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D.C. Colleges Embrace Bike-Sharing
A cluster of snowed-in bikes at American University. Photo by Amberley Johanna

A cluster of snowed-in bikes at American University. Photo by Amberley Johanna

Last year, we reported on breakthroughs in D.C.’s bicycling culture, such as the opening of Bikestation D.C. and proposals for bike lanes on M Street. Recently, the bikesharing buzz has been increasingly bolstered by the city’s student population.

American University’s Student Government recently enacted the first phase of a free bike-lending program on campus. Though it currently offers only six bicycles, the program builds on a larger student movement to end the University’s carbon emissions by 2020 and contributes to the University’s participation in the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. The program’s director Carol Foster said the fleet, made up of automatic gear bikes, will add two manual gear bikes this spring for greater options.

According to Foster, bike-sharing is conducive to the needs of college students and appeals to a wide range of individuals regardless of biking experience:

This program initially appealed to those accustomed to frequent urban biking, but the interest base has broadened.  We have students who ride the bikes to work, to the grocery store and for leisure.  Students are finding that riding a bike gives them more freedom to travel about the capital and by doing so they are also helping the environment.

The George Washington University also expanded its bike-sharing offerings in the past couple years with two options: a Smartbike station at the Foggy Bottom-GWU metro station and a university-owned rental station on their Mount Vernon campus. The launching of these programs coincided with the late-2008 opening of GWU’s Office of Sustainability, a department coordinating the University’s environmental initiatives.

Georgetown University and Howard University students also have easy access to Smartbike stations at Dupont Circle and the Shaw-Howard metro station respectively (see map of Smartbike locations here).

Nearby University of Maryland-College Park has WeBike, a bike-sharing program that started as a student project in 2007 and won the Best Sustainable Project award at the University’s 2009 Maryland Day. Students can currently access the bikes by paying a semester-long subscription fee. Another plus: the stations are solar-powered.

The rapid emergence of these programs in the past couple years can be seen as proof that bike renting is finding popularity, not only for its trendy “green” or recreational appeal but also for its sheer usefulness. The concept has flourished on college campuses because it coincides with the transportation needs of students (low-cost and accessible,)  just as Smartbike DC has found footing with D.C. commuters seeking alternatives to heavy traffic and high gas prices.

But is this usefulness a product of the economic recession and will it only last as long? It’s difficult to say whether the mainstream public will adopt bike renting as a permanent viable alternative to driving. It is evident, however, that the concept has found its niche among urban residents who need quick and easy transportation around the city.

Another issue is whether the bikes are available to people who need it most. As blogger David Alpert pointed out earlier this year, bike stations need to be available in a wide range of areas in order for the concept to be effective. A Smartbike station at Dupont Circle is helpful but not too accessible to Georgetown students who need to take a 15-minute shuttle to reach that location. It’s also worth noting that 5 to 10 bikes per station may not be suitable for an entire campus or neighborhood. Alpert suggests putting stations in areas that have fewer Metro stops. Also, he recommends setting up stations and special rental plans in locations heavily frequented by tourists.

Finally, lack of funding is often a deal-breaker. Recovery money in 2009 certainly paved the way for a lot of sustainable projects such as bike lanes and bike rental programs (See related article on TheCityFix here). But as TheCityFix Blogger David Daddio wrote recently, packages such as the Department of Transportation’s TIGER (Transportation Investment Generation Economic Recovery) will  not cover all the funding for local projects such as the K Street Transitway or the proposed 160 station D.C. bike-sharing program.  Millions of dollars in TIGER funds have been requested for the bike-sharing projects noted above, including for the University of Maryland’s proposed expansion. However, of the total $57 billion in TIGER funds requested, $32 billion were requested for highway infrastructure, $11 billion for transit systems, and $5.6 billion for infrastructure grants. Thus, competition for these funds is fierce and priorities often gravitate towards infrastructure maintenance.

Bike-sharing is growing in small steps. As AU’s Foster explained, expanding the program is costly even with high demand. However, the concept is a strong one. D.C. is of course not the only city in the U.S. or around the world with a bike-sharing system. But the District is catching up and reflecting the importance of this system’s many environmental, health, and economic benefits. And good ideas do spread: AU is currently helping Tulane University develop its own bike-sharing model.

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