As downtown is consumed by the evening rush, 13 bicycles stand shiny and red, awaiting riders that will careen from the downtown offices of L Street Northwest to houses, apartments and restaurants. They slingshot freed workers past crowded bus shelters and weave between stalled traffic as drivers curse with envy.
But by shortly after 6, the Capital Bikeshare station at 19th and L streets Northwest is empty, and it stays that way. The first 13 who had the breeziest exodus from this epicenter of downtown are also the only ones.
This summer, the city’s innovative bike-sharing program has been crippled by its own success when it comes to commuting during rush hour, with bike racks completely empty — or just as often, completely full, making it impossible to drop off a bike.
“Are you going to take one of these?” pleads Jeff Menzer as he props up a bike next to a full station. Several other Bikeshare members already have shaken their heads at the sight of no empty slots and churned toward another station some 10 blocks away. “I was only going five blocks, and now I’ll have to make an eight-block walk.”
Despite such frustration, an unexpected side effect is emerging: A culture of urban chivalry, where pedalers go out of their way to look out for one another and synchronize handoffs.
“My parents’ generation had this thing where everyone who had a VW bug would wave at each other when they passed,” Tim Holland says as he drops a bike off at an otherwise-vacant station. “This is our equivalent.”
The sturdy cycles are everywhere, it seems, topped by all kinds of people: A burly man in khakis; a young woman in spandex; another in a sharp blazer; a bald-headed law firm partner. While the grid is jammed with drivers enclosed in look-alike metal boxes, the communal bikes seem to preserve simultaneously a sense of individuality and engagement.
In a stuffy city that favors anonymity and tradition, the bikes are personal and new. Their riders believe they have a shared interest in the system, like belonging to a club. (Having expanded from 6,000 annual members to more than 15,000, it’s a rapidly-growing one.)
Near hypercompetitive Capitol Hill, a middle-aged man riding away from a station calls a warning to a 20-something male riding toward it to turn back: There are no spots ahead. By the time he nears the station anyway, one has opened up, only a young woman in shorts and a T-shirt rounds the bend and the two converge in front of the drop-off point. The male yields the spot with a smile and pedals blocks out of his way.
A tourist from Florida is stricken with curiosity as Andrew Dolan picks up a cycle downtown. “How do you do the bikes?” the mother asks.
Mr. Dolan takes a break from the rush of a commute in Monday’s heat to go into evangelist mode, explaining the system and the city in helpful detail.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” the captivated tourist says.
Neither have residents: It is difficult to come up with an equivalent to these scenes of connection in the car-centric District we have known.
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Luke Rosiak is a projects reporter on The Washington Times’ investigative team. He formerly covered lobbying and campaign finance for two watchdog groups as well as transportation for The Washington Post. Luke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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