It's morning rush hour in the nation's capital, and bicyclists crowd their lane six deep at an intersection. Clad in spandex and business suits, a few ride the bright green, orange, red or yellow bikes that signal a new phase of city cycling.
These shared bikes are part of an experimental network of dockless cycles.
Officials hope the pilot program changes how people get around. The District of Columbia boasts some positive results in its mission to curb gridlock and reduce pollution — like the most rapid rise in bike commuters among major cycling cities.
At stake are the city's promises to tackle climate change and improve quality of life for its residents. Cities around the country are grappling with the same challenge as their populations rise: more cars.
Riders of these Skittle-colored new bikes unlock them using a phone app. They cost $1 an hour and can be left anywhere there's room to drop a kickstand. That means colorful two-wheelers can be seen on sidewalks, on grassy terraces and, sometimes, in trees.
“I just saw this in front of my dorm, and I grabbed it to run to the bank because it's a nice day and it's faster,” said James Newell, an 18-year-old Howard University student. He was on an orange Mobike.
The new technology, which originated in China, is not limited to Washington: Seattle and San Francisco began pilots this summer. Dallas is home to three dockless bike-share companies. Boston is negotiating with firms right now.
But the sheer number of options in D.C. has made it ground zero for shared bikes. The wave began in 2007 with Capital Bikeshare, a system of docked cycles. Then came the dockless evolution: LimeBike, Mobike, oFo and Spin are four new privately funded companies. JUMP Mobility's bikes, also new, have an electric motor, and they lock to pre-existing bike racks.
The five competing companies will duel for ridership over the next six months; they can deploy up to 400 bikes each, per their agreement with D.C. officials.
The city, facing a chicken-and-egg problem, is hoping to get more people on bikes. It is also planning to build 72 miles of protected bike lanes, more than double of what the city offers now.
“The truth is that biking in D.C. is kind of nerve-wracking,” said Alex Morgan, 29, a resident of D.C. and a gear-clad bike commuter who has not yet tried one of the new dockless bikes. “I think it's better if more people bike so we can get more and better bike lanes and sharrows.”
Actual carbon savings?
Each company tells a rider how much carbon emissions they saved in a single ride. It's not a coincidence.
Transportation is the second-largest source of carbon emissions in the D.C. area, behind buildings. The city aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2032 and 80 percent by 2050.
The gradual development of car alternatives has translated into a freeze on vehicle miles traveled and tailpipe emissions in the metro area over the past decade, according to data from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG).
That's despite a growing population: The city of Washington has added more than 100,000 people since 2000. Per capita, there's actually been a regional decrease in transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions.
But to meet the region's goals, the trend would have to accelerate significantly.
“We're doing things that are actually making progress,” said Steve Walz, the director of environmental programs for MWCOG. “It's a wide mixture of things, ranging from more transit oriented development being put in place, people just don't need to drive as much, fewer younger people owning vehicles, greater numbers of people walking and biking.”
“We just need to grow the scale,” he added.
In D.C., biking advocates and their government allies have made a concerted effort for at least a decade to get more people on two wheels, and it's starting to show.
About 4.6 percent of residents get around by bike, according to the American Community Survey, making it second place in major metropolitan areas behind Portland, Ore. The share of bike commuters in D.C. has doubled in the past five years — the fastest growth in the top seven cities for bikers, and the only positive growth in the group from 2015 to 2016.
Yet it would be difficult to estimate if the rise in biking, particularly bike-sharing, can further suppress the city's emissions, said Susan Shaheen, director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
“There's so many factors affecting travel behavior,” she said. “What's going to be super interesting is whether there are different and new users, different usage patterns emerging, and if that is because it is a more cost-effective strategy in light of the docking stations being a high capital expenditure.”
It's not just bikes. In the city, a third of residents don't own a car. Thirty-seven percent use public transit to commute.
But the primary method by which residents commute is still the car. That's still at 40 percent. Moreover, car and Metro commuters from outside the city nearly double the city's population every day.
Stewart Schwartz, executive director and a founder of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, calls the low share of D.C. residents who drive to work a “success story” but the regional dependence on cars “frustrating.”
“While individual pieces of transit-oriented development are doing better, there is not enough commitment still to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to where they need to go to save our many poor from flooding in the future,” said Schwartz.
D.C.'s obstacles are several-fold.
First, the funding shortage plaguing the Metro system and the lack of options in some low-income or far-flung neighborhoods make cheap, affordable access to low-carbon mobility more difficult. One requirement of the dockless bike-share pilot is to have them in all eight wards of the city, but the vast majority are concentrated in downtown.
Second, the bikes have kinks, and people take time to adapt.
Changing a culture
The dockless bike-shares litter the sidewalks and parks of the city, raising concerns they limit pedestrian mobility or just look ugly. They've appeared at the airport and the suburbs, outside the boundaries for the pilot. Some have ended up in strange places — like the roof of a car, up a tree, in a ditch or on balconies. That has spawned a fad among locals, who post pictures on Prince of Petworth, a local blog.
Some bikes have been vandalized or damaged through robbery attempts, bent frames, broken locks or torn baskets.
Similar concerns arose when Capital Bikeshare launched 10 years ago, said Kim Lucas, the program's coordinator. But its benefits are real. Capital Bikeshare users have logged 18 million rides on 4,000 bikes. The program is planning to expand with at least 99 new stations.
“We see the new dockless bike-shares as a complement to Capital Bikeshare, and we're excited about that possibility,” said Lucas. “The more options that we have available, the better cities will function as a transportation network.”
She said the city hopes people will use the bikes to link up with public transit, rather than jumping in a car. One of the new companies is even trying to lure motorists away from their cars by offering a different kind of motor: an electric one. JUMP is targeting users who like speed, or those who need to travel farther.
“The cool thing about bike-share in the past is that people who didn't consider themselves bikers could use it; now, even more so, this product is going to attract an even wider market, because now they have this electric assist,” said Colin Hughes, director of strategic development at JUMP Mobility. “There is a change happening, and it's small, but it's snowballing.”
The dockless bike-share companies are not yet releasing their usage data publicly.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.