Capital Gains

A recent visit to Washington, D.C. got me thinking about bicycles and government, in that order.

I arrived Sunday morning by bus from Richmond, Virginia, and departed by train that evening, leaving me some time to explore a city I had not visited since the Carter administration. Much had changed. I had never seen the Vietnam Memorial, for instance, and I had never navigated the city without a car. Both buses and trains use Union Station, close to the Capitol and the major tourist attractions. But the first thing I saw when I walked outside was a wall of bicycles.

The day was warm but surprisingly not humid. Many people were out walking, running, or bicycling. Some of the bicycles appeared to be privately owned, but many more belonged to a program called Capital Bikeshare, which makes bicycles available, for short periods of time, to the general public. The system is modeled on one pioneered in Montreal, and was the first of its kind in a major U.S. city, opening in 2010. Since then, similar services have debuted in New York, Boston, and Chicago.

According to the website, Capital Bikeshare provides 3,500 three-gear bicycles at some 350 stations throughout Washington and nearby communities in Maryland and Virginia. It’s a membership-based system you can join for a day, three days, a month, or a year, appealing to tourists, short-term visitors, and regular commuters. Your key enables you to pick up a bike at any “dock” and return it to any other. All rides under 30 minutes are free; trip fees apply thereafter.

The system is not without its flaws, or its detractors, as a brief Internet search reveals. Some destinations are more popular than others, resulting in full docks when one wants to drop off a bike. Sometimes bicycles need to be redistributed by truck. And the whole operation is supported by tax-funded entities, from municipal governments to the Federal Highway Administration and the Virginia Department of Rail and Transportation.

I didn’t use it. Instead, I walked, slowly, past the Capitol and the Garfield Memorial and the Air and Space Museum, down to other end of the Mall and the memorials to Martin Luther King, Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and the tragedy of Vietnam. Afterwards I wandered past the statue of Albert Einstein and up one of the numbered streets until I found a bar showing multiple baseball games on a single screen. Tired of walking, I located a local bus, which cost a dollar, and rode back to Union Station.

Admittedly, I was only there for a day, a Sunday at that, and these observations should not be mistaken for comprehensive analysis. All I know is that I saw a lot of people happily using the bikes.

Critics contend that that the bicycle-sharing system is costly, and that it is used by a small and affluent slice of the population and not the low-income residents it was designed to help. As I have noted repeatedly, such criticism ignores the public costs of the pervasive car culture. Not only is driving heavily subsidized, until recently it has been encouraged by public policy to the virtual exclusion of every other form of transportation. We don’t expect our roads and parking lots to turn a profit. Nor should we expect it from bicycles and trains.

And it is a legitimate function of government to encourage desirable outcomes. The streets of any city are friendlier when they support more bicycles and fewer cars. The carbon footprint is smaller, the environmental impact less, the air cleaner and easier to breathe, the population healthier. It’s appropriate for our nation’s capital to pave the way for similar efforts in other American communities.

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I need to correct an error in last week’s post about bicycling to and from work between Bangor and Orono. I wrote that “paved bike lanes provide a buffer from automobile traffic” along much of the route.

Michele Yade Benoit pointed out that what I referred to as bike lanes are actually paved shoulders, not designated rights-of-way for cyclists. There are no official bicycle lanes in the Bangor area. She is correct. Thanks for reading, Michele, and for being vigilant.

Bangor may never grow large enough to justify an organized bicycle-sharing system like those in Washington or Boston. But a little paint, a little pavement, and a little signage could go a long way, at little cost, toward nudging more commuters toward more responsible transportation alternatives.






Hank Garfield

About Hank Garfield

Hank's writing has appeared in San Diego Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Downeast, Bangor Metro, and elsewhere. He is the author of five published novels, and is now seeking a publisher for his recently-completed novel, A Sprauling Family Saga.