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In just three years, Capital Bikeshare has become ubiquitous in Washington D.C. With more than 250,000 rides a month, it's hard to avoid seeing someone pedaling the familiar red rentals.
But is Capital Bikeshare really worth the money for its riders? At what point does buying a bicycle or renting a bike from a more traditional business make more sense?
Regular riders find value
The vast majority of those you see riding the iconic bikes are every-day riders. In a single month of data taken from May of this year, those with monthly or yearly passes to the Capital Bikeshare accounted for 193,218 individual rides, or 75 percent of all rides within the system.
"A lot of people in my office in Crystal City use the Bikeshare to get to work," says Pamela Gingham, standing next to the Bikeshare dock in Pentagon City. "It doesn’t make sense to drive when it’s that close."
What’s striking about regular users is how focused their rides are. In one month, the average trip by a monthly or yearly Bikeshare subscriber was just 12.22 minutes, well below the 30-minute threshold at which hourly rates start to kick in.
"The distance is really the key — one-half to three miles is the sweet spot," says Chris Eatough with Capital Bikeshare. "Shorter than that, and walking works just fine. Longer than that, and the bikes are not as comfortable and efficient."
The value proposition for commuters is obvious. For $250, the cost of purchasing an entry-level used bicycle at an area bike shop, a Capital Bikeshare member could get nearly four years of service, minus all the hassles of maintenance.
"Many [members] are bike riders already and have their own bike," says Eatough. "But they appreciate the different type of transit that Bikeshare provides, such as allowing for spontaneous trips, combining with other modes, one-way trips, not worrying about locking up your own bike, etc."
Trickier proposition for casual users, tourists
If Capital Bikeshare regulars are focused riders, then their casual counterparts — those who use 24-hour or 3-day passes — are decidedly less so.
The average ride by a casual user is more than three times as long as a subscriber, at 41 minutes. As many as five percent of these casual users ride for two hours or more, incurring costs of anywhere between $29 and $94 per person, depending how close to the daily limit they stray.
More traditional bike rental services, such as Bike and Roll near Union Station, offer much better value propositions for tourists. For $14, a visitor to the Nation’s Capital can get a light 24-speed Trek hybrid for two hours — a far faster and lighter ride than Capital Bikeshare’s three-speed cycles.
But while there is plenty of evidence that tourists are using the Capital Bikeshare in this way, that’s not how the system was designed to work.
"Some people think that Bikeshare is a system set up for visiting tourists, but it's not really true," Eatough says. "Only about 10 percent of trips are by casual users from out of town. Of course, we are happy to serve these users, and it's good for everyone if these trips are made by bike instead of taxi, car rental tour bus, etc., but they are not a huge part of the ridership."
Going from part-time to full-time
Perhaps Bikeshare’s most enduring legacy is its ability to awaken the inner cyclist inside every Washingtonian.
Lawrence Behery, owner of the Old Bike Shop in Arlington, says the he routinely gets customers into his store who used Bikeshare as a gateway to the hobby.
"They find out that [cycling] is a wonderful thing for them, and they don’t have to be a bicycle racer in order to get to work every day," Behery says.
Purchasing a bicycle eliminates the need to race to a docking station in under 30 minutes to avoid additional fees. It also allows people to customize their ride to suit their specific needs.
"You can tailor what you expect out of a bike," Behery says. "Some folks don’t have a car at all and they need a utility bicycle that has racks and fenders and the ability to climb hills under load. And depending on how long their commute is, maybe a three-speed bicycle isn’t the best choice."
Capital Bikeshare does not have any research on the number of Bikeshare riders who leave the service and buy their own bicycle, but they say its something they hear from area bike shops.
Whether riders use Capital Bikeshare in the ways intended by officials or just to ride aimlessly around town, Eatough says what is important is that people are out there pedaling.
"All of these profiles are fine with us," Eatough says. "We just want to provide options for getting around in other ways than single occupancy vehicle."