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.
"I would have never thought it was a bicycle rack," said Gerald Wells as he studied the silver one outside the Reeves Center at 14th and U streets NW. "I kept going by looking at it. It's very innovative."
SmartBike is part of the city's 20-year, $150 million bus shelter contract with Clear Channel, Sebastian said. Clear Channel will be responsible for bicycle maintenance and other costs related to the program.
Bike sharing has taken off in Europe, where several outdoor advertising companies including Clear Channel run programs. Paris, in coordination with the advertising firm JCDecaux, launched its program with 10,000 bikes last year and has since doubled that number.
Officials had hoped to launch the D.C. program earlier, but several problems -- including how to keep in-use bikes parked away from the storage racks from being stolen -- need to be resolved.
Sebastian said that the city is looking at a lock that would remain on the bicycle, modeled after one used successfully in Paris.
SmartBike will not provide helmets for riders, though wearing one is encouraged, Sebastian said. The District requires the mandatory use of helmets for riders younger than 16.
"I'll be wearing my helmet on my SmartBike. I hope everyone else will," Sebastian said.
Other U.S. cities have tried lower-tech versions of bike sharing, but they have struggled with sustainability. Portland, Ore., made yellow bikes available, but there was no organized system to store or keep track of the bicycles. Most were stolen or vandalized.
Sebastian said officials hope to expand the program quickly and move it beyond downtown.
Arlington County is also looking at a bike-sharing program, though it plans to use an automated system that would reserve bikes by cellphone, said Paul DeMaio, who owns MetroBike LLC and is a consultant to the county.