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Bike-Sharing Is Flourishing in Washington. Can the City Handle It?

​By Emily Baumgaertner via NYtimes

A Capital Bikeshare rider in front of the Capitol. Five companies are vying for real estate in Washington’s bike-share market, including some that offer GPS-tracked bikes that lock themselves without a central kiosk.Credit Pete Marovich for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Washington could soon bypass Portland, Ore., as the American city with the highest share of bicycle commuters, due in part to growing competition among bike-borrowing programs, according to census data and cycling enthusiasts.

Five companies are vying for real estate in the capital’s bike-share market, offering GPS-tracked bikes that lock themselves without a central kiosk. The newest bike-share offering — Jump, which arrived last Monday — uses an electric motor to bolster manual pedaling, so riders do not have to break a sweat.

But while the city embraces its innovative bicycling culture, longtime riders argue that the capital still lacks infrastructure to support it. With almost 17,000 bicycle commuters in 2016, the city is facing ever-greater urgency to ensure commuter safety.

Transportation planners in the capital are in a bind. Commuters from the surrounding suburbs almost double Washington’s daytime population to one million people, and subway delays, car accidents and motorcades are a source of regular gridlock.

Washington became the nation’s testing ground for bike-sharing programs with the 2008 introduction of SmartBike DC, a modest venture that began with 10 rental kiosks. Its successor, Capital Bikeshare, currently operates almost 500 docks. Three new programs — Mobike, LimeBike and Spin — don’t require any: A frame-mounted lock immobilizes the bicycle until a rider scans a bar code with a smartphone camera to activate it. When finished with a trip, the rider can leave the bike anywhere legal.

But critics worry most about beginner urban riders navigating the segmented nature of the city’s designated bicycle lanes: They begin and end seemingly at random, forcing cyclists to veer into four-lane roads stippled with potholes and urban grit. Buses and hurried automobile traffic push them into the right-most lane, where doors of parked cars can swing open unexpectedly, catapulting cyclists.

“I take the least intrusive route possible, and I still can’t prevent getting ‘doored,’ ” said Marcus Greenberg, a bicycle commuter of four years, lamenting that drivers curse him onto the sidewalks while pedestrians curse him onto the roads. “Without a bike lane, you’re the minority — everybody hates you. You flip over your handlebars, and the driver wants you to pay for the dent your head made in their Prius.”

One barrier to consistent bike lanes is what riders call “bikelash,” or local resistance to bicycle lane installation when it threatens parking availability. In 2015, when the city considered installing four blocks of bike lanes in eastern portions of downtown, nearby church congregants protested in such large numbers that a Department of Transportation meeting was dispersed due to a violation of the fire code.

Another barrier is the prioritization of “levels of service,” an engineering measurement for the rate at which a motor vehicle can be moved through an urban intersection to minimize congestion. Such was the case on Grant Circle in northwest Washington, where a recent plan to install a protected bike lane was scratched because it would have narrowed the motor vehicle path to one lane from two.

“In urban bicycle route planning, the joke is: We can do absolutely anything we want — as long as it doesn’t inconvenience a single driver in a single place for a single second,” said David Cranor, chairman of the D.C. Bicycle Advisory Council to the government. 

Critics argue that both priorities are shortsighted and overlook the city’s long-range plan for decreasing urban congestion: getting more citizens on bikes.

In several European cities — where bike-sharing programs date from the 1960s — biking incentives are programmed right into the traffic signals. Automated “green waves” allow bicyclists — who have their own well-marked lanes and traffic lights — to maintain a pace of about 12 miles per hour without encountering red lights, despite traffic controls on car lanes. In these cycle-friendly cities, even in the most inclement weather most bike lanes must be plowed before motor vehicle ones.

“We’d like to see this city be much braver about saying to people, ‘Look, this is the most sustainable transportation plan,’ ” said Tamara Evans, the advocacy director at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “ ‘It’s cleaner, it’s healthier, and we’re just going to build this.’ ”

According to the district’s Department of Transportation, that strategy is difficult in practice.

“It is definitely a balancing act,” said Jim Sebastian, the local Department of Transportation’s associate director for planning and sustainability, who previously worked as a bicycle coordinator in the government. “There’s a finite amount of space in the city, and we need to think about all of the modes.”

The department emphasized the progressiveness of the pilot programs. New York, which has Citi Bike, and Chicago, which has Divvy, both public-private partnerships similar to Capital Bikeshare, have yet to welcome dockless competitors.

One of Washington’s new programs, Spin, recently withdrew plans for a New York rollout after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the mayor. If the new Washington bike programs catch on, the capital’s share of commuters who cycle — it was 4.6 percent in 2016, according to Census Bureau data — could bypass Portland’s 6.3 percent.

One constituency has long been optimistic that an increase in bicyclists could catalyze sophisticated infrastructure. D.C. Bike Party — a monthly tradition in which costumed riders weave in unison through the city, toward a designated bar — already draws several hundred bike-share riders each month.

“In a snarled-up city, this will always be a place of solidarity for the bicyclists — the lawyers, the bike messengers, the moms and dads,” said Lia Seremetis, the group’s founder.

 

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