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Nation’s capital captivated by those cherry red bikes

The sharing program Boston plans is already huge hit in Washington

Capital Bikeshare in Washington has 100 stations like this one in the city, with bicycles for members’ short-term use. Capital Bikeshare in Washington has 100 stations like this one in the city, with bicycles for members’ short-term use. (Brendan Hoffman for The Boston Globe)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / May 1, 2011

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WASHINGTON — When this city rolled out its bike-sharing network last September, Aaron Adkins was not one of the early adopters. An executive assistant who wears crisply pressed suits to work, he had scarcely been on a bicycle since childhood. But these new bikes — candy apple red, rolling past traffic, seemingly everywhere — proved hard to resist.

So last month Adkins gave Capital Bikeshare a try. Laptop bag strapped to the front rack, breeze in his face, he zipped to work in less than half the usual time and became a convert in a single commute.

“Now, I’m in my office in less than 10 minutes,’’ said Adkins, 35. Surprised by the sturdiness and comfort of the bikes, he has only one complaint. “I just wish there were more.’’

It is an increasingly common refrain in Washington, where the nation’s first modern, large-scale bike-sharing program has exceeded expectations to the point of being challenged by its own success. Even with more than 1,000 bicycles and 100 stations, demand exceeds supply in many pockets of the city during rush hour, prompting calls for expansion — not just more stations, but more bicycles and docking slots per station.

“It’s really performed beyond our, I wouldn’t say wildest dreams, but beyond our normal dreams,’’ said Chris Holben, bike-sharing project manager for the District Department of Transportation. With Boston about to start a similar program in July, called Hubway, he encouraged city planners to be bold.

“Do a much bigger splash at the beginning,’’ said Holben, who helps oversee a system that opened with 50 stations, doubled in a month, and has more on the way. “The smaller the system, the more complaints you’re going to get, and you’re going to have to expand that much sooner.’’

Hubway is poised to start with 600 bikes and 61 stations, with hopes of expanding in a few years to as many as 5,000 bikes at 300 stations, reaching into Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline.

In its first seven months, Capital Bikeshare generated 330,000 trips and seven reported crashes, none life-threatening, a much safer rate than that for trips by bike owners, Holben said. Theft of the bikes is rare, and most of the stolen ones have been recovered, the bikes too heavy to cart inside and too distinctive to conceal, even with a coat of paint.

When the first stations were put in place last year, Washington officials predicted that 6,000 people would purchase the $75 annual memberships in the first year. Instead, they hit that in six months, then doubled the number in 24 hours through a half-price promotion..

The sudden surge has frustrated some otherwise smitten Bikeshare members.

“It’s great, except when there’s no place to park,’’ said Aaron Tax, one of two riders who pulled up to Dupont Circle at 7:50 a.m. last Wednesday to find all 14 docking slots there already holding bicycles. The other biker, in khakis and dress shirt but no helmet, grumbled before pedaling off. Tax, a 35-year-old lawyer, waited for a slot to open.

He walks to work but rides Capital Bikeshare to meetings, for errands, and to meet friends after work, without the hassle of needing his own bike, worrying about theft, paying for cabs, or relying on the Metro’s fixed route.

“You can bike there and not have to worry about biking home,’’ said Tax, whose helmet put him in a clear minority among Bikeshare users. “I like to wear a helmet, so I can’t be as spontaneous as I’d like. That’s the only inconvenience for me. “

The system is designed for short trips, not joy rides. Members can take unlimited free trips of half an hour or less. The next half hour with the same bike is $1.50; the half hour after that, $3; and each additional half hour is $6 — an escalating schedule that few have memorized, because it rarely comes into play.

The average trip is 1 mile, and 18 minutes; those who need to ride farther sometimes hop from station to station, transferring bicycles. A bike undocked for more than 24 hours is considered stolen, triggering a $1,000 credit-card charge.

Maps at stations direct users not just to other stations and to streets with bike lanes, but to stores where they can buy discounted helmets or rent recreational bikes for longer trips.

“Bikeshare is really more about transit than it is about fitness,’’ said David Alpert, who founded Greater Greater Washington, an urban planning and transportation blog.

Alpert, a bike-sharing advocate, was surprised by the speed with which Capital Bikeshare became a highly visible and widely accepted way to travel.

A reporter who traversed the city on two wheels and on foot saw as much: The bikes are easy to spot, with their fire-engine paint jobs and flashing lights, and pass by on busy streets at least once every few minutes, more often during rush hour or at lunch. Ridership skews to young professionals and urbanites, but it spans demographic groups. Men in neckties and in shorts, women in open-toed shoes and in sneakers, college students with takeout bags dangling from the handlebars — all rolled past. Many stopped at lights and some used hand signals, though courtesy was not universal.

At 4 p.m., a haggard-looking man pedaled down the 1700 block of L Street Northwest, going the wrong direction on a one-way road, barreling down the sidewalk.

In other words, Alpert said, “it’s not just a small niche of Lycra-clad Lance Armstrong wannabes.’’

Having grown up in Acton, Mass., and studied at Harvard, he expects bike sharing to become similarly mainstream in Boston. Although the Hub’s streets are more narrow and twisty than Washington’s, it may not necessarily be a more dangerous place to ride alongside traffic, Alpert said, because predictable straightaways can lull drivers into paying less attention.

In Washington, most morning trips come from the north and head downtown, with commuters doing the reverse in the evenings. Alta Bicycle Share Inc., the company hired to install and maintain the system, has a staff of mechanics and “rebalancers,’’ van drivers who roam the city to ensure that no station is full or barren for more than three hours, the limit under the contract. The company bumped up from two vans to three last week, following the membership surge.

“Now we know the system,’’ said Alex Fuentes, a driver who was removing some bikes from a fully stocked, 32-dock station at lunchtime in Chinatown, one of the largest stations. In an eight-hour shift, Fuentes visits 75 stations and transfers hundreds of bikes, monitoring activity from a laptop on the dashboard of his Sprinter van. “It takes a good year to find out how the system works.’’

The stations are located every few blocks downtown and more sporadically among the neighborhoods. Each station has a computer system powered by solar panels. Long-term members are issued key fobs that they swipe to remove a bicycle from any station, the bike released from the dock’s vise grip. Daily ($5) and five-day ($15) members can sign up on station computers using a credit card and are given one-time codes to release a bike. They also have to click to sign a liability waiver that occupies 103 pages on the tiny screen, meaning it has almost certainly never been read in full.

A typical weekday now sees about 3,500 rides, or 3 1/2 trips per bike. Most are by annual members, but about 250 short-term members sign up each day — like Ken Rose, 45, a government health analyst heading from his Dupont hotel to a meeting at Union Station3 miles away.

“So far, so good,’’ said Rose, after swiping his credit card and selecting a bike. “It’s pretty intuitive.’’

The bikes have three speeds, a front basket, a bell, a white strobe front light, two red taillights, an adjustable height padded seat, and rear wheel and chain covers to protect against grease stains, mud splatters, and clothing tears. They are not fast but make up for it with their pothole forgiveness.

There are helmet advisories at every station, but many riders ignore them, and the law requires them only for those under 16, the minimum age for Capital Bikeshare. Officials have been vexed by the problem of how to make helmet use more widespread; dispensing them at stations for rent is challenging because of the need for proper sizing, not “the cootie factor,’’ Holben said.

Flat tires or balky brakes can be signaled by docking the bike and pressing a button with a wrench icon, which flags it for repair, locks it in place, and removes it from real-time listings. At 8:30 a.m. last Wednesday, the sole remaining bicycle at 20th and Florida Northwest was just such a deactivated unit.

Jessie Albert, a Department of Justice employee, inserted her fob only to have the dock make an angry noise, flashing red instead of green.

“Oh, that’s kind of sad,’’ Albert, 24, said. For a moment, she thought about returning to her old crowded bus route. Suddenly, a bright red beacon appeared over the hill — Adrienne Shade, 26, riding in by Bikeshare.

“Oh! Oh!’’ Albert called, waving with two thumbs up. Shade slowed, gave a thumbs up in reply, and stopped to dock the bike.

“You just made my day,’’ Albert said, swiping her fob immediately. The green light went on, and the dock chirped.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.