By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Declare the District's urban-cool inferiority complex officially over.
Today the city will join the ranks of Paris and Barcelona with the launch of the first high-tech public bike-sharing program in the United States, forcing such cities as San Francisco and Chicago to look here to see chic alternative transportation in action in America.
Transforming Washington into a "world-class city" has turned into a mantra for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), and the avid cyclist will come two wheels closer to that goal this afternoon when he kicks off the program at 14th and U streets NW.
SmartBike DC will rent 120 bikes at 10 self-service racks mostly in the downtown area, including near the Gallery Place, Shaw and Judiciary Square Metrorail stations. A $40 annual fee gets riders a membership card, which allows them to pick up a cherry red three-speed bike. Then it's time to tool around the city for up to three hours. Those who want to keep going can pick up another bike; there's no limit on the number of trips.
"It's really going to be replacing cab rides and car trips for a lot of folks looking to get around the city quickly," said Jim Sebastian, bicycle and pedestrian program manager for the District's Department of Transportation. "Plus they won't have to worry about parking. And it's fun. It's a great way to get around the city on a nice day."
Escalating gas prices and growing civic consciousness about the environment have boosted the popularity of bicycling, making what people once thought of as childhood play a practical and increasingly hip form of urban transportation.
Similar bike-sharing programs have taken off in Europe, most notably in Paris, where "la Vélorution" has swept the capital city in barely a year of existence. Vélib, a hybrid of the French words vélo (bike) and liberté (free), has more than 20,000 bikes available for rent at more than 1,400 rental kiosks.
In the United States, cities including Portland, Ore., and Austin have experimented with more low-tech versions, in which "beater bikes" were painted one color and made available for use. Most were vandalized or stolen after a short time.
Even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is interested in the two-wheeled concept. Visiting Paris last summer to learn about Vélib, the mayor listed rider safety and liability issues among his primary concerns about bringing the program across the Atlantic, but he is still considering a public bike program.
In the District, Sebastian said each SmartBike member will also receive a safe-cycling guide, a pocket manual outlining the District's cycling laws and a bicycling map of the city. The program does not provide helmets, but "we certainly encourage their use," he said.
Sebastian said several steps have been taken to deter theft. Unlike Vélib, only those with a membership card can rent bikes, and the replacement fee for a stolen or damaged bike can reach $550. In Paris, bikes can be rented by the day or week using a credit card.
"We're concerned, but we don't have a reason to believe [theft] is going to be a big problem," Sebastian said.
District officials tried to find a way to equip the bikes with locks, so they could be parked safely outside of a rack. But for now, riders have to provide their own locks. The bikes are secured in the racks by two prongs attached to the handlebars that electronically lock into place upon return.
As the program begins, SmartBike DC is targeting experienced riders who are familiar with city streets, rather than tourists. Short-term memberships are not available, and riders must be at least 18.
"We want to start small and start slow," Sebastian said. "We don't want the first-time people . . . we're trying to keep this simple at first."
Many of the kiosks are near streets that host some of the city's 34 miles of bike lanes. Thirty-one miles' worth have been added in the past seven years.
In most cities, bike sharing is a public-private partnership between city governments and outdoor advertising companies. The District's program will be maintained by Clear Channel Outdoor and is part of a 20-year bus shelter contract.
"We're getting inquiries from all around the country to see if they can take the same program and implement it in their city," said Steve Ginsburg of Clear Channel Outdoor.
District officials had hoped to launch SmartBike this spring, but several obstacles delayed the start. Providing electricity to the computerized racks ended up being a sticking point with local power provider Pepco.
About half of the fleet, about 60 bikes, is available for rental, Sebastian said. Although only seven kiosks were up and running during a test period last week, he said he expected that all 10 would be ready for use today.
About 150 memberships have been sold so far, Sebastian said.
On Monday, Ellen Jones used SmartBike to travel between her downtown office and the Frank Reeves Center on U Street for a meeting.
Jones, transportation director for the Downtown Business Improvement District, walked to the rack at 14th and H streets NW, but it wasn't working. She ended up taking the bus to U Street.
The ride home was more successful. As she rode south on 14th Street and east on F Street, several people pointed at her, primarily at stoplights.
"It simply makes getting around a lot of fun," Jones said.