rolling out “a few hundred” new e-bikes across its network this week and will gradually increase the number over the next four weeks until it hits 900 e-bikes in early August, officials said.

With the new bikes, Capital Bikeshare is taking its first step toward offering a dockless option, officials said. Riders will be able to use a lock incorporated into the e-bike to leave it anywhere outside a docking station. Capital Bikeshare said the dockless option should draw new users and help bring back regular riders who left during the pandemic.

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Chris Dattaro, general manager for Capital Bikeshare at Lyft — which operates the system — said the relaunch offers Bikeshare members and casual riders the unprecedented convenience of dockless mobility.

“We’re excited about what that can do in terms of freeing up people to travel around the District and opening Capital Bikeshare to a new subset of riders,” he said. “It takes convenience to the next level.”

The return of e-bikes comes as the District and other jurisdictions are betting on a resurgence in biking in the post-pandemic era to help prevent a return pre-pandemic traffic congestion, and to fill gaps left as most public transit systems continue to provide reduced service.

Officials said people appear to be turning to biking for recreation and essential trips to places such as grocery stores and jobs.

The new bikes also are part of the region’s vision for a more robust Bikeshare system. There are about 4,500 bikes available at about 600 stations across the District, Alexandria and Falls Church and Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The system is collaborative venture of the member jurisdictions who have contracted with Lyft to run the service.

The system has continued to grow, even during the pandemic. Twenty-two new stations have been added since March, according to Lyft, and more are expected to launch this year. The District Department of Transportation alone is funding 30 new Capital Bikeshare stations this year.

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The e-bikes included in the relaunch are an improved version of those rolled out in fall 2018 as part of a pilot program. Capital Bikeshare removed those bikes from its fleet just months later after receiving complaints from people who said the front wheels’ braking force was “stronger than expected.”

This week riders will find “a completely new bike model” on the streets, Lyft said. The battery sits on the top of the frame and there is a large, redesigned basket that sits on the handlebars. The bikes have speeds up to 18 mph, which officials say will save riders time and allow them to take longer trips.

“We are thrilled to welcome back new and improved e-bikes into the Capital Bikeshare system,” DDOT Director Jeff Marootian said. “They are increasingly popular and they are a fun way to get around town.”

Said Marootian: “This is one additional way that we are enhancing the Capital Bikeshare system, bringing back ridership to the system and also attracting new riders.”

Bikeshare ridership and membership have plummeted since the pandemic hit the region in March. Annual memberships are at about 27,500, down from 30,000 last year. Ridership hit bottom in April, usually one of the busiest for bike riding. About 74,200 trips were taken this April down from 350,000 the previous year. But the system is seeing an upward trend with more riders in June and so far this month, though still below pre-pandemic levels, Bikeshare officials said.

Capital Bikeshare continues to offer an annual membership for $85 and a $5 annual membership option for qualifying low-income residents. Casual rides have been the most popular in recent months; nonmember riders have the option to pay $2 per ride.

E-bike riders will pay an extra $1 to unlock the bikes; and those choosing to return the e-bike outside a docking station will pay a $1 fee.

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For now, the dockless option will only be available for e-bikes, although Capital Bikeshare is exploring expanding in the future, officials said.

Area residents looking for other options, have access to several scooter rentals and e-bikes through HelBiz.

Lime, which recently absorbed Uber’s e-bikes, Jump, is expected to return e-bikes to the District this summer.

Marootian said the region’s experience with dockless bike and scooter services in recent years offered some lessons on how to safely and orderly launch a similar option within Capital Bikeshare.