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When the District of Columbia and Arlington County partnered to establish a bike sharing system in 2010, offering more than 1,500 bikes at 165 stations, local bike shops got a little nervous. Why would someone buy a new bike for hundreds of dollars when they could hop on a bike any time they wished for just $50 per year?
It turns out their fears were for naught. Bike store owners say bike sharing is actually helping their businesses by fueling an explosion in bicycling enthusiasm. Moreover, bike shops say they are witnessing a culture change in their neighborhoods as more people leave their cars at home and hop on two-wheelers.
"We've seen all kinds of people out on the streets," says Erik Kugler, the owner of Bicycle Space, a new shop on 7th Street NW. "Streets are becoming safer. Drivers are becoming more courteous. The city is becoming a much more fun place."
Kugler says customers are buying bikes because of Capital Bikeshare.
"We've had plenty of those people," he says. "In fact, when you contacted me about the story I put it out on Facebook and Twitter, and we were just inundated with responses from people who said, 'I was a Bikeshare member, and it encouraged me to get a bike.'"
Kugler's and other bicycle users' Twitter posts about this story produced a flood of responses in just a few minutes. Jon Renaut tweeted that he hadn't ridden a bike more than a half dozen times since high school, tried Capital Bikeshare, and then bought his own bike. He says he's ridden about 1,500 miles already, just this year.
Laurance Alvarado tweeted, "bought a #Brompton after a great experience with @Bikeshare." Daniel Colbert tweeted, "I did exactly that. Loved Bikeshare. Bought a bike as a direct result."
Bikeshare proved to be a gateway drug that fueled an addiction. After bike sharing first, Kristin Frontiera, 25, bought her own bike online for $40.
"Bikeshare has gotten really, really popular," says Frontiera, a recently returned Peace Corps volunteer. "I'm so happy for it, but if I need to leave my house at 8:30 in the morning with the rest of America and go to downtown with the rest of America, there's no way. There aren't bikes."
Bike share program leads to more bike owners
Indeed, Bikeshare's shortcomings have led its users to buy bikes of their own. The cycles are a bit heavy and slow. On busy days there may be no bikes available at a nearby dock, or no open slots to return a bike, forcing a user to find another dock.
"When I started riding Bikeshare, there was a phase when I'd see another person and we'd say hey, Bikeshare! This is awesome!" says Frontiera. "Now I see them and I feel like I need to pedal faster to get to the dock before them."
Kugler is seeing more customers, and more significant changes, in his neighborhood that he credits to the rising popularity of bicycling.
"AAA estimates that people spend on the average [$9,000 per year] related to their car," he says. "So if you can build an area where people don't need to spend that money every year, that money becomes available for the local economy. You see new restaurants open up, cafes, niche shops, and small businesses like ours. We employ 18 people here."
The story is the same at City Bikes in Adams Morgan, which has been in business for 25 years.
"You are getting more and more people that loved using Bikeshare and now are saying wait, I want something that's my own," says marketing manager Ben West. "[They] want something that is custom designed for the kind of riding [they are] doing."
West says bicycling is achieving "critical mass" in Washington. There are enough bicyclists on the streets that motorists have to be courteous and accommodate them, even where there are no bike lanes.
"In some areas of the city, there is almost a traffic jam of cyclists," says West.
Bicycle community grows in D.C.
Any worries that Capital Bikeshare would ruin business for neighborhood bike shops are long gone. There were similar concerns in Paris when the Vélib rental system started. However, a 2008 report in Bike Europe, a website for bike professionals, cited a 39 percent growth in sales of city bikes possibly attributed to the huge popularity of the Vélib system.
The Washington Area Bicyclist Association endorses Bikeshare's program for that reason.
"We often hear that once Capital Bikeshare members find the joys of bicycling in the D.C., they go on to purchase a personal bike," says Gregory Billing, the association's outreach and advocacy coordinator. "Local bike shops have seen both an increase in sales of bikes and also repairs of old bikes. Owners and managers report seeing an increase of old bikes being pulled out of the basements or garages, brought to the shop for a tune-up and to be outfitted with a cargo rack for commuting."
Russell Martin, 25, enjoyed bike sharing so much that he bought three bikes of his own at local bike shops. "I ended up selling my car and buying a couple more bicycles, and I haven't looked back," says Martin, a sales manager at a boutique hotel who commutes on a bicycle daily.
He fell in love with bicycling again, but the limitations of Bikeshare also persuaded him to get his own cycle.
"I actually had a problem last night where every station within a mile of where I want to go was full, and there was nowhere to dock the bike," he says.
Annah Walters, 25, says she wanted her own bicycle only after trying Bikeshare first.
"One of the great things about Bikeshare is it's sort of a gateway drug to biking. You don't have to make a several hundred dollar investment," says Walters, who works at Habitat for Humanity. But Walters didn't have to make the big purchase when it came time to get her own two-wheeler. Her boyfriend bought her one for her birthday.