Where Bikes Are Everywhere for Everyone

How a bikeshare system made active commuting the most convenient way to get around Washington, D.C.

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angela n./Flickr

On a chilly afternoon in late February 2011, bicycle advocate Gregory Billing stood at the corner of 15th and P Streets NW and witnessed Washington, D.C.'s growing bicycle culture in motion. From his vantage point, Billings could watch two of D.C.'s most innovative cycling infrastructure projects at the time -- the protected 15th Street Cycle Track and the Capital Bikeshare program -- interact.

"When it's accepted, that's when people can stop treating bicyclists like weirdos."

"Over the course of two hours, the station went from completely full to completely empty," recalls Billing, an advocacy coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (known by its playful acronym, WABA). "You can see how Capital Bikeshare truly is a transit option," he says. "You can't just have a station and a train car without the tracks. It works and these are the facilities that make it happen."

Billing's metaphor is a fitting way to consider the evolution of cycling in D.C. With Capital Bikeshare providing the stations and the "train cars," city planners have all the more incentive to deliver on the tracks side of the equation. The program's arrival jumpstarted the existing planning efforts set forth in the District Department of Transportation's (DDOT) 2005 Bicycle Master Plan . Since its unveiling in September 2010, the city has added dedicated bicycling lanes to several main thoroughfares -- Pennsylvania Avenue, 15th Street, and L Street, with M Street soon to follow -- and seen a 175 percent increase in overall ridership.

"They were moving at a pace where they would not have been done as fast without Capital Bikeshare starting," notes Chris Holben, DDOT Project Manager for Capital Bikeshare. Today, nearly 3.5 percent of District residents traverse the 200-plus miles of bike trails, protected lanes, cycle tracks, signed routes, and shared lanes on a daily basis. (To put this in perspective, back in 2000, only 1.16 percent of residents biked to work).

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With 18,700 members, 1,670-plus bikes, and 3.5 million trips to-date, Capital Bikeshare has directly contributed to this growth, incentivizing city planners to work towards a safer and more accessible system. However, Capital Bikeshare's most valuable contribution to DC's transportation culture might be its ability to present biking as a legitimate mode of transportation. It caters to a wide array of potential riders, ranging from tourists, to casual bike commuters without wheels of their own, to committed cyclists who just want the added convenience and flexibility bikesharing offers.

"Just by existing and being so ubiquitous, Capital Bikeshare gives us an incredible advantage as a community," observes Daniel Hoagland, the bicycle education coordinator for WABA. The system sells itself in many ways and, in turn, effectively transforms riders into an advertisement for biking. "People like them and they're cool," Hoagland says. "It's a conversation starter. In terms of making bicycling a part of our popular culture, bikeshare is the solution. When it's accepted, that's when people can stop treating bicyclists like weirdos."

Not terribly long ago, D.C.'s bikeshare system was a fledgling project consisting of just 10 stations and 120 bikes. Dubbed Smartbike DC, this first attempt mimicked the European outdoor advertising model successful in cities like Paris, Barcelona, and Copenhagen. With insufficient infrastructure and too few bikes, this first attempt to cultivate a shareable fleet of bikes fell flat.

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Kathryn Lovett is a fellow at AtlanticLIVE.

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