Last month, I was in Washington DC for the National Bike Summit. While I was there, I tried out their Capital Bikeshare system. Launched in 2010, it has grown into a network today of over 1,800 bikes at over 200 docking stations. Users purchase 1-day, 3-day, 1-month, or 1-year passes in order to use the bikes for short trips around the city. For four full days, I exclusively used bike share bikes for my transportation around the city. When I returned to Philly and my friends asked me about my trip, I pretty much only talked about Capital Bikeshare. For weeks. Those shiny, red, forty-pound bicycles appeared in my daydreams. I missed their clunky charm. I imagined fleets of them on Philadelphia street corners.
I am not new to biking for transportation — in fact, I ride my bike almost every day in Philly. So what did I find so enchanting about using DC’s bike share system?
First, it was easy. I swiped my credit card, downloaded an app for my phone with a map of all the different docking stations, threw my tote bag in the handy front basket (and secured it with a built-in bungee), and was pedaling my way down Massachusetts Avenue in minutes. The payment process was a breeze compared to the DC metro’s mind-boggling differentiated fare system, and the prices were quite reasonable for unlimited bike access. An added bonus: not worrying about maintenance or theft, often associated with personal bike ownership.
Second, it got me where I needed to go. Over the course of my bike-share experience, I stayed at a hostel near Chinatown, with friends who live near the DC Armory, and with a friend who goes to American University. I met up with a friend for burritos by her office downtown, another for a beer on U Street, another for lunch in Dupont Circle, and visited the Portrait Gallery, the American History Museum and the Folger Shakespeare Library.
In four days of crisscrossing the city to these varied destinations, I never had trouble finding a docking station within a few blocks of my starting and ending points. Only once did I go over the 30 minute mark on a trip, and I could have easily avoided it with slightly better planning. (Note: trips under 30 minutes are free with membership; after that point you get charged a small fee). I definitely packed more activities into my short visit than I would have been able to had I not been biking.
Third, I experienced DC in a totally new (and better) way. I grew up in Virginia just a few hours from our nation’s capital. Despite visits with my family, with school groups, and with friends, I had never successfully internalized a mental map of the city. Four days on bike share bikes, and I had it down. Sure, I got lost a little, but having to keep track of my own direction and route (with some help from my phone, of course) forced me to figure it out. Seeing the neighborhoods transition as I pedaled along helped me connect the individual places I was visiting into a more complete picture of the city, the kind of picture I can never manage to construct when I’m constantly popping down into a metro system and popping back up across town.
With a growing network of state-of-the-art bike lanes in the city, riding was relatively stress-free, leaving me able to focus my attention on enjoying the city. I experienced some beautiful moments on my bike(s) that I might have missed otherwise. I remember swooping around the majestically-lit Capitol Building at night, coasting all the way down the giant hill from American University to Dupont Circle one morning, and waving at the Presidential motorcade not once but twice!
I have always said that I fell in love with Philadelphia while riding my bike around it. Now I think I might be able to fall in love with a lot of cities, even as a tourist, if I got to experience them in the way that bike share makes possible.
This guest piece was original featured on the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia’s blog on Friday, April 26th, 2013.