Letter from Washington: Gilead or Green New Deal?

The Handmaid's Tale

Gilead came to DC on Friday. The Handmaid’s Tale filmed at the Lincoln Memorial.

I hurried down at the end of the day to catch a bit of the shoot. Was I watching a TV show or a preview of the future?

Visually, it was striking to see the red robes against the white marble. And unsettling to see a police state operating in an American setting, even if it was just fiction.

The handmaids moved with military precision. When the scene at the Lincoln wrapped up, they turned en masse and marched in formation down the marble steps. I hurried out of the way, intimidated by the martial display.

The handmaids then assembled at the base of the memorial, lining up in neat rows with the Washington Monument in the background.

Production assistants walked down the lines of handmaids, adjusting robes and bonnets. The camera wheeled into place. Brown-robed Aunts with cattle prods surrounded the handmaids and, surrounding them, soldiers with assault rifles.

“Veils on!” the director commanded. The handmaids covered their mouths. Then the camera rolled down the line of women, all perfectly still in their obedience.

It can happen here, I thought as I watched. Anything is possible.

Earlier in the day, Trump had declared a national emergency, so that he could violate the Constitution to build his border wall. Republicans cheered.

Democracy only works when people follow the law. Once the law becomes meaningless, anything is possible.

A precedent has been set. Congress won’t do what you want? Declare a national emergency.

I had coffee with a friend. He said that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal to build a fair and environmentally sustainable country was unrealistic. We can’t afford a Green New Deal. The Washington centrist position is is that AOC’s vision for this country is unattainable.

Or is it?

Trump has shattered our democratic norms. Now, anything is possible.

On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I witnessed the Republican vision for the country. A handmaid future, with women enslaved for the benefit of men.

One possibility.

But with the norms of convention smashed, it’s possible to create another, better future, too, one in which we go beyond the stale politics of our era to build a country that is fair for all its citizens.

Gilead or Green New Deal? Both are possible now.

The Club: How the English Premier League Took Over the World

Wearing a Premier League jersey turned into a way to tell your friends that you were sophisticated, curious and sometimes drunk in the morning.

That’s me!

The Club tells the story of how the English Premier League transformed a grim, violent, working-class sport into a slick, family-friendly TV spectacle seen around the world.

The EPL was formed in 1992, motivated equally by greed and duress. English soccer was a primitive backwater in a modern nation, a holdover to when football matches were semi-organized riots between neighboring villages.

And it was deadly, with Victorian-era parks stuffed to capacity and beyond. After the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death in overcrowded stands, the Taylor Report mandated comprehensive changes, including replacing standing terraces with all-seater stadiums.

This meant fewer tickets sold and financial distress for clubs. Out of desperation, the top teams in the country broke away from the existing league to form the English Premier League.

Making a fortune off television rights for a sport rarely broadcast seemed unlikely. Yet, the big clubs – Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea – had inspiration from across the pond, where the NFL sold their rights for billions of dollars.

The league was born. And once it was seen around the world, it was flooded with cash. Every plutocrat wanted an EPL team for his portfolio. It was a way to show that they were not just about the money.

Unlike the NFL, there are no guarantees. Spend as much as you want on your team! But if you don’t win enough games, you could be relegated. The three lowest teams get bounced down to the lower division.


Filled with wild dreams and outsized personalities, The Club is, at its core, about money. An infusion of international cash saved the game and broadcast it to the world, where it is now seen more than ever, including by me at home (or in a bar) in Washington, DC.

One of the last chapters in the book is about the deal where NBC Sports bought the rights to the EPL in America. NBC does the coverage perfectly. Show lots of games on lots of channels, including free ones. Use English commentators with just enough American flavor to remind you that you’re in the States. And reach out with local fan fests and social media.

I love watching the English Premier League for the reasons described in the book – it’s international, the games are exciting and they’re 90 minutes long. Plus, the concept of relegation means that no games are meaningless.

It’s hard for me not to contrast the league I grew up with – the NFL – and the one the I’ve adopted – the EPL. The NFL has grown incomprehensible, even for Americans. What is a catch? What is a football move? You’ll get a dozen answers to these questions.

Also, in light of what we know now about concussions, watching the NFL gives me an uneasy feeling, as if I’m seeing men damage their brains for our entertainment.

And why can’t we get rid of a team like the Washington Redskins? Mediocre, with a racist name and an evil owner, they persist in a league without the gift of relegation. America claims to be capitalist but no team is ever allowed to fail in the NFL.

I’ll watch men chase a ball around a field instead, tuning in on Saturday and Sunday mornings to listen to English accents wax poetic over the beautiful game. Maybe I’ll do so over a pint. More likely, a cup of coffee. Give me the swashbuckling drama of the The Club.

Bus to Work Day DC: A Story in Four Lines

Busses stuck on 16th St

Today is Bus to Work Day DC.

Before the age of Uber, riding the bus was a rite of passage in DC. It is now a lost art, which is a shame. Riding a bus teaches you patience, math skills and geography.

Plus, you get to overhear fascinating conversations! Taking the bus is the best way to learn about Washington beyond the monuments.

My transit experience helped me write several novels about the city, providing ideas and inspiration for my writing.

Here’s my public transit story. A story of four bus lines.

Patience: The N Bus

As a student at American University, my introduction to the city was through Metrobus.

That bus was the N2/N4/N6 bus which stopped at the edge of campus. Running down Massachusetts Avenue, it took you to internships in downtown DC.

It was a bus line that taught you patience. You’d get to the stop, check the schedule and then the bus wouldn’t appear. Or the bus would be pulling away as you arrived.

The random quality of the Metrobus experience taught me patience. Unlike Uber, there was no countdown to your ride. No estimated arrival time.

So, I’d sit down and wait, with only my thoughts for company in this pre-iPhone age. There’s a quote in the novel LessBoredom is essential for writers.

If you want to be creative, take the bus. Plenty of time to let your mind wander.

Math Skills: The 96 Bus

It’s 6:32. The 96 bus to Adams Morgan will be across the street at Wisconsin and Woodley at 6:58. Do you have enough time to finish your plate of spaghetti?

That and other dramas were part of my life when I lived off campus in an apartment building. My home was well-served by the 30s bus, which ran constantly along Wisconsin Avenue and the 96, which ran infrequently to Adams Morgan.

My roommates and I liked to take the bus to the 18th St bars of Adams Morgan. But the 96 bus didn’t run that often, particularly on weekends.

So, we became adept at math problems like the one above, adding and subtracting, factoring in walk times, the probability of the bus being late and the speed at which a plate of pasta could be shoveled down.

We even counted money, in this era before SmartTrip cards. There’s a pile of nickels and dimes on the kitchen table – is that enough for the bus?

There was something really satisfying about running for the 96, jumping aboard with no time to spare and then feeding loose change into the fare box as the bus rolls away.

Geography: The H2

One of my first jobs after graduation was a temporary job at the National Rehabilitation Hospital.

Located across the city, it required me to take the H2 bus west to east from Tenleytown to Washington Hospital Center.

This was pre-gentrification DC. Marion Barry DC. Murder capital of the country DC.

The bus would chug from leafy Northwest, through tony Cleveland Park and then cross Rock Creek Park, the barrier between good and bad in DC at the time. The bus would go down Irving Street, where the Target is now, past boarded-up buildings and one of the largest open-air drug markets on the East Coast.

The bus is different from taking an Uber. An Uber will take you directly to your destination. Bus routes wind their through cities, picking up passengers here and there, as they go from neighborhood to neighborhood. By taking the bus you learn the place.

It was an education, revealing a whole other city beyond the world I knew west of the park. A city full of stories. This experience, of seeing DC at its roughest, eventually ended up in Murder on U Street, which is set in many of these same neighborhoods.

Conversations: The X2

I’ve lived in DC forever. There’s only one bus that scares me: the X2. Running down H St, from the White House to Benning Road, it’s the Jerry Springer show on wheels.

Everyone has their X2 story. The craziness doesn’t just happen inside the bus – a teen was caught holding on outside to the back of the bus.

The line uses articulated buses that are twice as long as normal buses. Miscreants congregate in the back, far from the driver and engage in all sorts of illicit trade. The bus attracts even more crazy people than normal – the babblers, the shouters, the recently released.

Sit there and listen to people on their phones discussing court cases, relationship problems and family issues, like a George Pelecanos novel set on public transit.

As a writer, it’s great. Buses are ideal for hearing other people’s stories. Remove your earbuds and listen to the drama around you.

Take the bus! It’s easy – get a SmartTrip card and the NextBus app to navigate your way around Washington. Learn patience, math and geography while you’re entertained by overheard stories from city residents.

My Photos in Song Protesting Child Separation Policy

Hard to believe that we’re a nation that puts children in cages. But we do every day at the border.

The Trump administration tried to hide the child separation policy from the public, knowing that it was cruel even for this cruel age. Despite statements from the Department of Homeland Security, families are still being separated.

Americans have hit the streets in protest. With my camera, I’ve documented those protests in Washington, DC, from the White House to DHS headquarters. I want future generations to know that we protested this crime against humanity.

Now, my photos have been put to music in a new song called Cages by Flo Anito and Seth Kibel.

A rough version of this song received an Honorable Mention from the Mid Atlantic Song Contest. This version was recorded at American University and Asparagus Media and will be released on an upcoming EP of original protest music.

Flo Anito has toured Europe and appeared on DC’s biggest stages: Strathmore, Wolf Trap, Merriweather Post Pavilion, the Birchmere, Blues Alley, the Fillmore, Hamilton Live, and Bethesda Blues & Jazz. She’s a clever songwriter with a unique voice and a sense of social mission.

Seth Kibel has been wowing audiences on saxophone, clarinet, and flute for more than a decade. Winner of 28 Washington Area Music Awards (Wammies), his most recent recording, Seth Kibel Presents: Songs of Snark & Despair, features an all-star cast of vocalists and instrumentalists from throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

I first met Flo playing soccer. When she asked to use my photos for Cages, I was glad to help. It’s a beautifully moving song written to protest an inhumane policy, one that was done but can be undone. As the chorus goes:

Children and hearts in cages
One by choice, and the other by force
You’ve locked up what’s left of your conscience
You’ve jailed all regrets and remorse
Children and hearts in cages
One of these is an easy fix
Fling open the doors to these prisons
Let parents be with their kids

Letter from Washington: The Cruelty is the Point

Nathan Phillips leads a dance at the Indigenous Peoples March
Nathan Phillips leads a dance at the Indigenous Peoples March before the MAGA teens showed up.

When video surfaced of Covington Catholic teens mocking a Native American at the Lincoln Memorial, I realized that I had missed the encounter by just a few minutes.

After work on Friday, I biked to the Lincoln Memorial desperate to see some sun after days of gloom.

At the memorial, I saw Native Americans (including Nathan Phillips) leading everyone in a giant dance with people holding hands in an ever-expanding circle. Pictured above, it was a beautiful moment seeing how everyone came together.

And a respectful one. Non-natives watched the dance from a few feet away. When invited to join, they did so, the dance expanding outward to accommodate newcomers on the plaza in front of the Lincoln Memorial. A drum played and Phillips sang as I watched this impromptu community demonstrate how we are all one people. Lincoln would be proud.

With all the museums closed due to the Trump Shutdown, there’s not a lot to do in Washington. The outdoor monuments and memorials are some of the few things that are open. The tourists who took part in the Native American dance circle were happy to have this unique experience of a different culture in an iconic setting.

After I left, the Covington Catholic kids came along. While there are innumerable videos and Rashoman-like confusion, one thing is clear: the MAGA teens mocked Phillips. You can see and hear them laughing at him and doing tomahawk chants while surrounding him on the steps of the Lincoln. He’s one elderly man faced off against a sea of youths in Trump gear.

Ironically, they were in Washington for the March for Life. But rather than showing respect for the lives of others, they mocked a Native American elder.

Where were the parents? Supporting them. In the video, you can see the chaperones on the sidelines enjoying the humiliation.

The cruelty is the point is the theme of a great essay by Adam Serwer on the Trump movement. A party that believed in limited government now operates a gulag system across the Southwest for immigrant children.

The Covington Catholic kids chose to wear Trump hats to the March for Life. The purpose of the march was secondary. If any of these callow youth got a girl pregnant, their beliefs would change pretty quickly.

Rather, the march was an opportunity to show the power of the Trump movement in the nation’s capital. With their uniforms and crowds, it was meant to intimidate.

But Nathan Phillips didn’t back down, even as he was jeered. He stood up to hate.

Their behavior exposed, the Covington kids face online humiliation. It won’t last. Like other wealthy men, they won’t suffer for their transgressions.

Ironic that this confrontation occurred under the watchful eyes of Abraham Lincoln. He did more than just free the slaves. He freed all of us from an evil system that poisoned this country, crushing an earlier version of Make America Great Again.

But he is just marble now, his faith and goodness forgotten by a Republican Party that has embraced cruelty.

Trip Report: Orlando Urban Trail

Orlando Urban Trail

Only three miles long, the Orlando Urban Trail packs in art, history and food  as it navigates a city few tourists see.

The trail starts at the edge of downtown Orlando, just off Magnolia Avenue and Lake Ivanhoe.

From there, it follows the path of an old railway, the Dinky Line, which used to ferry students to Rollins College in Winter Park. This green corridor is preserved because the line was used into the 1980s, not by students, but by businesses, including a lumber yard on Mills Avenue.

After going by a brewery, the trail parallels Mills, which is Orlando’s hipster district, home to the once-and-future dive bar Wally’s and the excellent Pig Floyd’s, where I had a pork bento box for lunch.

Pork bento box at Pig Floyd's

Around mile 1.5, the trail reaches Loch Haven Park, home to museums including the Orlando Science Center and the Mennello Museum of American Art.

You cross Mills Avenue, ride along the sidewalk a bit, and then there’s a brief section on neighborhood streets where you wind your way between lakes and by some expensive real estate. Lots of signage – it’s impossible to get lost.

Mead Garden bike sign

The trail ends at Mead Garden, a green spot in Winter Park which offers walking paths and a range of programs, including yoga.

With nearly the entire trail protected from traffic, the Orlando Urban Trail is  ideal for people of all ages. And with museums, parks and restaurants along the route, it makes a great urban adventure.

Safe Streets Needed in the Nation’s Capital

Man blocks traffic to protest city's negligence in protecting people

“A tragedy,” you hear on the news but when you encounter real grief it’s almost impossible to process. You look away from the mother alone in her pain. She lost her son doing something that should be safe – riding an electric scooter in Washington, DC.

And here she was, days after his death, on the spot where he was killed, as cars honked and drivers cursed.

This was the scene at the memorial ride for Carlos Sanchez-Martin, who was run over by an SUV in a Dupont Circle crosswalk. A white ghost scooter was erected to memorialize him, placed at the spot where he died. We then occupied the street for ten minutes, placing our bikes and our bodies on the asphalt for safe streets.

Drivers couldn’t wait ten minutes. Someone died here and they couldn’t wait ten minutes. They honked and honked and a couple even got out of their cars to confront us, a situation thankfully defused by the Metropolitan Police Department.

Ten minutes. Drivers won’t even give ten minutes for someone that they killed. This is why we need safe streets in the nation’s capital.

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After the ten minutes were up, we left the intersection. Drivers poured through, nearly hitting people in the same crosswalk where Carlos Sanchez-Martin was killed. Drivers ran red lights despite the presence of uniformed officers. No tickets were issued.

Rachel Maisler organized the memorial ride. It has become her sad duty to coordinate these events, having brought mourners together for cyclist deaths on H Street and M Street.

And there will be another one, on Thursday, for Thomas A. Hollowell, who was hit by a red-light runner at 12th and Constitution, just off the National Mall.

If you’re murdered by a gun in this city, the police flood the neighborhood. Lights are put up. Squad cars are posted on corners to reassure people that they’re safe.

But if you’re a murdered by a car, nothing is done. I visited 12th and Pennsylvania the day after Hollowell’s death and cars were still running red lights. A more enlightened city would make physical changes to the intersection to make it safer and crackdown on red light runners.

But not the District Department of Transportation (DDOT). Safety is not a priority for this unresponsive bureaucracy.

At the memorial for Carlos Sanchez-Martin, a man sat down in the street. This wasn’t planned – no one even knew who he was. He sat down in front of four lanes of traffic with his scooter next to him.

DDOT does so little to stop rampaging drivers that ordinary citizens are willing to put their bodies on the line for safe streets.

The memorial rides are grassroots affairs. Organized by Rachel Maisler, they have forced the city to make changes that keep people safe, like removing parking spaces on the M St bike lane. Negative media coverage is the only thing that DDOT responds to.

The memorial ride for Thomas Hollowell is Thursday 5:30 PM at Farragut Square. People on bikes, scooters, rollerblades or even just walking – anyone who believes in safe streets is welcome. Wear white. It will be a silent procession to where Hollowell lost his life. Follow Rachel Maisler on Twitter for more details.

Chasing the Great American Eclipse

Chasing the Great American Eclipse

Watching the sun go dark in the middle of the day will change how you look at the world. Suddenly, everything you thought of as permanent seems transitory, made even more precious by the idea that the world we know could disappear in an instant.

That was my experience seeing the eclipse last year in western North Carolina, a moment that was both humbling and inspiring.

I was delighted to see my essay and photos in Chasing the Great American Eclipse, a new photobook that documents last year’s epic solar event. This gorgeous tome follows the eclipse as it darkens the United States, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, with stories and images from a nation brought together, if just for a moment.

Letter from Washington: The Choice

U Street Metro

The second cop was serious.

I had been stopped within minutes of crossing the border, my rental car with out-of-state plates a magnet for Kansas police looking for drug smugglers from pot-friendly Colorado. The first set of officers were in a black SUV. I was speeding, as was everyone else that morning on I-70. The officer wasn’t even in a police uniform I recognized but, instead, clad in black from head to toe and wearing body armor, as if he was about to engage heavily armed terrorists on the burnt plains of western Kansas. He peered into my car and told me to slow down.

The second cop was alone. A state trooper. I had slowed down after the first encounter. This one said I had swerved in my lane.

“I’m just going to give you a warning,” he announced. “Where are you coming from by the way?”

“Colorado.”

“What you doing out there?” he asked, pretext blossoming in his mind.

“I went to bike around,” I said, pointing to my bike in the back. I had spent a couple days biking around Frisco and then visiting friends in Denver.

He chatted me up, asking about Frisco and sharing how he had visited there with his son for a baseball tournament. Then he took my license and returned to his car for a very long time.

A good ten minutes passed, more than enough time to write a warning. I realize now that he was watching me to see my reaction. Would I squirm? Toss something out of the car? Fidget nervously? I just sat there, wondering how long it would take me to get out of this flat state full of aggressive police.

Then he returned.

“You don’t have any drugs or guns in the car do you?” he asked.

“No.”

“Do you mind if I search your car?”

It’s a good thing that I’m from Washington, DC, and have dealt with security theater for years. I’ve removed my belt to go through metal detectors, been prodded by rent-a-cops in dimly lit lobbies and had a suspicious granola bar removed from my backpack at the Capitol. I’ve been yelled at by the Security Service for the crime of riding my bike in the street and ordered off the Ellipse during the government shutdown by the Park Police.

“Sure,” I said.

Leaning into my front seat, he zipped open my backpack and peered into it. Then he opened the backseat and did the same to my suitcase.

And then he let me go. Quite the clever little operation he had going – promise just a warning, watch to see if the suspect does anything suspicious and then ask to search the vehicle. How could you refuse?

If I had been an immigrant, a person of color or anything other than a white man with a spotless record, I’d be in jail right now. Guilty or not, he would’ve found a pretext.

A few days later, I was back in DC. Glad to be out of a car, I returned to my auto-free lifestyle, making my way around the city by foot, bike and, occasionally, by Metro.

Metro was a wonder a decade ago, an essential piece of the city that you just assumed would work and always be there. Now, neither guarantee is in place, as we’ve let this vital piece of infrastructure decay and collapse.

But, occasionally, you get glimpses of its past glory. Yesterday, there was a photo exhibit opening that I wanted to attend in Crystal City. It’s an easy bike ride, less than thirty minutes, but on Friday the skies opened up, a week’s worth of heat ending in monsoon rains.

I took the Metro, prepared for the worst of rush hour. But I waited less than a minute at Dupont Circle for a Red Line train. And no wait at L’Enfant Plaza, as I switched trains. The train emerged from a tunnel on a bridge over the Potomac, the skies dark, the 14th St Bridge bright with red taillights of Virginia-bound cars. A couple more stops and I was in the underground warren of Crystal City, as traffic in the city ground to a halt due to flooding. Returning home was equally easy.

Cities need subways. A nation’s capital especially needs one for the thousands of federal workers that rely on it every day. And god forbid there’s an actual emergency in Washington – you’re not evacuating the city on streets that gridlock during mere rain.

We’re told there’s no money for a working Metro. No money for health care. No help for the poor. That’s socialism.

But there’s plenty of money to patrol the wastelands of Kansas. Cash grants are available to outfit corn-fed yahoos with assault weapons, body armor and gas-guzzling SUVs. Federal funds flow out of Washington, where they are needed to fix the Metro, to the empty quarter of America.

It doesn’t have to be this way. To quote Barack Obama’s recent speech, the upcoming midterms offer us, “one of those pivotal moments when every one of us, as citizens of the United States, need to determine just who it is that we are.”

Are we a nation that jails immigrant children, punishes the poor and wastes billions on a vast security state or are we a people that invests in a future that we can all share? Find out on November 6.

Capital Bikeshare Plus: First Impressions

Capital Bikeshare Plus

Capital Bikeshare goes electric!

CaBi has added electric bikes to their arsenal, as part of a pilot program that runs through November. Capital BikeShare Plus, they call it. These new ebikes are designed to be used just like the iconic red bikes, integrating seamlessly into the existing Capital Bikeshare system. There’s no additional charge to use them for CaBi members.

As a long-time CaBi user, I was anxious to try one. I checked the CaBi app and saw that one was available, delineated with a little lightning bolt on the map. Shazam!

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The electric bikes are black and easy to spot. I unlocked it from the dock the way I do with any other CaBi, with a fob on my keychain. Among the many things that Capital Bikeshare gets right is ease of use.

Pulling it out of the dock, I noticed it looks and feels almost exactly like the familiar red bikes. If it’s heavier, I didn’t notice, and it handles just like a CaBi, except faster.

There are a few key differences, however, the biggest being pedal assist. To activate it, you press a button on the battery on the bike. I expected a light or something to turn on. Nothing did.

But, after I got on and pressed down on the pedal, I knew: this is on! Almost too on, sending me flying down the sidewalk before I was fully prepared.

Capital BikeShare Plus bikes have three gears, just like the red bikes, and, like the red bikes, the first two gears are useless.  a variable transmission, according to the ever-knowledgeable Mr. T in DC. Like I do with the three-speed CaBis, I kept it in the highest gear.

There are a couple other nice additions to the bike too. The first being a functional basket, rather than the magazine rack on normal CaBis. The fenders are longer and more robust. The bell is better, too, built in to the handlebars rather than hanging off it.

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But you don’t care about that. How fast is it?

Fast. While the top speed is limited to 18 mph, you get up to that speed almost instantly. A couple turns of the pedal, the motor kicks in and you’re merrily racing along.

I tried not to be a jerk about it. I didn’t blow by cyclists going uphill, but instead let my speed drop, following them as they labored over the gears like factory workers.  On straightaways, I passed “serious” cyclists on road bikes, hunched over, sweating, lycra-clad, while I rode by, smiling, upright, in a polo shirt.

Speed is fun. Americans love speed and 18 mph in a world where everyone is going ten seems helluva fast.

But where e-bikes shine is going uphill. I had to go to an appointment near L’Enfant Plaza. With my speedy CaBi Plus, I got there early. With time to kill, I decided to test the bike by taking it up the steep slope of Capitol Hill on the sweatiest, hottest morning of September.

And it was no work at all, the bike climbing the hill almost effortlessly. If I had taken a non-electric CaBi, I’d be nearing a heart attack when I reached the top, but with CaBi Plus, my heart rate barely changed.

On the way back down Capitol Hill, I followed a guy in a suit on an electric scooter, a sign that e-transportation is the future. Electric bikes and scooters are ideal for short trips, particularly in cities. The coming decades may not belong to Tesla but to something much simpler: electric bikes.

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CaBi Plus, and electric bikes in general, are also perfect the vast majority of Americans who don’t feel comfortable on a bike. Pedal assist allows people with health issues to ride again, as well as people who don’t want to get sweaty. They also allow people to get up to speed quickly, which is useful when commuting in traffic.

I was sad to return Capital BikeShare Plus to the dock – that’s when you know it’s love. But there are eighty of them in the city so I’m sure we will meet again.