Post #1167: Capital Bikeshare, again, part 1.

Posted on July 3, 2021

I see from a recent article in the Tyson’s Reporter that we’re still in the process of bringing Capital Bikeshare to Vienna.

Aside 1:  Capital Bikeshare is a “docked” bike rental system, where bikes must be returned to some Capital Bikeshare rack. The system is set up for short rides, as additional charges typically accrue after the first half-hour. Essentially, you plan your ride to go from one rack to another. The bike itself is a three-speed fat-tired bike weighing nearly 50 pounds. It has been quite successful in the DC urban core, and not very successful at all in the lower-density suburbs.

Aside 2:  I am not a bike hater.  To the contrary, I am lifelong avid bicyclist and have supported the Washington Area Bicyclists’ Association by taking out a lifetime membership.  Locally, I bought (and still ride!) the first bike ever sold by Bikes of Vienna (then Bikes@Vienna), a Bike E semi-recumbent, pictured above.  Back in the days when the internet was new.

To me, knowing what I know, that article seemed ridiculously upbeat about the current and future prospects for Capital Bikeshare in this area.   I say that because, as of two years ago, installing those Capital Bikeshare racks in this area looked like a complete and total waste of money.

And, as is typical for this website, that statement was based on detailed analysis of data.  In this case, public-use data provided by Capital BikeShare.  As of two years ago, the Capital Bikeshare racks at the Tysons and Reston Metro stations were virtually unused.  They might have six riders using them on any given day.  With the high fixed (capital and maintenance) costs, that generated an average cost of $25 per bike trip for the Capital BikeShare bikes at the Tysons Metro.  It would have been vastly cheaper literally to pay for daily Ubers for half-dozen individuals who used the Tysons Capital Bikeshare racks on a typical day.

The upshot is that Capital Bikeshare works well in the dense urban core of Washington DC.  It works to some degree in the densely-built inner suburban areas.  It doesn’t work at all way out in the distant, low-density suburbs.  Not in Virginia, not in Maryland.  Both states saw the same patter of extremely low use (and so extremely high average cost per trip).

This post is just a listing and summary of my prior work.  It’s all pre-pandemic, and uses data slightly more than two years old.  At the time, there was no significant upward trend in use, but clearly I’ll have to revisit it to check that.  A subsequent post will refresh those analyses with more current data, assuming Capital Bikeshare still provides those public-use datasets.

Maybe the world has changed, and it’s all sunshine and roses in the market for 50-pound fat-tired rental bikes, out here in the low-density, no-bike-lane suburbs.  But I suspect that little has changed, and this is just another case of a government entity that has more money than it knows what to do with.  In this case, with a budget force-fed by I-66 tolls.

Prior work

  1.  Maps showing the flow of trips at Tysons and Reston metro (in this unnumbered post).  Those maps are still there.  On a computer, click the gear icon in the lower left corner and turn on animation to see the full visualization of the trips.  The text of the post characterizes the number and direction of trips.  There’s a map for the entire Capital Bikeshare system toward the end of the post.
  2. Detailed analysis of cost and ridership for the Tysons’ Capital Bikeshare racks (in this unnumbered post).  That’s the analysis where I derived the estimate of $25 per trip, average cost, for the Tyson’s racks.  This post also goes through the obscure and muddled economic incentives of this public-private partnership.  (The racks are owned by local government, but the company that runs and services the system is a private entity.)
  3. The huge government per-trip subsidy probably explains why Capital Bikeshare is coming, but private providers of dockless rental bikes and scooters won’t touch Vienna.  You can see the dockless bike alternative laid out in this unnumbered post.
  4. Finally, FWIW, this unnumbered post has a summary of a February 2019 Transportation Safety Commission meeting in which Capital Bikeshare was first discussed.  My take on it is that they were ask skeptical of the success of Capital Bikeshare here as I am.  But we’re still getting Capital Bikeshare, because it’s “free”.