- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2008


Need to get to a meeting on the Hill? Lunch on K Street? Drinks in Georgetown? More Washingtonians could be pedaling to those appointments when the city launches the nation’s first European-style bike-sharing service next month.

The program, called SmartBike D.C., is similar to car-sharing services like Zipcar. Users must sign up for a $40 annual membership to gain access to a network of bikes stored at computerized racks around the city. To unlock the bike, users simply scan their access cards. The bikes can be used for up to three hours at a time and can be returned at any SmartBike station. In the beginning at least, there won’t be any hourly charges.

The D.C. program is starting small, with just 10 stations and 120 bikes. In contrast, Paris started its service last summer with more than 10,600 bikes at 750 stations. But D.C. officials are eager to expand it quickly if the response is good. Proponents say the program easily could be expanded to more than 1,000 bikes at more than 100 stations within a year.

“This is one more transportation option for residents, visitors and workers,” said Jim Sebastian, who runs the D.C. Department of Transportation’s bicycle programs.

At the current size, the bike share is unlikely to make a dent in easing congestion on city streets or crowding on the Metro, Mr. Sebastian said. But “if it works and we expand it, then it will,” he said.

SmartBike is run by Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings Inc., which handles bus-shelter advertising for the District. The company runs the bike-sharing programs in 13 European cities, including Barcelona, Spain, and Oslo, Norway. The company sees it as another free outdoor amenity, like bus shelters, that it can offer cities and use to generate advertising revenue.

In most cities where the program operates, advertising is attached to the bike stations or on the bikes themselves. In the District, there won’t be advertising initially, but that could change if the program is expanded, said Martina Schmidt, the company’s director of SmartBikes.

Still, the city didn’t have to spend any money to set up the program because it is part of its bus-shelter contract with Clear Channel Outdoor. Mr. Sebastian said the city likely is getting a smaller percentage of the revenue from bus-shelter advertising because of the costs associated with the bike program, but officials haven’t put a number on the lost revenue.

Paul DeMaio, who owns bike-sharing consultancy MetroBike LLC, said a program like Clear Channel Outdoor’s costs about $4,500 per bike to start. Beyond the bikes themselves, that figure includes capital costs associated with the computerized bike racks, he said.

Mr. DeMaio is currently working with Arlington County on its bike-sharing program. It could begin as soon as the fall, he said.

The specially designed SmartBikes that D.C. will use are three-speed, upright “comfort” bikes. They feature mudguards to prevent the rider from getting wet, chain guards to keep clothes from getting caught, front and rear lights that turn on in the dark and easily adjustable seats.

“I call it a no-excuses bike,” Mr. Sebastian said. “ ’I don’t have the right shoes’, ‘I’m wearing a dress,’ ‘I don’t want to get wet’ — none of those are good excuses with this bike.”

Actually, there is arguably one good excuse: not having a helmet with you. SmartBike users are strongly encouraged to wear helmets, but they have to bring their own.

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