Friday, April 29, 2011

Problems with Capital Bikeshare: no empty spots, no bikes

First off, don't get me wrong, I like Capital Bikeshare, the bike sharing programs with docks around the city. I've taken it a number of times and it's handy. It's a great way to take short trips instead of a cab, bus, or Metro -- you pick up a bike at one station and drop it off at another. There are lots of stations, including a bunch in our neighborhood.

However, there's still some kinks to be worked out. The other day at about 7:30 pm I decided to see if I could ride from the Giant and save a bit of time. The station outside Giant was almost full so I had no problem getting a bike. I checked the Spotcycle iPhone app, which shows where stations are and how many empty spots and bikes there are at each one. The one at 14th and Harvard, which was the closest to my destination showed 7 open spots, so I went there, but it was full. I rode over to the 16th and Harvard and luckily there were some openings, but that meant I was farther out of my way. Another friend went to 4 different stations around U Street last night (5 total, trying one twice) before he found an open spot to drop off his bike.

It seems like there are two problems: one, the Spotcycle app seems to be wrong sometimes. The other is that the bikes aren't getting redistributed. I read recently that Capital Bikeshare just got another van to carry bikes from station to station, which is good, but still, it's frustrating. If you look at the map now, there are very few bikes in our neighborhood, for example.

Having to ride around or go farther to find a bike means the service is less convenient than alternative means of transportation. It's ok if you're not trying to get anywhere or when the weather's nice, but once it gets hot out it's going to be not much fun.

Anyone else have these issues?

UPDATE: The Post did some analysis for a recent article and it looks like our neighborhood, Adams Morgan, and Mt. Pleasant have the vast majority of originating trips. Let's hope they focus on our area then.


  1. This is a recurrent problem. Try to ride downtown on a weekday morning. It took me over an hour to find an empty slot. (I had to go back to Dupont Circle, park the bike, and walk downtown, which I could have done originally in 20 minutes.) The iPhone app was wrong, as was the customer service rep's info.

    In the evening, the docks in Dupont, Adams Morgan, Logan, are all full, as everyone rides back from downtown

    If they don't rapidly expand their capacity, they're going to be victims of their own success. So many people joined because of the LivingSocial deal. And now all the users (especially those of us who paid full price) are finding it less and less useful.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Bikeshare has said they will explain their redistribution methodologies with their users -- answering questions such as 'How do you decide when to move bikes around, and from where to where?' As far as I know, they haven’t done this yet but I am looking forward to seeing what they say... If the redistribution is being done in a way that responds to established patterns of demand for bikes, I'm surprised that the stations in our neighborhood are left empty for well over an hour at the same high demand time of day, every day... especially when there are full bike stations that are a fairly short drive away (even in traffic). I’m thinking of around 8:45 – 10:00 AM when the 70+ docks within walking distance of the metro are all empty.

    It hardly seems fair that I get a bike for my morning commute (I usually do anyway) while lots of other Bikeshare members don’t simply because my schedule has me leaving the neighborhood a half hour earlier than them!

    Bikeshare has also said that they are considering ways to incentivize people to make trips that will “counteract” the observed patterns of usage that lead to bikes being unevenly distributed. I don’t think they’ve asked for help with this, but I could imagine a simple program like:

    If you bike from Station A to Station B, and station A is X percent full after you take your bike and station B is Y percent full just before you dock your bike, then you would get (X – Y) “points” for making the trip (somewhere between zero and one point per trip if you ignore negative numbers). In other words, you get points for moving bikes from relatively full stations to relatively empty ones.

    I don’t know what people would get for their points, but I don’t think it would have to be much to get some entrepreneurial members to start relocating bikes from downtown to Columbia Heights as part of their morning routines...

  4. I'm afraid the Metro and Cab unions are too strong for Capital Bikeshare to succeed.

  5. Mark Ludwick - CaBi has asked for help with incentive programs (I believe I saw a facebook post about it). I like your idea and I think you should head over there and present it. A point system would incentivize people without doling out credits EVERY time someone rides up a hill. (people have to save them up, and others may never claim them).

    As for the rest of the entry - I love bikeshare, and I think it's great. I also understand that it's bikeshare. We can't depend on it as we do the metro, because it's not mass transit. We can't reserve the bikes as one would zipcar, as things like that would bear additional charges. We have to share it. If I want to cycle as part of my main method of transporation, I have to do one of two things:

    A) Game the system to ensure bicycles at your station (live downtown, work uptown / get up super early and get the first bikes)
    B) Get your own bike.

    I did both of these over the past few months - I went to work early, and once the weather got nicer, I bought my own bike in order to avoid the rush for bikeshare. I use my own bike AND bikeshare (I tend to bikeshare on days I think will be rainy, so my bike isn't outside all day).

    Finally, I know that an anecdote is not proof of a good system, but I went to 14th and Harvard today at 8:10ish to find an empty station. I was just about to try our 16th and Harvard when who should pull up but a bikeshare van?! I was really lucky.

  6. Hey Andrew. I'm a huge fan of bikeshare too and a very satisfied user. I agree with you that we can't expect it to always be available, or to be as dependable as the metro... but I also have high hopes that this can change significantly over time. Check out maps of bikesharing systems in some other cities, like Montreal or Paris ( This is the sort of coverage I’d like to see in DC!

    In the meantime, I’m just blown away by how far the system has come in such a short time and I support any attempts to expand the system or make it better - bike redistribution and incentive programs included.

  7. I understand the problem, but I'm baffled as to why you would bother getting a bike to go three short blocks.

  8. True, it's not far, but I had some groceries. More an experiment to see if it could be done and save a few minutes.

  9. I use bikeshare every day and I've literally never had a problem getting a bike. Then again, I'm a teacher so I leave my house at 6:45 every day. If you're willing to do that, the bikesharing world is your oyster!

  10. I've used Capital Bikeshare since winter and I love it, but I think they made a huge mistake with the recent Groupon deal which added 5,000 new users in one swoop. Expanding rapidly like that without plans for expanding capacity concurrently ensures a lot of disgruntled users.

    Some sort of incentive system is needed -- not just positive incentives, but negative incentives, too. Nobody else in the city has the opportunity to commute daily for $75 a year, so a rush hour surcharge for the first half hour should be added.

    Another problem seems to be on weekends people take the bikes out for hours at a time -- not the way the system was meant to be used, and a guarantee that stations remain completely empty all day. So at peak times like that, raise the fees as well after the first half hour.

    Any more discounts could be directed at focused groups (like people who live downtown, and therefore aren't likely to add to the wave of people heading downtown in the morning and uptown in the evening).

    As for why you should get a bike to go three blocks -- that's the difference between 15 minutes and 5 minutes. In my mind short hops like that are how the system works best.

  11. Gravity is a bitch - the lower the elevation, the more the racks fill up. On the other hand, try getting a bike in Tenleytown, the highest point in the city. Rack is usually empty there.


Please don't advertise in the comments, and please enter some kind of name when you comment instead of being anonymous.

If the post is more than 28 days old, your comment must be approved first.