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Metro Can Blame Bikeshare for Lost Passengers, but Bikeshare Is Just Going to Get Bigger.

Metro Can Blame Bikeshare for Lost Passengers, but Bikeshare Is Just Going to Get Bigger.
Photograph via iStock.

Embedded in the ridership and revenue report that will be presented Thursday to a board meeting of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is an argument that the increasing popularity of Capital Bikeshare as a mode people use to get to work.

The challenges facing Metrorail include…external and market changes, such as increased telecommuting and more options for trip-making such as bike- and car-sharing services,” the report reads.

While the increased usages of Bikeshare, car-sharing services like Zipcar and Car2Go, and ride-hailing apps like Uber are chipping away at Metro’s ridership—especially when customer dissatisfaction is at a historic level—those newer modes of transportation eat into car commuting far more. Pinning its sluggish ridership on people trading in their SmarTrip cards for Bikeshare fobs is not going to help Metro recover; in fact, positioning itself as direct competition to Bikeshare might hurt Metro even more in the long run, especially with Bikeshare’s latest expansion plans.

Bikeshare is operated by four jurisdictions, but on Tuesday, the District—which runs the bulk of the program with 202 stations today—announced plans to aggressively grow its bike-sharing network over the next three years, including 99 new stations and 735 additional bikes that will be spread across the city, including several neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River and east of Rock Creek Park, where the system’s presence has been scant so far.

Map via District Department of Transportation.

Forty-seven stations could be added in fiscal 2016 alone, with lines of stations added to Anacostia and Congress Heights, as well as along upper Georgia Ave., Northwest, through Brightwood and Takoma. The following two years could add substantial fleets to other underserved neighborhoods like Deanwood, Hillcrest, and Trinidad.

“You’re going to start seeing Bikeshare in places where Bikeshare stations were too far apart,” says Paul Mackie, the spokesman for Mobility Lab, the Arlington-based transportation think tank. “There are going to be stations every three or four blocks.”

That kind of Bikeshare concentration, along with additional bike infrastructure like marked lanes or protected cycle tracks, could actually put a big dent in Metro’s ridership. But instead of pushing back on bikes, Metro should working with Bikeshare to attract people who might actually rely on both modes of transportation for their commutes.

“They have got to allow Bikeshare stations on all their property,” Mackie says. “It would make bike-riding so much better, it would make riding Metro so much better.”

Plenty of existing Bikeshare stations, especially those downtown, are clustered near Metro stations, but they are usually across the street or down the block. There are a few stations with Bikeshare racks directly next to the exits—Rhode Island Avenue and Takoma—but it’s at least a short walk to the bikes at other stations. Besides allowing a few Bikeshare stations and installing limited parking for private bikes, though, Metro has done little to encourage connections between cycling and ridership—the same ridership report that bemoans the rise of Bikeshare also states that only one percent of customers across the region get to their preferred stations in the morning via bike.

DDOT’s Bikeshare plan still needs to go through several rounds of community and government review, but if it pans out, it will greatly increase the number of people who use it on a regular basis. The District’s segment of Bikeshare recorded 2,663,896 rides—a figure that includes daily, monthly, and annual members—in fiscal 2014. That figure is projected to grow to 4.2 million by fiscal 2021. And if the city indeed adds significant Bikeshare resources outside its most expensive neighborhoods, many of those new riders could be different than today’s typical Bikeshare riders, 81 percent of whom are white, 58 percent of whom are male, and 84 percent of whom have an annual household income of more than $50,000.

And DDOT’s proposal has another edge on Metro besides simply extending Bikeshare’s reach. Launched in 2010, Bikeshare is now approaching the age at which its existing fleet will need to be replaced, with its stations to follow. The big, red bikes have expected lifespans of seven years, while stations can run for about ten.

While Metro struggles to pull out of its so-called “death spiral,” Bikeshare will be taking on significant additional repair costs as its original equipment ages out. The first big hit will come in 2018, when 1,069 bikes will have to be replaced at a cost of $1,326,000. Station replacements are expected to start in 2021, when 196 new racks will be swapped out to the tune of $5,718,000. DDOT has projected its Bikeshare repair costs out to fiscal 2031, when the maintenance budget will top $7 million.

Chart via DDOT.

Adding bike infrastructure is, of course, much easier and cheaper than growing rail capacity, and Bikeshare’s plan is not without its hazards. Even if there are enough new riders to support the expanded network, DDOT’s report predicts its portion of Bikeshare will continue to run operating deficits that may have to be offset by periodic fee increases.

Deficit or no, though, Bikeshare is not going to back off just because it’ll make things easier for a struggling mass-transit system, and Mackie says Metro discourages Bikeshare membership at its peril.

“For Metro to be discouraging any kinds of trips to its stations is real backward thinking,” he says. “That should be common sense.”

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.