How DC Planners Used a Bikeshare Program to Reduce Traffic Congestion

In August 2015, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and data firm Inrix jointly released the Urban Mobility Scorecard, an assessment of cities in the US in terms of traffic congestion. With 82 hours of delay per commuter recorded on average during the prior full year, Washington, DC edged out Los Angeles (80 hours) and San Francisco (78 hours) as the nation’s most congested city.

Comparing the total number of minutes it usually takes a worker to get from home to work in the DC area to other US metropolitan areas with similar population sizes aptly illustrates the congestion problems faced by the nation’s capital.

Travel time to work: comparisons for DC, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Source:  mySidewalk .

Travel time to work: comparisons for DC, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Source: mySidewalk.

The chart above shows the distribution of travel times to work for five of the US’ six biggest metropolitan areas, based on responses to the 2011-2015 American Community Survey conducted by the US Census Bureau. For all journeys longer than 35 minutes, a higher proportion of DC's population is consistently represented than the populations of the other metropolitan areas. For example, nearly 7% of DC's residents have 45-59 minute commutes, whereas only 4.9%, 4.6%, 5.3% and 4.1% of the residents of Houston, Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles have 45-59 minute commutes. 

To get a closer look at the commute situation in DC, below is a map displaying travel times and commute types within a 10-mile radius of DC's city center. We can see that communities further from the city center have longer commute times, as these areas are more likely to commute by car (as confirmed in the "commute type" data found in the toolbar), and are thus more likely to be stuck in traffic.

Bikesharing: a proposed solution

In August 2008, the District of Columbia launched Smartbike DC, the first bikeshare system in North America, with 120 bikes made available at 10 stations in the DC jurisdiction. At the time, the manager of bicycle and pedestrian programs for DC’s Department of Transportation (DDOT), Jim Sebastian, stated that the new bikesharing program “will help us reduce congestion and pollution.” According to the DDOT’s then-director Gabe Klein, however, a “lackluster commitment” from the project’s private partner led to DC’s initial bikesharing venture eventually folding in 2010.

By September of that year, planners at the DDOT and neighboring Arlington County had jointly launched Capital Bikeshare, a public-private partnership that employed private operator Alta Bike Share. Capital Bikeshare began life with 400 bicycles and 49 stations, before rapidly growing to over 100 stations and 1,000 bicycles by the end of the year.

The first five years saw the program sign up 29,000 members who took more than 10.5 million trips; today, there are 3,700 bikes available at 440 stations across 5 jurisdictions. A further 30 stations are expected to be added before the end of September.

In the below map, we can see the current number of commuters in each neighborhood who use bicycles to get to work (as of December 2016)—the impressive numbers of which are largely due to the success of Capital Bikeshare.

Klein provided his thoughts on both the setbacks experienced during the development of SmartBike, as well as the success behind Capital Bikeshare: he mentions the importance of all partners—the two jurisdictions (DC and Arlington), the transportation demand management program (marketing), the bicycle manufacturer, and the operator—being “aligned in their incentives” from the beginning.

The bikes and docking stations were also initially funded by federal grants allocated to the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, which supports projects that seek to reduce congestion-related emissions.

Arguably, the most effective measure taken by Capital Bikeshare was to make data concerning trip histories available to the public. In addition to providing transparency, the move also allowed researchers to use the data to carry out their own studies.

How did planners reduce congestion with the Capital Bikeshare program?

Researchers Timothy L. Hamilton and Casey J. Wichman from environmental group Resources for the Future conducted a study to determine the causal effect of the presence of bikeshare stations on traffic congestion. They analyzed pairs of census block groups in metropolitan Washington that were similar to each other but differed in that one group had a bikeshare and the other did not.

Empirical results found that within a neighborhood, “the availability of a bike-share reduces traffic congestion upwards of 4%.”

A reduction of this magnitude has significant implications—according to the authors, it would “reduce annual congestion costs for Washington area automobile commuters by approximately $57 per commuter, and total costs by $182 million.” They also suggest that a 4% reduction in traffic congestion “would imply an annual benefit of roughly $1.28 million from reductions in congestion-induced CO2 emissions.”

Another study by researchers at University of California, Berkeley, involved members of Capital Bikeshare, as well as members of bikeshare programs in Montreal, Toronto and Minneapolis-Saint Paul. In all 4 cities, bikesharers experienced a reduction in vehicle ownership, with DC’s bikesharers recording a 2.1% reduction.

In all, 41% of the city’s respondents reported that they drive less often since becoming a bikesharer.  

Can other cities replicate Capital Bikeshare’s success?

In addition to the experiences recalled by Gabe Klein, planners in other cities can also refer to Capital Bikeshare’s August 2016 Bikeshare Development Plan, which intends to provide a thorough guide for bikesharing in DC until 2022.

According to the Plan, “continued growth and financial sustainability” of the program appears to be the most vital components of a successful bikesharing program. It is divided into four clearly defined sections to which city planners should pay particular attention:

  1. Strategic Framework
  2. Market Study
  3. Program Expansion Plan
  4. Financial Plan

Though a modest number of studies have been conducted on the subject, the data does seem to support the contention that Capital Bikeshare helps reduce traffic congestion. As the program continues to expand in the coming years, traffic congestion is likely to be significantly mitigated as increasingly more residents ditch their expensive-to-maintain vehicles in favor of bikes. 

Curious about where people are biking to work in your community?

Fill out the form below and we’ll provide you with an interactive map displaying where people commute by bike in your community (just like the map used in this article). If you’re interested, we’ll also compare your community’s average commute time (or travel time to work) with 2-3 other places—just let us know! 

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Shashank Pattekar is a freelance economics and finance writer with a BSc in economics from the London School of Economics, and an MSc in mathematical trading & finance from CASS Business School in London. His favorite pastimes include scuba diving and traveling whenever possible. He is also an avid wildlife photographer.