Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

CaBi is emptier on weekends compared to weekdays. Update: or maybe not. Would a weekend-only membership, which charges a small fee for taking weekday trips, bring in more ridership when the system isn’t in heavy use?

Darren Buck, who worked on a Capital Bikeshare survey and report as a graduate student, writes:

One suggestion was to offer a membership that restricted ridership to off-peak times, such as weekends. Our surveys were collected on weekends, and 34% of respondents were “local.” We felt that a membership fob option that allowed unlimited weekend rides (with perhaps a fixed checkout fee around $1 to use the fob for weekday trips) could provide another option for local users to maximize non-peak ridership.

To be sure, there would be a tradeoff in lost revenue from the lucrative 1-day passes for the additional ridership encouraged by all-you-can-ride weekend memberships. With approximately 100,000, 24-hour memberships sold in the past year at $7 each, over $230K in annual revenue would be put in doubt by the offering of a weekend-only membership. This is assuming approximately 1/3rd of all 24-hour members are local. Moreover, it doesn’t even consider the higher-than-average trip lengths, resulting in usage fees, taken by 24-hour members (looks like CaBi can afford it, though).

But there would also be customer service benefits from diverting many casual users from having to interact with the kiosk. One observation by survey collectors from the intercept survey, which is at odds with these survey responses, was their experience with the kiosks. While people reported an OK experience figuring out the kiosk (77% “easy” or “somewhat easy”), we observed a fair bit of confusion, slow processing, some queuing, and a lot of time consumed with having to navigate the screen processes.

Of course, total ridership does dip on the weekends. Incentivizing locals to maximize weekend use of the bikes could grow ridership in a way that does not stress the system at peak times. Additionally, a fee-for-peak ride, at worst, yields some additional revenue for taking rides at the most disruptive times. If service outages (full/empty docks) continue in peak commuting hours, perhaps a variant of this pricing model should be considered for all memberships going forward?

I can see some pros and cons to this approach. This could push more riders toward buying plans that best fit their preferences and possibly drive more weekend use. Or, would it end up discouraging weekday use?

There’s a lot of power in simply making something free. It psychologically pushes people to consume more of it while even a small charge has the opposite effect. This is why Metro should encourage more unlimited passes since it has plenty of unused off-peak capacity, as well as why parking in high-demand areas should not be free since overuse leads to more circling and traffic.

Anyone who buys an unlimited Capital Bikeshare membership suddenly has an amazing power: they can grab a bicycle in scores of locations with no guilt at all. That’s a powerful incentive to bike more, become more confident riding in the city, and ultimately start riding a personal bike instead for many trips.

Capital Bikeshare’s goal is not merely to match up supply and demand. It also achieves far broader goals of helping people become comfortable bicycling. Would this system boost that effect or hinder it?

Any system of off-peak rides won’t precisely fit with the excess capacity. Some areas don’t experience much dockblocking. In the middle of the day, even on weekdays, the system isn’t that busy. This pricing system could discourage rides in those areas where we’d most want to foster new riders and more usage.

On the other hand, there are segments of the public who might not be customers under the current pricing systems. I actually might not renew my Capital Bikeshare annual membership the next time it comes up for renewal. I’ve only used it on 2 separate days in the last 8 months. That’s not because it was not useful, but because I became accustomed enough to riding my own bike that I almost always use it instead. I don’t have to walk a few blocks on each end when I use my own bike. (A station near Archives would cut down on that extra walk quite a lot!)

I could pay $7 for a day pass in the occasional situation I need a one-way trip, but that’s a lot for a short trip, and it’s time-consuming to use the kiosks. Also, now that it’s in Alexandria, where I periodically go, it might become extra useful for trips between Metro and North Old Town. Buck’s plan might better meet my needs. Or maybe without it I’ll just pay the $75, though I’m more willing to spend money on bicycle programs than the average person.

What do you think? Is this a good idea or a bad one?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.