When I was an intelligence officer in the navy, I took a class on intelligence support to expeditionary warfare…you know, the marines crashing the beach, that sort of thing. They told us that the three things we had to first evaluate was the acronym, WET, which stood for weather, enemy, and terrain. Those were the three keys that were key to establishing a good, swift action into enemy territory.
The same idea, with a slight twist, can be used to assess why Capital Bikeshare, Washington DC’s system for common use bicycles, will be a flourishing success for years to come. Three criteria apply, and two are the same as expeditionary warfare–weather and terrain. Instead of enemy as the third assessment, let’s substitute public transportation.
Let’s go through it one-by-one:
Weather: a successful bikeshare system must exist in a climate that is amenable to biking, at least much of the time. Areas that are too hot, too cold, too rainy, too foggy, etc. are not conducive to biking. In Washington, DC, the weather is mostly manageable: spring has rain but is general mild and quite nice, summer gets hot but not too hot, autumn brings in a cool breeze and gorgeous colors, and winter gets cold, but snow does not fall often. Overall, the climate in Washington, DC is good for bicycling.
Terrain: Two key factors that impact bicycle usage are the physical terrain and the human terrain. First, having a bikeshare system in an area that is too hilly does not work very well–people just don’t want to bike uphill. Bikeshare data from the Washington, DC system supports this and indicates that more people down hill than uphill. While the distance above sea level from the Columbia Heights neighborhood is only 180 feet above the Washington Monument, this clearly turns off some people. A city with much more terrain variation than that could have problems. Second, Washington, DC, although it is not New York or Chicago, is fairly densely populated. Compare DC to a city like Dallas or Los Angeles, and you can see that the city is relatively small enough to bicycle around in less than 30 minutes.
Public Transportation: This third point is perhaps the most important in determining bikeshare success: the status of a city’s public transportation system. As has been on display across the DC area and perhaps the country, Washington, DC’s public transportation system is garbage. The Metro system just announced a year-long maintenance plan called SafeTrack, which is aimed at fixing three years of problems in one year. As DC residents would expect, the system was neglected for 40 years and is now in dire straits. Even when the system wasn’t undergoing massive maintenance, the system performed poorly and was wildly expensive–a one-way ride from one end of the system to the other could cost almost $6.00 during rush hour. The bus system is mediocre, although it is more reasonably priced at $1.85 per ride. It has good routes, but with very few express bus lanes, buses get backed up with traffic, and are often late, while some don’t even show. Lastly, driving your own car in the city is a pain. Parking garages are few and far between, and the roads are ineffective for cars to adequately get around. Washington DC’s public transportation system, as a whole, is unreliable, overpriced, and riddled with problems. In cities with adequate, reasonably priced public transit systems, like New York, Chicago, and Boston, there is less demand for a bicycle sharing system simply because you can get anywhere in the city on public transit faster than on a bike. In Washington, DC, you can get almost anywhere faster on a bike than riding public transportation.
So, the new acronym, which I think should be used for the viability of bikeshare programs, is WTPT: weather, terrain, and public transportation. If you have a weather pattern fit for bicycling, a physical and human terrain that makes it manageable, and inadequate and overpriced public transportation options, you have an environment ripe for an effective bikeshare system.
As of the publication of this post, since February 2015, I have used bikeshare cycles 440 times for more than 75 hours. According to the tracking system, I have biked at least 560 miles (which is a gross underestimate in my opinion). For $85 a year (which is the equivalent of about 25 metro rides, 45 bus rides, or 10 Uber/cabrides), I have unlimited access to Capital Bikeshare for up to 30 minutes per ride. If I need more time, I check the bike in, and check it right back out. Bottom line: I can get anywhere in DC faster and cheaper on a bikeshare than I can driving, taking the metro, or taking a bus.
Seems simple to me.