Though the two-wheeled technology is ancient, the system has high-tech appeal, with flourishes like solar-powered docking stations and credit card readers. Checking a stations status on a free GPS-enabled mobile application, or app, or glancing at Capital Bikeshares official website is the best way to avoid the bike-parking crunch, riders say.
What even the iPhone won’t do, however, is make bikes or slots appear where there aren’t any. There’s no app for that.
“In the course of one week, about eight times I was screwed,” says Mr. Menzer, who mostly uses Bikeshare to get to work downtown. Sometimes there are races to the last slot. “It’s like, who will get there first?” he says mischievously. Other times, a bike’s headlight gliding toward an empty station is an oasis to a stranded would-be rider.
Today, salvation comes in another form. Before his tales of woe can even conclude, up pulls a boxy white van. This is Santa and his sleigh. This is the all-knowing being who maintains the balance of the city. Out pops a friendly Bikeshare worker, to whom Mr. Menzer excitedly rolls his bike.
“It’s only been 12 minutes,” the worker pre-empts, impressively.
During rush hour, the van’s efforts to redistribute bikes fail for the same reason that makes commute by bike so appealing: Crippling traffic. But on this afternoon, the van is darting from station to station in nearly real-time as its driver monitors a digital status readout.
The Bikeshare program, designed to get cars off the road and fill a void for trips too long to walk but not long enough to require Metro, was never meant to be primarily a commuting alternative, planners say. And during off-peak times, such as for errands, it seems to work stunningly well.
Racking up numbers
Participants took 150,000 trips in June alone. The number of trips doubled in the first three months of this year, and doubled again in the three months after that. In the same periods, instances of empty racks tripled, and then quadrupled. So did cases of fully-occupied stations — further compounding the chances of encountering a problem on one end of the trip or the other.
A Living Social deal — that online coupon for cool folks that has spawned a handful of imitators and left more than one small business overwhelmed by the unexpected response to a discount — may have pushed Bikeshare over its limit in April.
“That was the big breaker,” says the worker, who didnt want to be named because of company policy. “We’ve got more members than the bikes and stations can handle.”
On Tuesday, the program announced its first major expansion, one that will alleviate crowding this fall by adding 32 stations and adding capacity to 18. Thirty stations in the Rosslyn and Ballston areas of Arlington also are in the works.
The program is operated by Alta Bicycle Share on behalf of the District and Arlington, but expansion to the Maryland suburbs is on the horizon. The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board last month approved a grant for $1.9 million in federal funds that could add 20 stations in Rockville and the Shady Grove area.
But expansion to the suburbs, which lack mixed-use areas that serve as origins of trips for some and destinations for others, risks losing out on one of the most effective means of redistributing bikes: Riders themselves.
To counteract the natural patterns of the city’s residence-ringed office core, officials this summer introduced a program to grant extended memberships to riders who take trips from stations typically full to often-empty ones, like salmon against the current of commuters.