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Quantifying Capital Bikeshare's Supposed "Success"

Last week, D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare program celebrated its millionth trip and one-year anniversary. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood celebrated the milestone with a blog post, calling the government-subsidized bicycle system "remarkable." Capital Bikeshare is supposedly revolutionizing transportation in the District, reducing nasty polluting and obesity-causing auto use. I will now explain why this is not the case with some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic, and why Capital Bikeshare should be panned rather than praised.

Let's look at some data. From January 2011 to July 2011 (the most recent complete data available), Capital Bikeshare averaged 3.35 trips per in-service bike per day in Washington, D.C. (This is overestimated given that DDOT/Capital Bikeshare do not break down their active fleet by municipality as they do for ridership, but I'm feeling charitable today.) According to the most recent National Household Travel Survey (2009), Washington, D.C., averages 1.92 million person trips per day. This can be broken down into modes: 44.3 percent of trips were made by personal automobile, 18.4 percent by transit (rail and bus), 1.9 percent by taxi, 1.6 percent by bike, and 27.9 percent by walking. This means that a few years ago, Washingtonians made 11.5 million trips annually by bicycle.

Let me again be charitable and assume that not only did Capital Bikeshare add 1 million trips (bringing annual bicycle trips to 12.5 million), D.C. cyclists using their own vehicles (myself included) added another 1.3 million additional bicycle trips -- bringing annual cycling trips to 13.8 million -- while holding total trips constant. We've now increased cycling's share of person trips by 20 percent from the 2009 NHTS. Even given these very optimistic assumptions, cycling would only represent a little over 1.9 percent of all trips taken in Washington, D.C. (Capital Bikeshare's mode-share in this scenario: 0.14 percent of all trips.) It would take a pretty twisted view of reality to herald this figure as somehow revolutionizing urban mobility.

But where did these bike trips come from? Presumably, not every new trip was added by a resident that was previously stationary. No good survey data exist on mode-switching, but a paper presented at the previous annual Transportation Research Board meeting can help shed some light on how these people may have previously got around the city. The authors studied Montreal's BIXI bicycle-share program, widely touted as a success by cycling advocates. According to their research, of BIXI's approximately 17,000 daily trips, about 340 replaced personal auto trips and around 1,360 replaced taxi trips. The rest came from people who would have either walked, used existing bus and rail transit, or used their own bikes.

So if 90 percent of the 1 million trips made by Capital Bikeshare came from previous users of "green" transportation modes, why should we be so excited that the District Department of Transportation spent millions of dollars subsidizing bicycle use for mostly white-collar downtown office workers? Much of the initial Capital Bikeshare funding came from the Federal Highway Administration's Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ) grants. If the money was to be spent on "[auto] congestion mitigation" and "air quality improvement," and assuming the BIXI mode-switching figures broadly hold in D.C., this was a clear misuse of federal funds. (Here's FHWA's CMAQ fact sheet.)

The Capital Bikeshare bikes cost around $1,000 a piece and have a life cycle of six years. Annual operating costs are somewhere closer to $2,000 per bike. In the past two years, I have spent approximately $500 on my personal bike that I commute to work on daily -- $250 a year. And I average more trips per day and distance per trip than Capital Bikeshare. The program's costs given the benefits are simply absurd.

If the District's transportation elite must maintain their warped set of priorities and subsidize cycling to induce ridership, why not instead offer vouchers to partially cover the initial purchase and annual maintenance of a bike? It would certainly be cheaper, although that would take the look-at-the-shiny-objects-we-wasted-tax-dollars-on fun out of the whole thing.