Wednesday, April 30, 2008

bike sharing in the U.S.--it's a start


it's happening.

and it's about time.

i've written about bike-sharing programs before (reference: velib: la bicyclette parisien). at that time, i pointed out that the french introduction of a bike-sharing program wasn't really anything new, since there were already existing (and effective) programs in other cities in Europe, particularly places like Barcelona, Berlin, and Copenhagen, and to a lesser degree Amsterdam (where the service was found not so high in demand, possibly because the city is already a bike-intensive culture with people owning and using their own bikes).

i lamented in the previous post that this concept wasn't more prevalent, particularly in the U.S.,--for all kinds of various reasons (distances too great, not enough bike paths, absent bike culture, intensive car culture, etc.).

well, it appears that the first attempt at this is now happening in Washington, D.C. it's called SmartBike DC. the website is:

check out the news article written about it:

if the link doesn't work the full text of the article is below.

i should note that there are bike sharing programs in some cities in the U.S. i know of programs in Boston and Portland. but to me, i don't see these as having the same level of mass usage or mass deployment that's being given to this effort in D.C. the bike sharing programs before this attempt seemed to me to be a bit...marginalized. i mean that in the sense that they weren't really perceived, much less adopted, by mainstream citizens, but instead were viewed as something verging on "hippie-ish" or "left-wing" or "radical" or just plain "weird" or even (to the polarized ideologues among us) "socialist" or "communist" or whatever hated-political-invective-label-of-choice seemed appropriate. it didn't help that some of these programs come across as subsidized public services, meaning that they're not entirely stand-alone entities independent of donations or (and much worse) public monies (read: taxes).

this Washington program, in contrast, seems to be aimed at more mainstream consumers in a major "non-hippie-ish" city. and better yet, it's being promoted in a way that is economically competitive, and hence not reliant on the good will in donations or taxes of citizens (which is asking a lot of citizens, especially in tough economic times).

here's to hoping SmartBike DC works. it sure would help the cause of promoting bike usage, and all the attendant benefits to public health, traffic, and the environment.

Bicycle-sharing program to make its U.S. debut
By Bernie Becker International Herald Tribune April 27, 2008

Starting next month, people here will be able to borrow a bicycle anytime they need one with the swipe of a membership card.

A new public-private venture called SmartBike DC will make 120 bicycles available at 10 spots in central locations in the city. The automated program, which district officials say is the first of its kind in the nation, will operate in a similar fashion to car-sharing programs like Zipcar.

The district has partnered with an advertiser, Clear Channel Outdoor, to put the bikes on the streets.

"There's a lot of stress on our transit systems currently," said Jim Sebastian, who manages bicycle and pedestrian programs for Washington's Transportation Department. Offering another option, he said, "will help us reduce congestion and pollution," as well as parking problems.

In the deal, Clear Channel will have exclusive advertising rights in the city's bus shelters. The company has reached a similar deal with San Francisco, and Chicago and Portland, Oregon, are considering proposals.

For a $40 annual membership fee, SmartBike users can check out three-speed bicycles for three hours at a time. The program will not provide helmets but does encourage their use.

Similar programs have proved successful in Europe. The VĂ©lib program in Paris and Bicing in Barcelona both started around a year ago and already offer thousands of bicycles.

Sebastian, who started trying to bring bike-sharing to Washington even before its success in Paris and Barcelona, said that he believed that the program could grow within a year and that he hoped it would eventually offer 1,000 bicycles.

Although automated bike-sharing programs are new to the United States, the idea of bike-sharing is hardly novel. Milan, Amsterdam and Portland have all had lower-tech free bike-sharing programs in the past, with Amsterdam's dating to the 1960s.

But "studies showed that many bikes would get stolen in a day or within a few weeks," said Paul DeMaio, a Washington-area bike-sharing consultant. "In Amsterdam, they would often find them in the canals."

Improved technology allows programs to better protect bicycles. In Washington, SmartBike subscribers who keep bicycles longer than the three-hour maximum would receive demerits and could eventually lose renting privileges. Bicycles gone for more than 48 hours would be deemed lost, with the last user charged a $200 replacement fee.

That technology comes with a price, which is one reason cities and advertisers have started joining forces to offer bike-sharing. The European programs would cost cities about $4,500 per bike if sponsors did not step in, DeMaio said.

Cities realize "they literally have to spend no money on designing, marketing or maintaining" a bike-sharing program, said Martina Schmidt of Clear Channel Outdoor. Washington will keep the revenue generated by the program.

Bike-sharing has become a "public service subsidized by advertising," said Bernard Parisot, president and co-chief executive of JCDecaux North America, an outdoor advertiser that made a proposal to bring bike-sharing to Chicago.

But, Parisot added, if users had to pay all of the costs for bike-sharing, "they would probably just take a cab."

The low cost could be one of the program's major selling points.

At George Washington University in Foggy Bottom, one of the program's 10 locations, students were unsure how often they would use SmartBike but said its price made it worth a try.

"I'd probably use it more in the summer than winter," said Dewey Archer, a senior. "But for $40? That's cheaper than gas."

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