New Bikeshare program provides wheels to casual cyclists in D.C., Arlington

America's love affair with automobiles and the open road is experiencing something of a mid-life crisis. The roads aren't so empty anymore and some days seem to be swarming with bikes.
By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Like bees tumbling from the nest, scores of riders on identical ruby-red bicycles swarmed from a lot near Nationals Park on Monday, fanning out across the District and Arlington to establish a new bike-sharing network that will grow to a fleet of 1,100.

The dramatic deployment, with D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) on hand, was engineered to draw attention to the new program, which couples modern electronic gadgetry with 19th-century invention to create a system that encourages casual cyclists to pedal around town.

The batch of bikes dispatched on Monday headed for almost 50 bike stations in the District and Arlington, where they will be locked to racks until a Capital Bikeshare member comes along to use one.

Anyone can become a member, for 24 hours ($5); 30 days ($25); or a full year ($75, currently discounted to $50). Members who sign up for longer than a day receive palm-size cards that have bar codes and slip into a slot to release a bike.

The first 30 minutes of each ride are free. Then the meter starts running -- $1.50 for the next 30 minutes; $3 for the third half-hour; and $6 for each 30-minute period after that. The pricing is geared to encourage short hops from place to place rather than leisurely Saturday afternoon cruising on the C&O Canal towpath.

It all gets billed to your credit card, which will take a $1,000 hit if the bike isn't returned within 24 hours, at which time it's considered to have been stolen. The billing system is activated with the insertion of the bar-coded membership card at the bike station, and another insertion when the bike is returned there or elsewhere also is transmitted to Bikeshare headquarters through a wireless, solar-powered communications network.

Each station will begin the day with about 10 bikes and five empty docking spaces. On the Capital Bikeshare Web site, a click of the mouse on each station reveals how many bikes are available at any given moment, and how many docking stations are open for those who want to return a bike. Yes, there will be smartphone apps.

Capital Bikeshare dramatically expands the program known as SmartBike that the District launched two years ago. Once the full fleet is in service, promised by late October, the program will be the largest of its type in the nation, transportation officials said.

Christopher Holben, a bike program specialist with the District Department of Transportation, said the system will grow by four or five new stations each week. The network will eventually include 114 stations.

"The majority of stations right now are in the more densely populated wards: 1, 2 and 6," Holben said. "But they will be in all wards in the city."

They also will be in Arlington. Jay Fisette, chairman of the Arlington County Board, was among those who mounted a new bike Monday and pedaled to a station across the Potomac.

"You see a lot more bikes on the road in Arlington today than you did five years ago," said Fisette, who rode a bike through Europe in 1981. "We're expanding our biking infrastructure as a result of this bike-share system. Having a regional system, instead of two different systems, is huge."

The three-speed bikes are huge, too, the behemoths of the cycling world. But they are designed to adjust easily to fit people of all sizes.

"They're virtually indestructible," Holben said.

Built in Canada for bike-share programs, they have a basket with a bungee cord on the handlebars to accommodate purses, briefcases and a modest bag of groceries. The twin red taillights and strobelike headlights, powered by friction, are on whenever the bike is moving.

The seat and massive frame are built for comfort, not for speed. Pushing these bikes past 15 mph would require a feat of strength and death-defying derring-do.

The District's $6 million share of the cost came in a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Arlington's $835,000 share came from several public sources in Virginia, officials said.

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