Pedaling Around D.C. on a Borrowed Bike

By Robert Thomason
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 30, 2008; 5:34 PM

When I used to ride around town on my personal bike, a Jamis hybrid, no one ever stopped to chat about biking. But things changed on Aug. 8.

That was the day I started using D.C.'s new bike rental program, called SmartBike DC.

Folks from all walks of life and nationalities now come up to me when I am picking up a rental bike and are very curious about these new-fangled structures full of bikes on the sidewalks. They watch with interest when the bike's handlebars detach from the holes in the rack; we exchange opinions about bicycling comfort when I adjust the seat level with its simple lever; we compare the virtues of the SmartBike's three gears to the 10 gears of other bikes. Most of all, people are surprised that the rental program costs only $40 a year, less than bicycle shops charge for a good spring tune-up.

The program is similar to several in Europe and other places, and world travelers can often be heard commenting, "This is like Paris" or "They are all over Belgium." In the D.C. program, riders may check out a modified type of mountain bike for up to three hours. One is allowed to check out bikes as many times in a day as one would like.

Well, almost as much as one would like. Early in the program there were some glitches that prevented me from returning or picking up a bike at some desired locations. But these bugs appear to be getting worked out. The locations are concentrated in and around the central business district, and, at least in the very heart of downtown, if one rack doesn't work there is another rack a few blocks and a short ride away.

The announced goal of the program is to help reduce traffic in the most congested parts of the city. The bikes are fairly well-suited to these streets, with low pressure tires for rough spots in the pavement. (I tell folks that I use my own bike for smoother rides and the city's bikes for the city's pot holes.)

The bikes work best in the first two gears, so there isn't much incentive to hog one all afternoon for a speedy cruise down the C&O Canal. Plastic coverings protect the wheels, reducing damage from rain and frustrating would-be bicycle tire thieves.

The program is still new, so there is not a lot of competition to acquire a bike right now; it is not unusual to be the only rider among a few on-lookers at the rack. Also, the city hasn't fully stocked all the bikes yet, so occasionally you can happen upon an empty rack.

But generally the system works well. It has not been a way to get around quicker, but a chance to meet many folks in D.C. who are open-minded about something new and are happy to chat about it for a moment.

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