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Bicycle-Sharing Program to Debut

Jim Sebastian of the District's Department of Transportation displays SmartBike DC's prototype bicycles, which will be ready for use in mid-May.
Jim Sebastian of the District's Department of Transportation displays SmartBike DC's prototype bicycles, which will be ready for use in mid-May. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
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By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 19, 2008

The sleek silver railings started popping up at intersections in the District's downtown core a few weeks ago.

Yet another homeland security device?

Actually, they are being installed to make us more like people abroad rather than protect us from them. Perhaps they won't make this nation's capital as fashionable and chic as Paris, but they will certainly make the District of Columbia the cutting-edge of two-wheel transportation this side of the Atlantic.

The metal racks are for SmartBike DC, a bicycle-sharing program touted as the first of its kind in the nation. The program is a public-private partnership between the District government and advertising giant Clear Channel Outdoor, which operates similar automated bike rental systems in France, Norway, Sweden and Spain.

By mid-May, the racks will be filled with 120 red three-speed bicycles ready for riding around town, said Jim Sebastian of the D.C. Department of Transportation.

The concept is similar to such car-sharing programs as Zipcar. For an annual fee of $40, bikes can be rented for as long as three hours at a time for an unlimited number of rentals.

The bicycles, which look like a cross between a folding bike and a BMX with a metal basket on the front, are not designed for the Tour de France but for use on lunch dates, errands and local excursions.

SmartBike DC works by swiping a magnetic card at one of 10 designated kiosks. The sites are mostly near downtown Metro stations. A few are not, such as one in the Logan Circle area at 14th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW.

The computerized system assigns the rider one of the bicycles, which are locked in numbered spots on the rack. A light indicates when the bike may be removed. The bicycles may be returned to any of the 10 racks and are available 365 days a year, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. A charge of $200 is assessed if the bike is not returned.

Officials said the program has several major benefits, including helping reduce traffic congestion and offering a convenient way to get more exercise.

"A lot of people have bikes, but a lot of them are in their basements or in their apartment balconies and they don't take them out on a regular basis," said Sebastian, who is the city's pedestrian and bicycle coordinator.

The racks have already grabbed attention.

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