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Capital Bikeshare gears up for expansion as commuters resume pre-pandemic routines

Officials hope more stations and the addition of electric bikes will lure riders back into the system after a covid-induced lull

A man rides a bike from Capital Bikeshare across 14th Street NW. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The Washington region is gearing up for an expansion of its bike rental system, which will add dozens of new stations and grow its electric-bike fleet as more workers begin to return to offices.

Capital Bikeshare is slated to add more than 60 stations this year, as well as hundreds of bikes, while expanding its coverage area in jurisdictions across the region. The investments, about $5 million in the next year, are intended to lure riders back after the pandemic lull and make shared bikes a more attractive option for commuters in the eventual post-covid era.

Plans call for even larger investments in the next few years. The District will lead the way with a $19 million, six-year plan to add 80 stations and 3,500 electric bikes, which would more than double the existing number of bicycles available in the nation’s capital. With 330 stations, 2,500 pedal bikes and 600 electric bikes, D.C. has the largest share of stations and bikes in the regional bike-sharing system.

“We want to make sure that people can walk out of their home, walk out of their place of worship or their school and be able to jump on a Capital Bikeshare and go safely,” D.C. transportation director Everett Lott said.

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Transportation and industry officials said the timing is right to expand the network of 4,500 bikes, giving commuters resuming their pre-pandemic routines a more attractive biking option. It also would boost options for those skeptical of using mass transit as the pandemic winds down.

“There’s a lot of concern about [traveling] where there’s a lot of people,” said Katye North, chief of mobility services for the city of Alexandria. “Capital Bikeshare is another option for people who want to still take transit and aren’t comfortable with riding the Metro or the bus.”

Capital Bikeshare, in its 11th year of operation, is available in the District, Alexandria and Falls Church, as well as Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The jurisdictions contract with Lyft to manage and operate the system.

The expansion plans come as the Washington region begins a return to normal after more than a year of pandemic-induced shutdowns that changed travel patterns.

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Capital Bikeshare, like most transit operations in the country, saw significant drops in ridership when the coronavirus struck early last year. By April 2020, ridership was down nearly 80 percent. It has since rebounded to about 65 percent of 2019 levels, according to Lyft.

The Washington region’s bike-sharing system fared better than many others through the pandemic.

Across the nation, some bike-sharing systems pulled out of cities, and others are functioning at lower levels. By the end of August, 35 bike-sharing and e-scooter systems had closed permanently, and 156 systems had suspended operations, according to a report from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

In February this year, trip numbers on the nation’s six largest bike-sharing systems — Capital Bikeshare, New York’s Citi Bike, Chicago’s Divvy, San Francisco’s Bay Wheels, Boston’s Bluebikes and Citi Bike New Jersey — were 50 percent below February 2020 numbers, according to the federal report.

Industry leaders say recovery is still underway.

“As cities begin to reopen, we’re seeing a ton of ridership come back,” said Samantha Herr, executive director of the North American Bikeshare Association, which represents bike-sharing and scooter operators, host cities and industry leaders. “We aren’t quite at pre-pandemic levels, but we are very, very close.”

Herr said micro-mobility systems like bike sharing became more critical during the pandemic. Some filled in transit gaps and placed more stations in areas that served essential workers, such as near medical facilities and grocery stores. Some introduced special rates for essential workers.

“People in communities that hadn’t yet tried micro-mobility tried it for the first time,” she said.

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In Washington, many riders who held the $85 annual memberships quit during the pandemic. The number of members went from 30,090 in June 2019 to 23,551 in mid-June this year, which was attributed to the health crisis. But while membership declined, casual trips — such as the $2 single rides — increased, officials said.

The system still saw an expansion in many jurisdictions during the pandemic. In 2020, Capital Bikeshare added about 50 stations, including 23 in the District and 10 in Montgomery County. D.C. also introduced 600 e-bikes.

Each Capital Bikeshare jurisdiction is responsible for the costs of its stations and equipment, generally using a combination of federal, state and local money to fund capital costs. In the District, where more than 55 percent of regional bike-sharing equipment is located, usage fees made the program nearly self-sustainable before the pandemic, officials say.

Under D.C.’s expansion plan, every city resident will live within a quarter-mile of a bike station, officials said. The plan also calls for a pilot program of adaptive bikes for people with disabilities.

In Prince George’s, 30 stations and 200 bikes will be added in the next two to three years. The nearly $1 million investment will put bicycles in some of the county’s most densely populated areas, including Langley Park, Chillum, Largo and a stretch of Route 1 from Mount Rainier to Greenbelt. It will more than double the Capital Bikeshare presence in the county, which has 26 stations and 100 bikes.

Alexandria is planning to add three stations this summer and has placed an order for 17 new stations — at a cost of $603,000 — to be installed this fall. The investment is one of the largest for bike sharing in the city, which has 41 stations mostly in the Old Town, Del Ray and Potomac Yard neighborhoods.

Fairfax County in July will open 19 stations in Reston and 10 stations later this summer in the Vienna and Merrifield areas at a cost of $1.6 million. The county has an additional $1.25 million to use for expanding bike sharing and could bring stations to areas like Huntington, Annandale and Springfield, as well as to new Metro stations along the second phase of the Silver Line expansion.

Arlington this year is planning to spend $1.4 million on stations and equipment, including three stations along Columbia Pike and one each at Arlington National Cemetery, the new Washington & Old Dominion Trail Bridge over Route 29 and the new Long Bridge Aquatic Center. The county’s capital improvement plan calls for three new stations each year, in addition to stations paid for by developers in areas such as Crystal City, Virginia Hospital Center and Rosslyn. Arlington has 101 stations and more than 700 traditional bikes.

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Montgomery, which has 90 stations and 720 bikes, isn’t planning to add to its fleet. The county last year added seven stations in the White Oak area and three in Fairland.

“The present plans are on maintaining and operating the existing system, monitoring how dockless e-bikes are being used, and looking toward replacing/upgrading aging infrastructure once they reach their service life,” county spokeswoman Emily DeTitta said in a statement.

Across the system, officials said they are allocating funding to maintenance and replacement of old equipment. Some stations and bikes are as old as the system, reaching the end of their life span.

“That is definitely on our radar,” said North, Alexandria’s mobility services chief. “We’re trying to make sure that we’re not only expanding, but replacing infrastructure that’s sort of aging out.”