Capital Bikeshare is the Netflix of Transportation

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[By Paul Goddin for Washington Post and Mobility Lab, published on April 16, 2014]

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When my Capital Bikeshare membership came up for renewal a month ago, it was a foregone conclusion that I would fork over my credit card for another year of what has become, for me, an indispensable service.

First, a disclaimer: I don’t wear spandex bike shorts, or carry around a bike helmet in my briefcase. I’m not a health nut, and I eat too much processed food. Still, I’ve become not only fond of those somewhat clunky candy apple-red bikes, but reliant upon them as well.

I wasn’t always on Team CaBi, however. A little over a year ago, I was hesitant to adopt what was becoming an increasingly popular service. I had access to a bicycle already, so it seemed unclear how bicycle renting would make my life any easier. Plus, call me a snob, but I’m generally not keen on following the lead of hipsters and Millennials (I don’t have a beard, and I don’t see the point of Vine).

Not to mention, to say I live paycheck to paycheck would be an exaggeration of my financial fitness (if you know how to get rich from blogging, give me a call). So while CaBi was interesting in a retro kind of way, it seemed prohibitively expensive with its $75 annual fee and seemingly complicated system of surcharges.

Cut to a year later, and I now recognize that the beauty of Capital Bikeshare lies not in how different or new the concept is but rather in how incredibly useful and easy it is to use. It seems likely that Steve Jobs, arguably the king of innovators, would have approved of Capital Bikeshare’s ability to become a break-out hit that consumers didn’t even know they wanted it in the first place.

The key, it seems to me, seems to be in the Tribbles-like way Capital Bikeshare stations have proliferated around the Washington D.C. region. That and the service’s 24-hours-per-day availability give CaBi an advantage (for short trips at least) over bus and rail. Likewise, CaBi’s flexibility in allowing for one-way trips (a must during inclement weather) gives it an advantage over bike ownership.

And what of that “prohibitive” cost and the complicated fee structure? Those worries seem adorable in hindsight. Capital Bikeshare, at $75 per year, costs 20 cents per day for a membership. My actual usage? A similarly affordable 19 cents per trip. And surprisingly, not one of my 385 trips ran over 30 minutes long (my average trip length was around 6 minutes). That is, I paid $0 in trip surcharges.

Chris Eatough, program manager of BikeArlington, told me that my experience matches that of most users, since “well over 90 percent of all trips taken are under 30 minutes” and therefore result in no additional fees.

The result is that, other than walking, I know of no other transportation option as affordable. That’s why I put CaBi on my short list of services (along with my Netflix Instant subscription) that you can take away from me only after I’m dead.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen

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