College Park just debuted its own bike share system, called mBike instead of Capital Bikeshare (CaBi). Some say not going with CaBi was a mistake, but it looks like College Park made a rational decision.
The mBike system has 14 stations and 125 bikes, including a few two-seater tricycles. The docking stations require a smartphone app to unlock a bike, and the bikes come with their own locks so you can stop and lock up somewhere other than a dock.
Separate systems can make it harder to travel between neighboring places
mBike’s provider company is called Zagster, which is different from Motivate, the company that runs CaBi. Some have said that this will be a problem because the mBike network is simply much smaller than the CaBi one, which has over 300 stations.
Another concern is that separate systems in places so close to one another will make each system less useful to potential riders. If someone routinely goes from one town to another and would consider using bikeshare to do it, they don’t have that opportunity.
To illustrate this point, imagine if Fairfax or Arlington decided to introduce its own fare card for its bus systems and stopped accepting Metro SmarTrip cards. Many people who primarily use Metrobus or rail would likely hold on to their cards, and the hassle of getting a new card for a specific location might discourage them from using the bus to go there, or from going there in the first place.
Separate systems can lead to artificial barriers between neighboring places. For example, in New Jersey, the cities of Jersey City and Hoboken are currently in a bitter conflict stemming from a decision to not go in together on a bike share system. Jersey City decided to join Citibike, which is the system that New York City uses, while Hoboken went with Hudson Bike Share.
It’s gotten ugly, as both cities have taken steps to try and prevent users of one system from riding in the “territory” of the other— there are even laws that say Hudson Bike Share bikes can’t be parked near PATH Railway stations in Jersey City.
Locally, Car2Go seems to have recently recognized the pitfalls of walling systems off from one another. It used to be that users couldn’t drive the vehicles from Arlington into DC and vice-versa because of various parking rules and the fact that each government had to negotiate separately with the company. Car2Go lifted that rule last week.
College Park had logical reasons to go with its own system
There are, however, reasons to think mBike was the right move. For starters, the system’s biggest purpose is to serve people needing to get around the University of Maryland — there likely wouldn’t have been a lot of people riding bikeshare between College Park and stations inside DC or other areas.
It’s also possible that College Park really didn’t even have a choice. When the city began planning for a bikeshare system in 2013, it set out to use Alta (now Motivate), the company that runs Capital Bikeshare. But when one of Alta’s main bike suppliers went into bankruptcy, production halted on all of the company’s systems, including CaBi. That left College Park in a lurch.
After Alta reorganized and emerged from the supplier squeeze as Motivate, the price for new bikes and docking stations jumped. College Park put its plans to use CaBi on hold, and eventually canceled them. Instead, the city asked other bikeshare companies to enter bids, which eventually led to Zagster.
In the end, Zagster’s bid turned out to be cheaper on a bike by bike basis, which allowed College Park to purchase more bikes and docking stations than it had been planning to do with CaBi. Even though mBike is a small system, there are more bikes available in the immediate College Park area than there would have been with CaBi.
Switching between mbike and CaBi could one day be pretty easy
For now, mBike has the summer to get itself established before the next school year. If the system is successful, College Park may choose to expand it around town on the Maryland campus.
Meanwhile, the rest of Prince George’s County and its cities are still studying their own bikeshare options. The results of that study may still lead to the county going with CaBi in places like National Harbor or other communities along the Green Line. In places like Hyattsville, which is in between College Park and areas in DC that have CaBi, the dynamics will be a bit more complicated.
Hopefully, the outcome will be that the two systems can co-exist. Options for that might include passes that are interchangeable, docks right next to one another, or something else.
In the interim, both College Park and the governments that work with CaBi should work together to make things easier for members so no one feels like they have to choose one membership over the other. Reciprocity could be granted for members or a discount on certain types of membership. This has also been an idea floated for current CaBi members who may travel to other cities with bikeshare systems operated by Motivate.
And even CaBi members and fans may want to pay close attention to Zagster. The bikes themselves are a little different and maybe future CaBi models could incorporate some design features like a bigger basket. Accessibilty advocates and people interested in different models of cycling may also want to pay attention to how the tricycles are used. If those models prove popular it may behoove CaBi to improve its own accessibility and even possibly introduce its own different types of bikes.
Right now only time will tell if College Park ultimately made the right decision. But what we do know suggests that the city wasn’t totally crazy to not wait around for CaBi.