Bike-Share Debuts in Washington D.C.

smartbike_station.jpgPublic bike-share in the U.S. hit a milestone yesterday when SmartBike DC, the first program of its kind in an American city, launched in full. Coverage in the Washington Post was heavy on the implications for D.C.’s image:

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.

One critical difference between SmartBike and its European counterparts is the size of the network. When Vélib debuted in Paris, it provided 10,000 bikes at 750 locations. The SmartBike planners are taking a gradualist approach, starting off with 120 bikes stationed at 10 sites concentrated near downtown D.C. So far, 150 memberships have been sold, the Post reports.

The fact that D.C. has cleared the hurdles of getting a system up and running is piquing the interest of other cities, according to the outdoor advertising firm that sponsors SmartBike:

"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.

Which American city will go live with public bike-share next? New York recently signaled its interest in a bike-share program, and Portland is actively pursuing one, despite some setbacks. The highly informative Bike-Sharing Blog has put together a Google Maps mashup showing where programs exist, and where ones are in various stages of study and planning. By my count, 14 cities are in the running to follow D.C.

Photo of a SmartBike DC station: afagen/Flickr

  • Louis

    This system is identical to Clear Channel Outdoor’s bike-sharing programs in Stockholm and Oslo. I found it to be inferior to the JCDecaux Velib’ (Paris) and Le Vélo (Marseille) systems.

    Most significantly, there is no locking mechanism on the bikes. The Velib’ bikes have built in cable locks, with keys. You lock the cable into the bike (around a pole, or through the wheels) and the keys are released. In this system, you must return your bike to a machine, or use your own lock. I’m not sure what someone would do with a rental bike for 3 hours without locking it, that would be very utilitarian.

    Which brings me to the next criticism, which is this 3-hour maximum. Velib’ uses a 30-minute allowance without a fee. (There is always a daily, weekly, or annual fee or deposit). This DC system does not encourage a very efficient use of bikes, they seem to be there for the sake of having a system. With locks you would be able to make a long round trip, at least.

    Finally, the Velib’ system does allow instant rentals, without registration. Even in Stockholm, one is required to sign up at a kiosk to get a card. Velib’ uses printed receipts with numbers (for short term) or contact-less smartcards for long term (can be combined with the public transport smart card). I believe one reason that DC cannot do this is the credit card system in the United States is less secure. Europe uses a bank-card system with pin numbers on all cards, and gold-chip security. The US uses a signature system with credit cards, making machines less useful.

    In Paris, though, even the process for a yearly Velib’ card is onerous, requiring a mailed in form, with a check for the deposit (about 200 euros). The daily/weekly rentals can be purchased at the station, but they will take the 200 euro from your bank account until the rental period is over (or you terminate it prematurely).

    Also, the JCDecaux Velib’ bikes are more fun to ride, and don’t have the tiny front wheels. But they’re both fun.

    Enjoy it, DC!

  • Larry Littlefield

    The MTA, Port Authority and NYC should do it at major transportation terminals such as GCT, Penn, Atlantic Terminal, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the WTC PATH station the 34th Street ferry terminal, and the Staten Island Ferry terminal.

    Users of these facilities should be able to rent bikes upon arrival in the city, rather than having to get on the subway. It would be a particularly good alternative for those coming in from the suburbs and working in Lower Manhattan.

  • Jay D

    It’s very nice and encouraging that DC has at least made this attempt at bike share, but this is no way to ingratiate this new concept into the mainstream. This is really little more than a token effort that will more than likely fail than succeed due to the limited rollout and half-baked implementation. The devil’s in the details – like why don’t the bikes have baskets? Integrated locks and as others have mentioned, a 3-hour use window? I hope that whenever NYC implements bike share, that it is more on the comprehensive scale like Velib in Paris with all the logistical details worked out.

  • CC

    Best of luck to the program in DC, but starting with 150 bikes is a joke and sets the system up for failure. Paris got it right by unveiling an enormous system right from the start- then continuing to make it even bigger. Bikes get stolen, of course, but the general public won’t notice that or get discouraged.

    How is anyone going to reasonably expect to find a bike when they need one in DC if there are only 150 (or even several hundred after expansion)? It seems a typically American half-assed approach to trying something new and if it fails it will become the raison de ne pas etre for would-be systems elsewhere in the country.

    As far as placing bikes at transportation hubs, that’s an obvious starting point. However the allure of a program like this is for bikes to be available almost anywhere in the city, making impromptu trips from any point A to any point B actually feasible.. and easy. Easy is key.

  • Spud Spudly

    And they got Pee Wee Herman to design their bikes!

  • As a bicycle riding resident of Washington, DC, I also have my reservations about the system. If you look at the map of the current SmartBike configuration, you’ll find that most of the bicycles are located in the central business district and not located outside of it.

    DC’s topography includes a hill that surrounds the city and it creates a natural line of where some bicyclists stop and opt for using the bus or metro. If some of the SmartBikes were placed above the hill, there would be more people who’d use them simply because its faster to ride them down hill rather than uphill.

    So in many ways by placing them in the downtown area the SmartBikes seen more oriented toward tourists than actual residents, yet I doubt few tourists will go through the registration process before visiting the city. I think they should have used the Paris model and placed the racks at most of the Metro stops first instead of going small and hoping it will grow.

    As to the commenter about the lack of baskets, you are slightly right. They have a spot on the front that is a wanna-be basket. Instead of installing an actual basket on the front or back of the bicycles, they are using a bungy cord that wraps around the front. I expect these to break first!

    I am debating whether I’ll get a SmartBike pass just so I can make a humorous video called “Doing Dumb Things on a SmartBike.”


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