Since the infusion of thousands of new members and renewals from a half-price deal offered on Living Social, Capital Bikeshare has been on a roll. Consider: Sunday was the system’s highest ridership day ever: 4,197 trips. During the warm weather of a lazy week running up to Easter, the system was averaging over 3,500 riders a day.
There are a few ways to put this in perspective. One is: So what? Even using the record number (which as the system expands and the weather gets warmer, seems appropriate) that’s about the amount of people that use Potomac Avenue or Easts Falls Church stations each day on the Metro system. Those are not busy by Metro numbers –Union Station alone boasts 35,000 riders.
But that is about the number of people that use daily the commuter rail systems in San Diego and Albuquerque (4,100, 3800) and more than a bunch of streetcar systems and even the very minuscule Tacoma Link light rail system. All of these systems cost millions and millions of dollars and years of planning — certainly more regional political and economic headaches than at least, so far, bikeshare has been.
Out on the bikes on Saturday and again Monday I anecdotally observed more riders than ever and plenty of full and empty (aka, useless) stations. What else? Plenty of seasoned bikers as well as people trying to ride on the sidewalks of busy downtown streets. It was a bit ugly out there, but the city will eventually adapt to literally thousands of more bike riders a day. Some areas, like Dupont and Capitol Hill, have long-standing bike lanes that make the neighborhood already more friendly to cyclists than others that aren’t used to the infrastructure. Downtown, a wrong turn can point you down incredibly hostile streets.
So for now riders need to carefully consult maps — the city’s busy avenues are not a great place to ride a bike for the first time in 20 years. Drivers don’t want you on New York Avenue and you probably don’t want to bike there, either. There are solutions. Rush hour traffic on Independence can be easily avoided in the eastern part of Capitol Hill simply by skipping up to East Capitol Street. These days, before you drive somewhere for the first time, you probably look up directions. Why should it be different on a bike?
More of the city should be bike friendly but it isn’t — it’s going to take time and growing pains as drivers learn to share space (many already do, in my experience) and bikers learn their routes and and the law. But there is already progress: The separated lanes on 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue take up little space and provide utility on what otherwise would be car-oriented thoroughfares.
As ridership and system expansion continues, ridership is going to keep going up. It’s hard to say where the average will be come September; even more difficult is envisioning what things will look like when the system is “built-out,” or even what that vision entails. What are reasonable boundaries? Bethesda? Silver Spring? College Park? Falls Church?
But it won’t be long before bikeshare ridership approaches that of Cleveland’s light rail lines or even New York’s Staten Island Railway, with more downtown and Arlington stations on the way. And those are important rail transit systems in their respective cities: Washingtonians should recognize, and embrace, that Capital Bikeshare will be just as important to the region.