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March 14, 2012 / Jim Fenton

A Quick Spin Around the White House

Capital Bikeshare Rack

Capital Bikeshare rack at Dupont Circle

I’m on a business trip in Washington, DC, and it has been a beautiful day today. While walking to my hotel, I noticed a Capital Bikeshare rack about a block away at Dupont Circle. So rather than use the hotel’s fitness center, I decided to go for a ride.

I had heard a great deal about short term bicycle loan services like this one, so I wanted to try it out. The price was very low: $7 for a day pass, which includes as many 30-minute or less rides as I want.  They charge extra for longer loans, in order to keep the bikes in circulation. I swiped my credit card and it gave me a numeric code that allowed me to borrow one or two bikes from the rack.  It took me a few minutes to understand the procedure the first time, but future loans would be a snap.

The bike was, as expected, very heavy but durable.  As I discovered a few times, it’s easy to hit a pothole in DC if you’re not very careful.  It was a three speed, with good fenders and chain guard — just what you need if you’re going to bicycle in “civilian clothes”.  It was comfortable to ride, with an adjustable seat that is marked so you can quickly set your seat when you borrow another one.  I ride down Massachusetts Avenue to 15th, and down 15th to just north of the Treasury Building, where I saw another Capital Bikeshare rack.  So I turned in my bike and walked around for a little while.  While I was there, a big motorcade with a lot of security showed up, which appeared to be in connection with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit.

Returning to the rack, I checked out another bike (just a swipe of my credit card to get a numeric code this time) and off I went.  I continued down to the Mall, across to 17th, and returned via 17th and Connecticut Avenue.  A very pleasant experience.

So here are a few of my impressions:

Bikeshare Kiosk

Bikeshare Kiosk

The Good

  • Well engineered check-out process
  • Bicycles suitable to the task, well maintained, and in good condition from my small unscientific sample.
  • Locals clearly use this service regularly. The service is making a difference.
  • Little extras like a flashing light on the front.
  • Two-way bike lanes on streets in DC. Part of 15th Street had these; a pleasure to ride on.

The Not So Good

  • DC traffic!  This is probably better if you know the streets better (and which ones have bike lanes). Still, DC has its own challenges like big tour buses full of tourists.
  • Lack of helmets. I rode (carefully!) without a helmet; my hotel didn’t have any loaners. The map of the system shows where you can buy one, but a casual rider or a tourist isn’t going to invest $40 for a new helmet every time.  Many of the riders didn’t wear helmets.
  • Full racks. When I returned to Dupont Circle, there were no spots available in the bike rack there.  Fortunately there is enough turnover that I didn’t have to wait long to return my bike.  The kiosk has a function to allow you to get a 15-minute grace period in that event, so that you don’t get charged overtime just because the rack is full. I’m not sure how I’d do it differently, though.
  • Terms of Use. When you use the service for the first time, it attempts to show you the terms of use for the service and asks you to accept them.  On the tiny screen they have, it is 103 screenfuls!  Get real.

The Unexpected

  • When I got my numeric code, I went looking for a keypad and didn’t find one.  It turns out that the codes only use the digits 1, 2, and 3 (e.g., 21313) and they are entered in a row of 3 buttons on the rack. The codes are only valid for 5 minutes so 3**5 = 243 codes is enough.

Overall, this was a great experience.  Now that I have tried it, I would be much more likely to use the service when I get the opportunity in the future.Rental ticket


Leave a Comment
  1. casey / Mar 14 2012 4:04 pm

    Great review!

  2. John Gaffney / Mar 14 2012 5:29 pm

    Jim, I think 102 out of those 103 screens for “terms of use” are related to riding bikes without helmets 😉

  3. Sheryl W. / Mar 16 2012 2:27 pm

    Mike would be a fan no matter how many cons there were. As a matter of fact, he’d probably think he’d died and gone to heaven.

    • Jim Fenton / Mar 16 2012 2:37 pm

      I’m sure he would. I’m a fan despite the cons as well, if it isn’t clear from the article.

      (“Mike”, by the way, is my brother-in-law, if any readers are wondering.)

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