Post #1169, Capital Bikeshare, final post for this round


Capital Bikeshare is a short-term bike rental system, currently in the process of expanding in Northern Virginia.  In particular, the Town of Vienna is deciding where to place four (?) Capital Bikeshare stations.  The cost of the stations and bikes will be paid from toll revenues from I-66, so they are “free” in the sense of the capital cost being paid by somebody else.

In theory, the location of the bike racks matters greatly.  Capital Bikeshare is a “docked” bike rental system focusing on short rack-to-rack trips.  Bikes must be picked up and returned to one of Capital Bikeshare’s “docks” (slots in their locking electronic bike racks).  Users may rent a bike via annual membership, one- or multi-day pass, or credit card at time of rental.  Stiff financial penalties apply for failure to return a bike to a rack in a timely fashion.  For the casual user, the first half-hour costs $2, the next costs $2, the third costs $4, and the fourth and higher half-hour increments cost $8 each.  If you (e.g.) use your credit card and accidentally keep a bike outside of a rack/dock for an entire eight-hour day, that will cost you $112.

In other words, this is a bike rental system strongly oriented toward going from A to B, where A and B are Capital Bikeshare racks less than a half-hour bike ride apart.  That makes the location of A and B crucial to the use of the bikes.  To be clear, Capital Bikeshare is NOT a bike rental system for people who just want to ride around for a while and aren’t quite sure of their destination.  Based on their member surveys, their members overwhelmingly use Capital Bikeshare because it’s the quickest way for them to get from A to B, typically a very short work commute.

In practice, however, Capital Bikeshare typically gets so little use out here in the suburbs that it may not much matter where Vienna places its Bikeshare racks.  That was the main finding of my analysis two years ago.  If you have an interest in Capital Bikeshare in Fairfax County or Vienna, VA, you should start by reading my original analysis, in this unnumbered post from 2019.  Two years later, that still stands up as a pretty good piece of analysis.  Among the highlights are the following, all of which are documented in that post:

Each bike rack costs around $45,000

Each bike costs about $1000 (2011 data) or maybe $1200 (2015 data).

In addition to those capital costs, the annual operating cost per bike is somewhere around $2000 (2011 data, Wikipedia) to $2800 (2019, calculated from Arlington, VA fiscal report).

Best guess, on any given weekday, in the peak month, the entire Tyson’s Bikeshare network serves about six people/12 trips (2018 data).  That’s with a fleet of almost 100 bikes deployed across 15 racks.

In Tysons, three-quarters of the Bikeshare racks are used for less than one trip per day, on average.  In Reston, 69% of the racks are used for less than one trip per day (2018 data).

The “use rate” (bike trips per bike-parking slot) of Tyson’s Bikeshare racks is just 6% of the all-metro-area average Bikeshare use rate.

That low use rate was not expected. The 2018 Reston use rate is less than 20% of the level projected for the second year of operation in the Reston bikeshare feasibility study (.pdf).  With this most recent analysis, we know the use rate is not increasing.

The low use rate in Tysons generates an absurdly high cost per trip. My estimate from my prior analysis worked out to an average cost of $25 per bike trip.  That compares to a calculated all-metro-area average cost of just over $3/trip.  Data for Arlington County (.pdf) works out to around $7/trip

Capital Bikeshare is owned by our local governments, but it’s operated by a private for-profit enterprise.  It’s not clear that any entity involved with this has any incentives other than to expand the network regardless of value.

Despite having hundreds of racks placed in this area, there is no standardized process to guide the choice of rack locations.  Every locality gets to decide it on-the-fly.

Current data analysis:  Merrifield.

In my last post, I did enough analysis of more recent Capital Bikeshare trip data to show that nothing had changed materially since my earlier work summarized above.  For the Reston area, the number of trips was stable through 2019, then declined in the pandemic.  For the Tysons area, they increased the number of bike racks by 50%, and and the number of trips increased by about 50% in 2019.  In both cases, the value proposition remains the same or worse than it was.

Let me quickly reiterate the (lack of) value proposition at the low Tysons use rate.  Arlington County’s 2019 financial report (cited above) shows an annual operating cost of $2800 per bicycle.  That’s not hugely different from the roughly-$2000-per-bike 2011 figure cited by Wikipedia.  It’s hard to say what it would be for Fairfax County, but I believe the for-profit company that manages the system gets a fixed per-bike fee.  Let’s assume Fairfax’s average cost could be at the lower $2000 figure.  Tyson’s Bikeshare racks were reported to have almost 100 bikes available on July 4 (see just-prior post).  For all of 2019, there were about 5700 trips that used those racks.  When I do the math, that comes out to an average operating cost of $35 per half-mile bicycle trip.  And that’s assuming that all the capital equipment (racks, bikes, kiosks) is free.

The upshot is that by any plausible estimate, the Tyson’s area cost per trip is ghastly.  For example, you can buy a Schwinn comfort bike for $300.  For the estimated annual operating cost of the Tysons portion of Capital Bikeshare, you could give away about 650 of those bikes, per year.  I’d bet that’s far more than the number of people who used those Tysons bike racks in 2019.  You could literally give every user a new bike, every year, for what it costs to supply those rental bikes.

The only thing that’s really new in this whole picture is Bikeshare at Merrifield.   The three racks in that area seem to have an above-average use rate, at least during the peak months of use.  During the peak month, each bike dock sees about one bike trip every four days (0.27 trips per day).  And while that’s a pitifully low rate compared to the racks in the DC urban core, it’s the best of the four Fairfax County areas.

So, the question is, why?  Why does Merrifield appear to outperform the other three regions of Fairfax County?

My answer is that it combines enough apartments and shopping, near metro, that you get a few people to use those bikes every day.   Although there is no personal identifying information on the trip data, you can use some clues to infer what a typical trip was for.  A short trip, during rush hour, involving the Metro station, by somebody who has an annual membership, is probably a Metro commuter.  By contrast, a long round-trip around a Bikeshare station, mostly by non-members, mostly not during rush hour, is probably somebody out running an errand of some type.

That logic is what I’m trying to show in the table below.  This takes all the trips involving Merrifield stations during the peak months of June to September 2019, and tabulates them by start and end points.

Probably, an average of three commuters used those bikes steadily to get to and from Metro.  That yielded an average of six trips a day.

But on top of that, there’s another 3.4 trips per day that look like shopping/dining trips to me.  These were either long round-trip excursions from a single location, or people going to and from the Mosaic shopping district.  These were typically not during M-F rush hour, and typically involved a lot of casual (non-annual-membership) users.

The upshot is that the entire Merrifield Capital Bikeshare system served a handful of people a day during the peak summer months of 2020.  Six, maybe?  That was three or so commuters to and from Metro from nearby apartments.  And maybe another three or so shoppers/diners, mostly taking round trips from the Metro or the other two destinations.

And that was enough to make the Merrifield area — with 37 functional bike docks, in three racks — by far the busiest in Fairfax County.

Just to beat that dead horse one more time, if Fairfax really does see a $2000+ per year operating cost per bike, as Arlington does, then for the first full year of operation, Merrifield Capital Bikeshare rides had an average operating cost of $9 per trip.

It’s still cheaper to use Uber.

To my eye, the Town of Vienna has none of the advantages that Merrifield does in this situation.  It doesn’t have a lot of purpose-built Millenial-friendly apartments under a mile from Metro.  In fact, there’s nowhere to build apartments within a mile of Metro.  It doesn’t have a hip Millenial-oriented shopping district with a mile of Metro either.  And ditto on the ability to build one.  All of the synergy that yields that outstanding nine or ten bike trips a day in Merrifield will be missing here.

I would therefore expect to see less use of those racks in Vienna — no matter where they are put — than is currently the case in Merrifield.

So, where should Vienna put those Bikeshare racks?  It just doesn’t matter.  But it would be good to be clear about who is paying for the operating costs of keeping them running.  It’s one thing to waste some other taxpayers’ money.  It’s a different thing entirely to waste our own.


Post #1168: Capital Bikeshare again, part 2


More than two years ago, I looked at Capital Bikeshare use in suburban Fairfax County and concluded that Bikeshare was largely a waste of the taxpayers’ money.   The use of those docked rental bikes was far below what is seen in (e.g.) central D.C., and as a result, the average cost per trip was exceptionally high.  My estimate was that Tysons area Capital Bikeshare trips had an average cost of about $25 each, and an average length of less than a mile.

In this post, I refresh that analysis and see whether or not use of those bikes has changed markedly in the subsequent two years.

To cut to the chase, it appears that the only truly successful Bikeshare stations in this area are the three stations serving Merrifield.  (Successful in the sense of getting a lot of use).  As the Town of Vienna contemplates where to put their its own racks, there may be some lesson there. Or maybe the Vienna racks these will end up just as nearly-useless as they appear to be in Tyson’s, just up the road.

You should look at the just-prior post to see all the links to my original analysis of this issue.

Continue reading Post #1168: Capital Bikeshare again, part 2

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

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”.

Post #444: MAC-related public meetings this week

There are several public meetings this week with some relevance to MAC zoning.

Monday, 11/4/2019, at 8:00 PM in Town Hall, Town Council will hold a meeting that includes several MAC-related items. 
1)  They will hold a public hearing on extending the MAC moratorium through June 30 2020.  Citizens are invited to speak.  Three minute time limit.
2)  They will consider a resolution to request grant funding for a three-story parking garage/library to replace the current Patrick Henry library.
3)  They will examine (and likely approve) the modified rear facades of the Marco Polo/Vienna Market MAC project.

The relevant materials can be found here:

Thursday, 11/7/2019, at 7:30 PM in Town Hall, Town Council will hold a work session to obtain their final briefing on the Kimley-Horn “Maple Avenue Corridor Multimodal Transportation and Land Use Study”.

The relevant materials can be found here:


Friday, 11/8/2019 at 8:00 AM (AM), the Board of Architectural Review will hold a work session on the new building proposed for 380 Maple West, a Sunrise assisted living facility.

The relevant materials can be found here:

The Town reserves the right to change or cancel meetings on short notice, so check the Town’s general calendar before you go, at this URL:


On the Monday Town Council meeting, I would have expected the extension of the MAC moratorium to be cut-and-dried.  Would have, except that it was anything but that at the preceding Planning Commission meeting.  The actual discussion was in fact for more convoluted than I said in my brief writeup (Post #440), and included some legal arguments to block any consideration of an extension of the moratorium

Also, the Town Council is being asked to approve a grant request for funding the largest parking structure option that the Town’s consultant offered them.  I had not realized that the Town had made the affirmative decision to go with that option.  If that’s a done deal, I certainly wish they would reconsider (e.g., Post #367, Post #369, Post #371).

Separately, the Town is also going to ask for about $240K in grant funding for Capital Bikeshare bike racks.  I’ve already expressed the sentiment that this is almost sure a near-total waste of money, given the lack of use of these rental bikes in Tysons and other remote suburban near-Metro locations (Post #387).

On the Thursday Town Council work session, to me the big question is how they’ll deal with the estimated traffic impact of MAC development.  The rest of the items — the proposed projects for the Town to undertake — seemed fairly weak to me.  You can see can see my analysis in Post #358 and subsequent posts to Post #364.  It is worth bearing in mind that the traffic impact analysis does NOT use current traffic as baseline, which is why (e.g.) redevelopment of the currently empty BB&T site was estimated to reduce traffic on Maple in that study.

The Friday BAR session is a bit of a puzzler to me, as it is not clear to citizens that (e.g.) Sunrise has actually signed a contract with the current owner of 380 Maple West, and so on.  This is due, in part, I think, to the fact that this isn’t a MAC application.  Formally, it’s a request for changes to the existing, approved MAC building.  (I.e., new building, new owner, new purpose, new conditional use permit and so on, and yet all done within the context of the land already having been rezoned to MAC instead of standard commercial development.)

Post #383: It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future

I’m going to attribute the title of this post to Yogi Berra.  And while my last post was a lament for the things I think the Town ought to ask, this one is my prediction of what they’re actually going to do.

The point of this post is to predict what the zoning will look like for Maple Avenue, once the Town Council’s deliberations are finished five months from now, in February 2020.  (Or at least, scheduled to finish.)  And, by inference, what Maple will look like in the long run.

This post is just a plain statement of what I think we’ll get.  A subsequent post will explain why I think we’re going to get that.

Anyway, let’s face the facts.  Allowing just five months to redo the zoning, within a cumbersome legal and governmental framework, strongly limits what you can do and what you can consider.  Thus, once you’ve set that at the goal, you have a good idea of where this is going to end up.  That’s based on what’s on the table now, recent history, and some understand of the players.

Just as a hint, the original title of my last post was “why I despair”.  So if you expect something chipper and upbeat here, you’ve come to the wrong place.

But first, one more for the obits

I have one more item to add to the obits of the prior post.  Of all the things I could have added to that last posting, but forgot to, I want to mention “produce a drawing of what one whole block of Maple would look like, under MAC redevelopment”.  That came up at one of the recent meetings.  Staff were going to look into doing that.  But some Town Council members didn’t want anyone to do that.  So staff didn’t bother.  And it was forgotten.

The bottom line is that they Town is not going to commission any drawing of what the MAC build-out might look like.  Which is not a surprise, as that is just one more in the list of incredibly reasonable questions the Town might try to answer before plowing ahead.  But won’t.   Most of which I listed in my just-prior “obits” post.

A few pictures of a block-level build-out would be useful, if for no other reason than to see what it will look like when two abutting MAC developments are built  just off the common lot line, as the law allows.  But it’s obvious by now that this request — “may we please have even one image of what Maple might look like” — ain’t gonna happen.

As an economist, I believe in “revealed preference”.  That is, what you do reveals what you actually prefer.   So in this case, I infer that Town Council would rather buy a pig in a poke than let anyone have any image whatsoever of what they are actually voting for.  Fully admitting that (see post title), I just shake my head about that whenever I think about it.  The full extent of our forward-looking planning is going to be, more or less, “oh, just surprise us.”

So, because we won’t hire a professional to try to give you a picture of the future, I figure, what the hey, I might as well give it a shot — let me tell you what I think we’re going to get, to be decided by our Town staff Council over the next five months.  Let me first outline what, then why.

Continue reading Post #383: It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future

Post #338: Rental electric scooters, again.

This article is about decisions that the Town must make, in the near future, regarding rental electric scooters and rental bicycles.  It ends with some discussion of the presumed environmental benefits of electric scooters.

Bottom line:  Thanks to a change in Virginia law, the Town needs to come up with some form of regulation for “dockless” rental electric scooters by 1/1/2020.  If not, we end up with open season for rental electric scooters in Vienna, which we probably want to avoid.  Unregulated dockless bike and scooter rentals have become a nuisance in many major cities (see examples in this post).

Here, I line out what a minimum set of regulations probably ought to cover.  (Which is no great shakes — just look at what other local jurisdictions have done.)

Separately, the Town needs to find places for racks for the “docked” Capital Bikeshare rental bikes.

N.B:  In “docked” systems, bikes (or other devices) are picked up from and returned to dedicated racks.  (If not, steep charges mount up for the renter.)  Smartphone apps show how many bicycles/scooters are available for use at each rack.  By contrast, in “dockless” systems, scooters or bikes may be picked up and left anywhere, tracked by a combination of on-board GPS and internet connectivity.  Smartphone apps show the location of available scooters or bikes.   Rental is accomplished via smartphone app and account, or in some cases, via credit card swipe.

Continue reading Post #338: Rental electric scooters, again.

Post #211: Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting, 3/26/2019

I attended the 7 PM 3/26/2019 meeting of the Town of Vienna Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC).  The BAC reports to the Town’s Transportation Safety Commission (TSC), and from there to the Town Council.

This BAC matters, in the context of MAC zoning, due to the Town’s much-hyped multi-modal transportation study, aka, the traffic study.  “Multi-modal” means that in addition to cars, that study will include travel by bus, bike, foot, and possibly other means.  Our Town government bike experts should matter in the ensuing discussion.

I recorded the meeting, and if you click this Google Drive link, your browser should open up an audio player.  (If not, you can download it and listen to it.)  Many parts are unintelligible as speakers frequently did not use microphones.  Click here to get to my index of that recording (what was being discussed, when) is in this post, below.

In theory, the Town will post its own recording, but if so, I have yet to figure out where they are going to post it.  Click here to see my final section on Town governance for a further discussion.

Otherwise, the first part of this post is about Capital Bikeshare. Continue reading Post #211: Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting, 3/26/2019

Capital Bikeshare, trip flow visualizations 3/11/2019

Links to a flow map of the entire Capital Bikeshare system added 3/14/2019.

Reston and Tysons Bikeshare Flows

The links below take you to maps showing the average daily flow of trips, for the Reston and Tysons Bikeshare network, for 2018.  I only show the 20 most-frequently-used origin-destination pairs, separately for Reston and Tysons, separately for each map. Continue reading Capital Bikeshare, trip flow visualizations 3/11/2019