The Triumph of Capital Bikeshare

On the last day of my trip to Washington DC, I had a big agenda.

Never mind the record-breaking temperature. It may have been the most stupid day ever to ride all over The District of Columbia, but it was the final day of my three-day membership with Capital Bikeshare, and I intended to get the most out of it.

Capital Bikeschadenfreude

A little background:

I lived in DC from 1997 until 2007.

I once went to a party in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington DC. The man throwing the party was the son of a prominent political strategist who has served four American presidents. If you have watched a Sunday talk show more than twice in the last 20 years, you’ve seen his dad.

At this party, sonny was shirtless and hitting on my girlfriend right in front of me. She flirted back, probably just to piss me off. I stood there, stunned at the audacity, the entitlement, the prickitude of this punk with the politically prominent papa — and I was torn between the impulse to punch him on principle and the impulse to say, “You can have her, schmuck.”

My cohort in age and profession cultivated an air of jaded self-superiority, dissatisfaction, and sarcasm. They found joy in bitching about things. At first I thought I’d found my people. But ultimately I became jaded and disaffected by this attitude. I felt it was beneath me. I found myself annoyed and complaining about it.

And, no, that girlfriend is not the woman who became my wife.

A few years ago I saw the shirtless schmuck again. It was at Lamont Park in Mount Pleasant — but he was fully clothed, pushing a baby stroller, and looking rather less full of himself than the last time I’d seen him.

I thought, Ha! Ha! How’s that alpha-male thing working for you now?

This is where I saw him:

Capital Bike Share: Lamont & Mt. Pleasant NW

Now Lamont Park is the home of a Capital Bikeshare station. This is where I began and ended many of my Bikeshare trips during the past week, and I’m happy now to have a more positive association with Lamont Park (but the schadenfreude lingers).

Friday Coffee Club

At 7:47 AM on Friday morning, it was already feeling warm when I set off on a Bikeshare bike from Lamont Park heading in the direction of the White House to M.E. Swing Co. (a.k.a. Swing’s Coffee) to meet with a Who’s Who of DC bike commuters. Once I found Swing’s, I used the Bikeshare app called Spotcycle to find the nearest station, only about a block away.

Swing's Coffees
I'm pretty sure I'm at the right place...

I was a bit perplexed by the assortment of bikes in front of Swing’s — especially this Bike Friday with all of the Ortlieb bags, which looked less like a commuter bike and more like it should be on a tour across Europe. But I can’t argue with this commuter’s taste in bags. (I, too, use a pair of Back Roller Classics — as marital aids.)

Bike Friday Tikit with Ortlieb Bags
Your Eurail pass is no good here.

Apparently this group meets every Friday, not always at this location. They coordinate using the Twitter hash tag: #fridaycoffeeclub

Mary Gersema
Mary Gersema / @GypsyBug

The group was started by Mary Gersema and Ed Felker.

Mary writes about bike commuting and other topics at chasing mailboxes d.c., and I am definitely going to steal ideas from her blog.

Ed blogs about Randonneuring and Touring in the Washington D.C. Region at The Daily Randonneur.

I grabbed my coffee and cozied up to Mary and Ed’s table — it was one of those stand-up don’t-get-too-cozy cafe tables — and I just listened to the conversation.

I think I heard the question, “What’s your Twitter name?” asked more times in ten minutes than ever before. (Nobody has ever asked me this question in Flagstaff.)

Has “What’s your Twitter name?” been added to the standard DC social interrogation, along with the classic questions, “What do you do?” and “Where are you from originally?”

Brian McEntee
Brian McEntee / @sharrowsDC

Word was out that today’s coffee club meeting included two visitors from outside The District. Eventually someone interrogated me.

“Where are you from?”


“Ohhh…” (Shields up, Mr. Sulu!)

I’m used to that. I know exactly what goes through the mind of certain DC types when they meet someone from a state uncomfortably far from any ocean. I also know the various shibboleths that would put them at ease, but I enjoy letting them wonder.

Someone else asked me, “What’s your Twitter name?”

Commute_by_Bike,” I answered.

And another person said, “Oh! I read your blog!” It was Brian McEntee, who blogs at Tales from the Sharrows.

Jesse Kelber
Jesse Kelber / @JesseKelber

Brian gave me a SharrowsDC button which is a clever merging of a sharrow symbol with the flag for the District of Columbia. Now I know exactly how famous I am.

I wore the button all day.

I sought out the other visitor from outside The District: Jesse Kelber, from Seattle, who writes A Rebalanced Life — not strictly a bike blog, but a blog about living simply — without being all doctrinaire minimalist about it.

Jesse and I have been in touch by e-mail for a few months about a guest post for Commute by Bike, but I didn’t know what he looked like. I scanned the floor for bare feet. Nope. So I asked, and Jesse was pointed out. He was wearing sandals — minimalist sandals.

iCrack No More

Damn, it was starting to get hot in DC. Record-breaking hot.

DC Record High Temperatures
In case you don't believe me.

I grabbed another Bikeshare bike and headed back to Enstech to get the screen on my iCrack fixed. Again, there was a Bikeshare station a block away. There was a liquor store even closer. I bought a 16-ounce bottle of the most virtuous lemonade I could find and shotgunned it.

iCrack No More
Fifty dollars? No argument.

Inside Enstech, which is basically a converted two-car garage, there is no air conditioning. I watched the technician turn my iCrack back into an iPhone. It was like watching a competent omelet chef make his 5,285th omelet.

Spin. Unscrew. Pry. Pop. Peel the new adhesive mounting stencils. Stick it on. Blow the heat gun. Wipe the new screen on his t-shirt. Pop. Press. Screw. Fiddle. Done.

Almost everyone I know in DC is trying to fix something — the environment, poverty, the developing world, justice, democracy… What a thrill to watch something get fixed right before my eyes — something electronic nonetheless. I’d almost stopped believing it were possible.

It took him about ten minutes — including the two phone calls he took, and receiving three other ailing devices from three other customers who came into the garage wearing the worried expressions of parents with sick children, seeking comfort and hope.

When he handed it back to me, the Bikeshare app was still running.

You don’t have to have a smartphone to use Bikeshare, but I’m thinking that it makes it much less stressful when going to parts of the city that are outside your normal commute and terra cognita.

The app told me that there were four bikes at the nearest station: 5th St. & K St. NW.

‘I have a screen…’

With my iPhone looking as good as new, I plotted a course to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. Back in March I got rained out of seeing the memorial when I was here. I wasn’t going to let a little “excessive heat warning” keep me from seeing DC’s newest mega-monument. Besides, I donated, like, $50 to the foundation that built the monument. Surely my name is engraved in granite somewhere.

When I arrived, I saw signs prohibiting bicycles from inside the memorial. That’s outrageous!

Actually, I’m okay with that. The Segway tour group also had to leave their parallel-wheeled scooters self-balancing eerily outside the gate with an attendant. This must be what Dr. King meant when he spoke of “the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

But since I hadn’t carried a bike lock with me, and because there was no Bikeshare station nearby, I had to park the bike near the entrance and keep an eye on it the entire time I visited the memorial.

Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial
"...tireless..." Get it?

The National Capital Planning Commission has apparently greenlighted five new locations for Bikeshare stations on the National Mall, including one near the MLK Memorial. Maybe next time.

I hope to come back again one day when I’m in a more contemplative mood. Rather: when I can contemplate something besides the heat and the exposure of my very white skin to the oppressive sun.

To hell with it: I’m going to drink a gallon of lemonade.

Walk Signal
Yay! Another 46 seconds to think about skin cancer.

The last two-and-a-half miles were brutal. The temperature was peaking at 104 degrees, and the only thought that kept me going was my conviction that when I reached the Bikeshare station at Park Rd & Holmead Pl NW, I was going to go into the grocery store and buy an even bigger bottle of lemonade and guzzle that sucker until it was gone.

Every stoplight was an eternity. Looking at the crosswalk signals was like watching a digital timer on a microwave oven — from inside the oven.

When I reached the end of my trip, I had traveled 12 miles on four Bikeshare bikes that day. I was drenched in sweat. I’d been hauling a black backpack all day too. I hadn’t mentioned that.

I bought a 64-ounce bottle of lemonade, yes I did, and a box of frozen popsicles. I also paid for the reusable grocery bag that I’d neglected to pay for two days earlier. Thank you, God, for today’s little preview of burning in hell, but I was planning on paying for the bag anyway.

Once back at the office, I only drank two glasses of the lemonade. Maybe three. And some water.

It was about 1:45 in the afternoon, and I was cooked for the rest of the day. No work of consequence would get accomplished.

Sweat is Real

From that Friday forward, I will never mentally dismiss any protestations from actual and would-be bike commuters who say that sweat is what deters their ambitions to commute by bike. I’ve never written anything to this effect, but I always have thought it was a lame rationalization. Forgive me, readers. And forgive me, boss, I have underestimated sweat as a marketing hook for electric bikes.

My friend Heming Nelson, whose office space and Internet connection I’ve been using, tells me that he uses Capitol Bikeshare sometimes when he has a meeting downtown, because the ride is downhill from Mount Pleasant. He can arrive without a sweat, and take a taxi back. Heming has a bike of his own, but to take his own bike downtown would be a commitment to ride it back, and getting all sweaty.

I started to see Capital Bikeshare as just another mode of public transportation — the Bikeshare stations are like bus stops or subway stations. In three mere days, I stopped seeing it as a sexy, trendy, novel, bikey thing that I hadn’t tried yet. I began to expect Bikeshare stations to be as ubiquitous as bus stops in DC.

At the Friday Coffee Club, the bike commuters had spoken excitedly about this or that new Bikeshare station that had just been opened up — as though they were cheering on a cause that is gaining ground. But DC folks can quickly get blas and entitled about certain things.

One day in the not-too-distant future there will be a new Bikeshare station opening in some neighborhood, and the response will be, Finally! What the hell took so long? That response will be followed by grumblings over the flaws, the bureaucratic idiosyncrasies, and common pet peeves about the system. Bitching about the system in DC will be as commonplace as is using it. That will be the triumph of Capital Bikeshare.

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