Capital Bike Share - What a Good Idea

Last week I was heading to our nations capitol for some parts vacation and some parts learning at a conference.  The conference hotel was in Crystal City.  Plan was to fly into town and take the hotel shuttle.  After that, I'd myself with a considerable amount of free time Wednesday night and Thursday morning.  I checked the maps and couple websites and found the hotel is super close to the Mt Vernon Trail, and also fairly close to the National Mall and Memorials.  Close in biking or running terms but too far to walk outright.  I knew DC had a good reputation for it's bikeshare program as well as bike friendliness in general.  I found Capital Bikeshare online with no problem and did some pre-planning.

Capital Bike Share - for beginners like NiceRide in Minnesota or CitiBike in New York City, these are bikes that can be rented for short trips.  Riders can pay a daily fee, three day fee, or a yearly fee.  After the rental fee, the first 30 minutes of the trip is at no additional cost, and every 30 minutes after that adds to the cost.  There's a real incentive to move the bikes from one location to another, and then do sight seeing on foot.  Bikes come equipped with a basket and front and rear lights for night riding.  Riders are encouraged to wear helmets.
For my trip to DC, I chose a 3 day pass.  For each trip, I just swiped the credit card that I'd used to make the initial purchase, no additional charges were added, it's just how they recognized me.  I'd get a code to unlock the bike from the docking station and head to the next place on my list.  There were no less than five Bikeshare docking stations in walking distance from my hotel (no joke) and they are in several places around the sights I wanted to see.

DC is Bike Friendly.  Coming from a bike friendly town, I was impressed with DCs biking infrastructure.  In my short trip I found some beautiful off road bike paths.  In addition to Mt Vernon, I was on the Custis Bike Trail for a time and found it lovely, and the Capital Crescent Trail was a backup trail for long run day.  There were also protected bike lanes within the city, something Minneapolis seems determined to avoid, some sidewalk level bike paths in tourist areas, and some roads with bike sharrows as well.

Plan ahead.  Capital Bikeshare is a really well put together program, but I'm glad I did my research on this one ahead of time.  It took me some time to map out which stations I thought I'd use in which places, and then doing some research via an app and GPS about the distance between stations, which ones are full all the time and which ones seem to be perpetually empty.

GPS is my best friend  I say this more as a tourist.  There were maps at the bikeshare stations, but anyone who's ever tried to navigate our nations capital knows it's confusing as hell. Roads don't follow a grid, nothing is oriented in a direction that makes any sense.  Sometimes finding the bike station would be a challenge because it'd be on a weird corner, or tucked away in a place that wasn't super obvious from the bike paths I was using.  Siri and I made friends on this trip.

SpotCycle is the most useful app ever.  Spotcycle had GPS and a map, but also information on how close I was to a dock station, how many docks were available (if I had a bike out), and how many bikes were available when I wanted to rent one and head to my next destination.  This app is mentioned on the Capital Bikeshare web page and works with bike share programs in other locations as well, including Minnesota. There were a couple times I was close to one dock or another that had no bikes, or only one bike left when I was a 10-minute walk away.  I don't like to take chances.  I was able to see what docks always had bikes as well, and make my way to those.

Station Popularity - I didn't do very much of DC on a bike, just the touristy spots, and by my hotel.  Crystal City has tons of bikes.  Sometimes too many.  The Jefferson Monument perpetually has 2 or 3 bikes, maybe.  The dock near the Washington Monument is much better appointed, as well as the docks near the Capital Building.  The dock near Washington is the only dock on the mall itself, all the others are a couple blocks north or south and not visible from the mall.  See why I was loving my GPS and Spotcycle?

Station Planning: The other station related issue I had is the distance between stations in DC and Crystal City.  Between the Jefferson Monument and the next closest bike station in Crystal City is 3.5 miles (I know because GPS).  I could see a slow rider easily taking the entire 30 minutes and then some to get there, especially if there's a stop to snap photos of the Potomac or of the planes taking off from the airport.  Looking at the map, there's a couple other holes like that in stations.  There's actually a park in between the Jefferson Memorial and Crystal City, along a bike path, seems like it's crying out for a station.

Safety and Comfort.  The bikes are 3-speed bikes with hand breaks.  The chain, derailleur, and break devices are all encased within this protective bike shell.  The bike itself weighs more than any bike should, but it's one of those that's super easy to pedal so it doesn't matter that it weighs sixty pounds.  All bikes are 'girls bike' style of cross bars.  I sometimes found the brakes inadequate (why am I not stopping!?!) but perhaps I ride faster than most rental riders.  I also had a giggle imagining someone who'd never used hand breaks before trying to break with their left hand and flying over the handle bars.  Thankfully I didn't see that.  Also they have bells to ding at people when you want to pass.  I love the bells!  (For those unfamiliar, the bells are a really respectful way of saying 'passing on your left' and generally seen as less annoying than yelling at someone ahead on the trail.)

I am grateful I come from a biking community up here.  There's lots of etiquette on bike paths, trails, and city cycling.  I was imagining Mom or Dad going out for a ride with me and realizing a lot of this would have been really hard for them.  For example, the trails are really narrow and crowded so bikes need to pass quickly and ride single file for the most part.  There's places where the bikes are on a protected bike lane at street level.  Even though we don't really have them up here, I can recognize them and know how to behave.  Then there's times when the bikes are in the roads with cars, and the roads have sharrows painted on them clearly.  What the hell is a sharrow?  Sharing the lanes with cars was actually the part I imagined would be the hardest for my parents, or any tourist who isn't used to bike commuting.

Would I do it again? Heck yes.  And any other trips I take now, I'm going to check ahead of time to see if they have bike share programs there as well. 

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