After my business trip to DC, I decided to stay over the weekend with my wife to tour Washington, DC on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. Now there are tons of options for you if you want a tour of DC. You can take a double-decker bus tour, a Segway tour, a regular bus tour, a pedicab tour, a trolley tour, multiple walking tours, a Duck tour, multiple taxis, or a bazillion others.
I didn’t feel like paying a lot of money (I figure through my taxes I already enough to keep most of those places running), so I wanted to look for the most economical way to tour. Yes, it turned out to be DC’s version of Citi Bike, Capital Bikeshare. It was a beautiful day for biking–being late August it was in the 80’s, but there was a nice breeze blowing the whole time and the skies were blue. Also, the day before we’d taken the tour of the Capitol and the White House which required a LOT of walking, so we were keen on finding something that would give our weary feet a break.
Most of the time we come to DC we stick around the museums and don’t really venture to the memorials. It’s just getting to each memorial (especially the Jefferson) take so much effort it’s hardly worth it. So we decided to make that the focus of our biking. My wife did a very smart thing–she took a Washington DC tourist map and wrote in the exact location of each bike station, knowing that we only had 30 minutes from picking up the bike to dock it somewhere or we’d be charged more.
Keeping with the “me being cheap” motif, I got a great deal at a Courtyard by Marriott that was a little off the beaten path–but there was a bike station two blocks away at First and M and on an early Sunday there were plenty of bikes available.
Admittedly, it took me a few tries to figure out how rent bikes for two people for 24 hours. As with New York they do have the ability to send away for a key fob which allows you to rent bike all year, but of course since I’d just be here that day it didn’t make sense for me.
Their system for short-term rentals is similar to New York’s (it’s what New York’s was modeled after), in that you can choose to rent a bike for a 24 hour period for $7 per bike (it’s $9.95 They also have a 3-day rental period for $15 per bike (compared to New York’s 7-day rental period for $25).
The way this works, you use a credit card to pay a one-time fee (it’s $9.95 in New York) and then for a 24 hour period from there you can dock a bike at any other station, do what you need to do, and then pick up another bike for free by swiping your credit card again and getting a new unlock code. The on-screen instructions are really confusing for first-time users. They take you through a series of screens that talk about a $100 hold on your credit card that I’m sure scares off a lot of tourists. One series of screens I found amusing as that you had to agree to their terms and conditions–and on the tiny screen you were expected to scroll through 137 pages before agreeing to getting your bike!
Luckily after about 3 seconds you could just click “OK”, which I suppose is enough to keep the lawyers happy.
Eventually you get a 5 digit code made up of 1s, 2s, and 3s which you can key into the bike dock.
If you rented two bikes, even though the system says you need to swipe your credit card again, you don’t–you’ll be prompted “You purchased more than one membership. Do you want another bike unlocking code now?” Presumably at this time you need to call the person who’ll be riding that bike over (although it never tells you this) who needs to answer two questions–are they over 18 and do they accept the 137 page terms and conditions.
The system wasn’t without its flaws. I waited and waited for the bike receipt to be spit out, and then I realized that the receipt had printed out, it was just jammed up in the machine so I had to stick my fingers in and pull it out. To their credit, I called the 800 number early on a Sunday and a woman answered right away. Not only this, she was able to pull up my history using my credit card and confirmed how many bikes I had out. Now that’s service!
As in New York, the light will turn yellow and then green when you successfully unlock it, and then you have to pull up on the butt of the bike seat and then pull the bike out to undock it.
As far as working the bike itself, like I said having had experience with Citi Bike (which like Capital Bikeshare is run by Alta) helped, as the bikes are exactly the same except for the color. I knew, for example, how to undock the bike. I knew how to use the front basket with the elastic strap. I know how to ring the bell with my left thumb. I know how to change between the three gears with my right hand. And I knew how to adjust my seat. These were all things that I had to my wife (who had never used Citi Bike before) how to do.
My wife and I started riding down some non-descript streets. The cool thing about DC is that you can just turn a corner and–bam–see something cool like this.
That’s right, it’s the Capitol dome from afar. The day earlier we walked there from Union Station, which seemed like an eternity to get to. But today with the help of our Capital Bikeshare bikes, we were there in no time.
We docked at the Bikeshare station near the Capitol at Constitution Ave and 2nd Street NW.
Here’s the view from that station.
Now we’d been hoping to go visit the Library of Congress, but my New York paranoia set in and I thought–there are only two bikes docked here, so if we leave our bikes there’s a good chance we’ll come back to an empty station. So I just made this a temporary pit stop and told my wife we should continue biking onto the Mall.
We first biked past the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.
Turning the corner was one of those “oooh” moments as the Washington Monument an the Mall came into view.
There were a few questions I didn’t know the answer to and which probably for legal reasons you can’t get a straight answer on from the official Web site. The first is, do you need a helmet to bike in Washington, DC? The quick answer is that there’s a law in DC that riders under 16 are required to wear a helmet while biking (although the fine is waived for the first offense), but riders 16 and over don’t need one. But still, everyone (and their lawyers) strongly suggest you have one.
The second question I had was–can you bike on pedestrian walkways in the Capitol Mall? On maps of the Mall area, it states that “you are prohibited from biking on sidewalks in the city of Washington DC”, but it never says anything about the Mall area. There were enough bikes around that I figured out pretty quickly that as long as you’re in the National Mall area, you are allowed to bike on the wide dirt paths where tourists are walking going straight down the middle of the mall and on either side.
Combining these two learnings, I figured it’d be relatively safe for me to bike without a helmet as long as I stayed in the National Park area and biked very carefully on the dirt roads. It’s ingrained in me anytime I bike without my helmet to be extra, extra cautious of my surroundings and to bike really slowly, so that helped me anytime I ventured outside the safe confines of the National Mall. Within the mall, it was just a matter of taking it slow, avoiding big groups of people walking, and being courteous to share the road.
And so we started biking down and enjoyed the sights that the National Mall had to offer, including the National Gallery of Art (I didn’t visit this time but I went inside my last visit a few years ago).
The National Air and Space Museum, which I did visit yesterday for the first time in decades. I was surprised that there were Soviet-era spacecraft (including a SS-20 nuclear missile and a Sputnik). And of course there were the jaw-dropping exhibits that I’d forgotten about after all these years, including the original Apollo 11 Command Module, the Wright Brothers Flyer, The Spirit of St. Louis, and a moon rock you can touch (which admittedly I didn’t touch, not because of creatures on the moon but because of creatures here on earth).
My wife called me back and told me she wanted to drop a donation into the National Museum of the American Indian, which she enjoyed immensely. So I biked back so she could do that.
One app I really enjoyed downloading and using was the National Park Service’s NPS National Mall app. I very rarely compliment anything our federal government does these days, but this was a really cool app that lets you point your smartphone anywhere in the Mall and it’ll tell you exactly what you’re looking at. Well, in theory anyway–it wasn’t 100% accurate but accurate enough to give me a good idea of my bearings, and a lot more intuitive for folks like me who are bad at reading maps.
There’s actually a similar app for the Smithsonian called Smithsonian Mobile that also has virtual reality features and suggested tours, but alas, they have in-app fees to use just about anything useful. I was a bit put off by this–everything in the Mall is free to access because it’s owned by the American people–you’d think they wouldn’t start nickel and diming us on the use of an app.
We biked past the Smithsonian Tower (where inside lies the final resting place of the founder of the Smithsonian, as well as some exhibits that evidently didn’t make the cut in any other museum–the one we saw was an exhibition on keepsakes and souvenirs which I found fascinating).
Also passed the Museum of Natural History, again, we went last time so we passed on it this time. The Hope Diamond will be there the next time.
Our half hour was about up already, so we had to find a bike station quick. This time we went to the Smithsonian Dock at Jefferson Drive and 12th Street NW. I wish the docks were a little more well marked (like the giant “M” poles for the Metro), as looking for the cluster of red bikes is not unlike looking for Waldo’s red hat after a while.
We docked our bikes and picked up new ones right away. One nice thing about the National Mall is that because so many of the bike riders are tourists, you hardly ever have a problem with docks being full or empty, at least at the more popular areas. Tourists do a pretty good job of balancing bikes naturally because they’re coming through all day.
The next destination was the Washington Monument. Here’s what it looked like on the approach.
What I loved about touring by bike is that we got to ride right up to it and around it, whereas other kinds of tours have to stick on the roads. By bike, we got to see it from every angle, to the point where you can see the color difference of the bricks when construction stopped when The Washington National Monument Society ran out of money in 1854, and then when the US Government resume construction of it in 1884 using rocks from a different quarry.
Next top on the bike tour was the WWII memorial, an impressive memorial that hadn’t been around the last time I was in this area. It’s an impressive sight.
Not so impressive was that this was where all tours seemed to meet. There were a bunch of us on bikes that were waiting for these slow-as-molasses groups of about 20 riders on Segways, each with varying degrees of mastery over the Segway (come on, how hard can it be?). It was like waiting for a family of ducks to cross the street.
But we finally made our way biking alongside the reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial.
There was another Bike Station here. Again, enough tourists were coming and going that I didn’t feel a need to hoard our bikes, so we docked it, with only a few minutes to spare before our half hour was up.
Went in and it was as magnificent as it was when I last visited it 30 years ago, and also a lot more crowded and diverse.
It was of course moving to look back at the view that Dr. Martin Luther King had from the top step.
It was no problem getting a fresh bike from the dock. And then we decided to ride around the circle and along the Potomac to see the Jefferson Memorial, something I probably wouldn’t had even thought of doing if I wasn’t on a bike (even with a car you need to deal with the hassle and expense of traffic and parking). This meant riding on real roads with real traffic, but the roads were wide enough and the traffic light enough that getting to the bike path along the Potomac was no problem at all.
We rode until we reached a bridge from which you could see both the Washington and Jefferson Memorials. Note the trolley tour bus that had people feverishly snapping away pictures while I could take it easy and take a nice panoramic shot with my iPhone.
We made it to the bike station by the Jefferson Memorial, and this is the first time I encountered a potential problem with the bikes. There were a number of bikes in the docks, but all of them had that red light on. And there were a number of people swarming around the bike stations.
I decided to dock my bike and then quickly unlock it, explaining to people that “I just wanted to reset my timer”. I’m not sure if that would fly, or if they’d jump on me and make me give up my bike. This was all moot when I docked my bike and the light turned red (!) I felt like I was in New York again.
But I went to the station, got a new unlock code, and luckily the bike right next to the station was one that was available and unlocked pretty quickly. But the poor swarming masses seemed completely out of luck. But something else that impressed me that I never saw in New York was that a Capital Bikeshare worker was right there to help. I didn’t stick around long enough to figure out what she did, but it’s a whole lot better having her there than what I face in New York (tumbleweeds next to empty docks).
We walked our bikes up to the Jefferson Memorial and got a fantastic view, much better than the one on the nickel–or a trolley.
We walked to the front. Unfortunately someone had to guard the bike so we took turns going inside.
Leaving the Jefferson Memorial, we rode along a well manicured bike path that led all around the tidal basin.
We rode upon a patch of flowers that I thought was pretty, but then I saw a sign saying it was the “National Floral Library”. I’d never seen this in any brochures or maps. Turns out this is a bona-fide tourist attraction that most tourists don’t know about–also known as the “Tulip Library”, it was established in 1969 by the First Lady Lady Bird Johnson as a “library of flowers” where the National Park Service plants 93 beds of flowers, which includes tulips in the spring and annuals after that which last into the Fall. What’s interesting is that like a book library, this seems to be mostly an exercise in cataloging, not necessarily in artistry or design as you see in botanical gardens. One of those hidden gems that we wouldn’t have come across if we weren’t biking.
We got back to the Mall and I went to the first food cart I saw and bought waters for us. The sun was beating down on us now so I was happy to pay the guy $2.50 for each bottle (don’t tell him but I would have paid $10).
Here’s another example of an “interesting turn”. In the distance you can see the South Lawn of the White House.
Then, it was back to the Capitol Dome through the Mall, carefully weaving in and out of tourists, who happily unlike on 42nd Street are nicely spaced out.
And finally, back to the docking station we started from.
We had planned on visiting the Library of Congress but realized that on Sundays it’s closed. Unfortunately we hadn’t made note of any of the bike docks in the vicinity (in retrospect I probably could have checked my phone) so we ended up walking 6 looong blocks back to Union Station. But still, walking 6 blocks is a whole lot better than the miles of walking we would have had to do if we tried to do this tour on foot. The tour would have been impossible by Metro. Having docked our bikes six or seven times, taking a taxi probably would have cost into the $50 range or more, and the Segway Tours see less for $79.
By the way, here’s what the tour path looked like in Kinetic (for some reason the GPS stopped tracking once I hit the WWII Memorial, but if it hadn’t you’d see a line spanning the left of the Reflecting Pool, going next to the Lincoln Memorial, heading down to connect to a bike trail along the Potomac on Ohio Drive, across the bridge to East Basin Drive SW, stopping at the Jefferson Memorial, circling around to the WWII Memorial again, and going back up to the Capitol, a total of about 8-10 miles but which went by quickly because of all there was to see.
What’s more, unlike the docks in New York, with the exception of the one dock at the Jefferson Memorial that acted funky, the docks performed brilliantly the whole day. And I don’t know if it was the luck of the draw or how it always is, but we got a bike every time we wanted one (with some careful planning).
The one gripe I might have is the 30 minute limit, which did cause a tiny bit of stress. I know this is designed to keep the bikes moving, but in some cases we made it to the next station with only a few minutes to spare. I think it helped us in the sense that it made us keep moving, but on the other hand if the Mall were a bit more crowded and less easy to navigate on bike, riders would end up getting penalized for it. But luckily we didn’t have to deal with that today.
It’s ironic that the same company runs Citi Bike and Capital Bikeshare, and yet I’d give the former a grade of D+/C- and the latter a grade of a solid A. I’m sure part of it is due to public funding that DC gives supplementing the maintenance of the bike stations, but a lot is also thanks to how Washington DC did a better job of updating their infrastructure to encourage bike riders (granted, traffic is a heck of a lot lighter, even on a business day). And like I said, when they designed the New York system they made the foolish assumption that tourists would risk life and limb riding through the heart of the City with the same enthusiasm that they do through the friendly streets of Washington DC and the National Mall.
Let’s hope that New York gets its act together. Ironically, the only reason I didn’t ride Capital Bikeshare all this week was because their Metro system was just as cheap and just as good for my riding patterns. In New York, we have to deal with a rat-infested, dirty, noisy subway system and a bike share system that’s as annoying as it is stressful.
Cost per ride: $7
Aggravation level: 1 of 10
Stress level: 1 of 10