Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

One bike shop owner has grumpy words about Capital Bikeshare riders, while some users run into full and empty stations. In fact, bike sharing gets more people biking in general, and its relatively few frustrations, while problems to solve, also encourage people to use personal bikes more.

A Washington Post article yesterday rounds up many praises and a few frustrations with Capital Bikeshare. Some people still find themselves “dockblocked,” where there’s no spot available at a station. A Portuguese tourist couldn’t find a dock at Dupont Circle, nor could a Justice Department employee when reporter Mohana Ravindranath was there.

This is indeed a problem which DC can’t hope to entirely solve, but when it happens, it does dissuade riders from using Capital Bikeshare even more. Capital Bikeshare has added more rebalancing capacity since the system launched, and should continue striving to keep up.

Capital Bikeshare can’t meet everyone’s commute needs, and shouldn’t

Other riders have stopped using Capital Bikeshare for commuting because there isn’t enough capacity at the peak. Ravindranath interviews Aaron Ordower, who gave up trying to CaBi from 16th and U to the World Bank because he couldn’t count on finding a bike. But in this case, while it would be nice for CaBi to be able to serve his needs, it’s less reasonable to expect that.

Officials point out that Capital Bikeshare isn’t really meant to be a commuting tool for large numbers of people. Jim Sebastian said, “This is why many members buy/use their own bike if they know they are going to work and back, or on a similar round trip.” Ordower decided to walk to work instead. And that’s fine.

One follow-up question for Ordower might be, why not bike using a private bicycle? Does he just not have one? Does the World Bank not provide good enough bike parking?

Capital Bikeshare leads to more private bicycling

I personally started biking a lot more often around DC once Capital Bikeshare launched, since it provided an easy way to take a spontaneous or one-way trip and not have to feel forced to then bike home. In later years, while I’ve kept my membership (it’s still cheap and useful on occasion), I hardly use it. Instead, I use my own bike.

I’m not the only one. Chris Eatough, Arlington’s bicycle program manager, says that according to a survey of Capital Bikeshare users last year, “82% of respondents reported increased use [of their personal bikes] since joining Capital Bikeshare, and 70% said that Capital Bikeshare was an important reason.”

Bikeshare serves as an introduction to bicycling for many people. That’s why it’s a shame that Simon Pak, who manages The Bike Rack at 14th and Q, had more critical words for bikeshare riders. “Since Capital Bikeshare started, any incident [I’ve witnessed] in bike-to-bike collisions have been with Capital Bikeshare riders. They’re the most inexperienced riders emulating more experienced riders,” he told Ravindrath.

Though Pak also says 1 in 10 of his customers are looking to move from Capital Bikeshare’s heavy bikes to a lighter and faster personal bike. It sounds like bikeshare is a great source of potential business for bike shops.

Bikeshare’s strengths complement transit

Still, bike sharing is not the same as bicycling. This is why a lot of people get confused about bikeshare if they aren’t familiar with it. Some New Yorkers expressed shock that a 4-hour ride would rack up $77 in late fees on their Citibike system. As those of us who’ve used bikeshare know, people don’t ride a bikeshare bike for 4 hours, or if they do, they just return it every half hour and reset the clock.

Bike sharing is, in many ways, more like transit: it transports you from fixed stations to other fixed stations. However, it’s also different from transit. Transit has more capacity at peak times when there are more vehicles. It costs money to run a vehicle, so you run it when there’s demand. Therefore, bus lines in particular are far more useful at times when there are a lot of buses. At some times of day, they don’t run at all.

Bike sharing is the opposite. It has a fixed capacity that fills up quickly, but is always available. Bike sharing is most useful off-peak, when the stations aren’t filling up or emptying out so fast. It’s always available at night.

For this reason, we can think of it actually as a complement to short-distance buses. Someone who lives on a bus line might find that the bus is a better choice during rush, but bikeshare is better middays. Bikeshare also offers more flexibility, since you can ride to any other station, but isn’t as good to travel long distances, because it takes physical effort.

New York’s Citibike will launch next weekend, and many observers predict the silly arguments against it will mainly evaporate, as they did here in DC when Capital Bikeshare launched. Even so, some people will always be adjusting to what kinds of travel bikeshare works well for, and where it’s less ideal. That’s the case for every mode of travel.

Thanks to Capital Bikeshare, we have another mode, one that neatly fills in some needs that transit and walking don’t perfectly serve. It happens to be a mode that’s been especially cheap to deploy. Personal bikes, Zipcar, car2go, street hailed taxis, Uber, buses, trains, and walking all meet some people’s needs and not others, and that’s natural.

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.