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See-Rent-Ride: Bikeshare changes the way people see the city

Not long ago, a man in his sixties was visiting Washington, DC, for business. One afternoon with a little free time to kill, he came across a Capitol Bikeshare (CaBi) station. Minutes later, after his first exposure to CaBi, he was off exploring the city by bike. It had been 35 years since he had last ridden a bicycle.


Spontaneous rides like this one provide visitors and casual bicyclists a new way to see the nation’s capital, bring in revenue for the bikeshare system, and introduce new people to urban bicycling. To learn more about these users, whose data are not automatically captured in as much depth as the system’s annual users, CaBi and the transportation departments of Arlington, VA and Washington, DC asked a team of graduate students from Virginia Tech (VT) and Assistant Professor Ralph Buehler to conduct a survey and do research on the habits, characteristics, and opinions of casual bikeshare users.


A DC resident uses a 24-hour Capital Bikeshare pass rides the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes towards the U.S. Capitol Building. (Photo: Darren Flusche)

“Bikesharing is like a big advertisement for bicycling,” says Darren Buck, one of the VT students. “Folks walking by who don’t consider bikes in their daily routines are given an opportunity to ask, ‘Well, why not go for a bike ride?’” The survey found that the overwhelming number of people who decided without any pre-planning to go for a bike ride, a phenomena Buck calls “See-Rent-Ride.” Most respondents learned about CaBi by seeing the stations or bikes in use.

The final report, “Capital Bikeshare Study: A Closer Look at Casual Users and Operations,” included an analysis of other bikeshare systems in the country. “The comparison of CaBi with other systems showed that CaBi is at the cutting edge in many areas,” said Ralph Buehler, Assistant Professor in Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech, despite it being a relatively new system compared to some of the others examined.


Virginia Tech students survey CaBi users about the system. (Photo: Ralph Buehler)

The report also included several suggestions to improve the system, including improving technological approaches to redistributing bicycles, expanding repair facilities as the system grows, and providing maps and increasing the visibility of stations. The students recommended concentrating marketing around “under-served and counter peak” stations. They concluded that the system could grow ridership by concentrating and promoting in times and places where people are not riding now. Currently the heaviest use takes places during rush hour, attracting more weekend tourists gets more rides out of the system without taxing capacity.


The CaBi fleet on its first day. (Photo: Darren Flusche)

CaBi is currently covering all of its operating expenses through annual memberships and short-term passes. Other U.S. systems are also paying for themselves or are well on their way. This is, in part, due to the popularity of bikesharing among tourists and casual users. These users provide the system more income, per rider, than annual members. Therefore, understanding how and why these users use the system will help grow bicycle ridership overall and keep the system self-sufficient. Bikesharing is one of the most sustainable transportation investments out there. That makes it a very good use of tax-payer capital funds. (The initial capital funds for CaBi came from Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Improvement funds. Visit for more information on this and other federal funding sources.)


This report demonstrates that bikeshare programs invite more new riders on city streets, raising the age-old chicken and egg problem: which needs to come first, on-street bicycling infrastructure or bikeshare programs? A large share of short term users – 43 percent – reported being unsatisfied with the current bike network in Washington, D.C. As more and more cities launch bikeshare programs, it is important that they also keep up with infrastructure and education. The best-case scenario is that bikeshare programs demonstrate the joys of bicycling to more people and create more political supports for bicycling investments.

For more on the Virginia Tech Studio Class on Bikesharing, visit their blog.

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