- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 27, 2011

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.

Explore the most frequently full or empty Capital Bikeshare stations, according to a Washington Times analysis, in this interactive map. Red represents the least-available stations.

“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.

Ancient technology updated

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.

Riders are unsure whether regionwide expansion would diminish the ties that bind these pioneers together or dilute what Mr. Menzer calls the “coolness factor.” But as a horde of riders pedals down the nightlife corridor of H Street on Friday night, a driver hangs out his car window and shouts. “Get out of the road!”

It is what any tight-knit group needs: A common enemy.