Capital Bikeshare, the popular bicycle sharing program that has been a noted transportation success in the District of Columbia, announced this week that it is expanding service to the nearby suburb of Alexandria, Va.
The program’s rapid growth — Capital Bikeshare surpassed membership expectations and now has 1,670 bikes at 175 locations — is part of a major bikeshare movement taking place in cities across the United States.
When Capital Bikeshare launched in 2010, just four cities had bikeshare programs. Now many major cities, including New York and Los Angeles, are launching programs of their own, says Kate Powlison, who works for the advocacy group Bikes Belong.
“It feels like the momentum is building and building,” she says, adding that bikeshare programs can make a city seem cooler. “I just think it’s an invaluable asset to the city. It helps mark a city as a forward, innovative place to visit.”
Supporters of bikeshare programs argue bicycles provide a viable transportation alternative to cars, cutting down traffic and thus reducing carbon emissions. For obesity advocates, bikeshare programs also are a way to encourage people to incorporate physical activity into their daily lives.
Last month, the city of Charlotte, N.C., formally unveiled its new bikeshare program, Charlotte B-Cycle. Funding for the program came in part from health insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield as part of a larger $4 million effort to encourage physical activity and reduce obesity rates.
In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration has been at the forefront of bringing a bike share program to the city, noting it will improve people’s health, which will thereby lower costs for the city’s healthcare providers.
But launching bikeshare programs isn’t as simple as just putting out a few bikes and hoping people will ride them. In D.C., transportation officials spent 10 years building bike lanes and trails to ensure bicyclists had safe places to ride, says Chris Holben of the District Department of Transportation.
Organizers also worked hard to make sure bicycles could be easily accessed and recognizable, Holben says. That encouraged more people to try out the program.
“It seems like everywhere you turn around… there’s a station there. And the bikes are pretty brightly colored, so people recognize them,” he adds.
Making it convenient for people to use Capital Bikeshare is a huge part of the program’s success, Holben says. While D.C. already had a strong and popular public transportation network, bicycles offered residents (and the thousands of tourists who flock to the city each year) the ability to hop on a bike and head anywhere in town, without having to wait for a bus or train.
And since D.C. is relatively small compared to most big cities, most trips take 30 minutes or less. That means after paying an initial membership free, many riders find that most of their trips are free, since Capital Bikeshare offers a 30 minute free window.
“Really, it’s again the ubiquity that it’s wherever you want to go, there’s a station there,” Holben says. “You can hop on one wherever you are. You don’t have to plan.”
Building such a convenient network can get expensive, however. It can cost a lot of money to start up a program, depending on how much infrastructure work is needed. Plus, jurisdictions must find a steady stream of income to keep programs running. Most bicycles, for example, have to be replaced every five years.
“You really need to invest in it, and go all out to make it successful,” Powlison says.
But the more people who take part in a program, the more successful it will be. More riders often means officials will build more bicycle stations, which makes the program more convenient. That in turn attracts more riders.
Studies show that it’s also safer when more people take part, Powlison says. When automobile drivers see more bikers, they become accustomed to sharing the road with them.
That seems to be the case in D.C., which has had zero fatalities and only about 30 accidents since the program launched in 2010, Holben says. Meanwhile, riders have logged 2.7 million trips.
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