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Jun 132008

smartbikedc.jpgBy John DeFore

Some time in the coming weeks, residents of our nation’s capital will be the first American customers of a service some Europeans have used for a decade, a public/private partnership that adds bicycles to the more familiar array of public transportation options like buses and trains.

The SmartBike DC program will offer subscriptions allowing members to borrow bikes from locations scattered around downtown. Self-service stations will automate the process, making it somewhat reminiscent of the Zipcar program that has simplified short-use auto rental in cities from Boston to Santa Cruz, but (thanks of course to the lower cost and risk factors of the vehicles being rented) SmartBike promises a much simpler system and wider accessibility.

For a flat fee of forty dollars, members will get a one-year SmartBike subscription that entitles them to use a bike as often as every day. The customer gets a member card which operates electronic readers at any of ten bike stations, which automatically unlock a bike for use. When they’re done, riders simply insert the cycle back into a docking station and wait for a light to signal that it’s safely locked up.

There are some limitations: A bike may be used for a maximum of three hours; strangely, although the rental process is automated, they can only be withdrawn between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. (Ten o’clock is the latest a bike may be unlocked, meaning it would be due back at one in the morning.)

While the lack of late-night availability rules out SmartBike as an option for bar-hoppers seeking a safer (though of course still risky) alternative to driving a car, the three-hour limit isn’t as restrictive as it sounds — upon returning one bike, users can immediately borrow another, and are free to daisy-chain their rentals all day if they like.

According to organizers, the service hours “may be modified, once we have our first usage data.” Karyn Le Blanc, communications director for D.C.’s District Department of Transportation, says the restrictions were ” a matter of accountability, a means of getting all the bikes back into the racks to know that we have them there for users the next day.”

While the cycles have a basic storage rack built in, they’re otherwise no-frills: they don’t come with headlamps or u-locks, and certainly don’t have baby carriers. As the program’s web site notes, “helmets are not provided … but are recommended.”

The program is run by Clear Channel Outdoor, the division of Clear Channel Communications specializing in sales of outdoor advertising plastered on everything from billboards to the tops of taxis. It’s part of a deal the company has made with the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) in exchange for the right to sell ads on bus shelters.

DDOT gets all the revenue from SmartBike subscription fees. “Almost all of our programs are supported by the sale of advertising on street level amenities, such as transit shelters,” says Martina Schmidt, the director of Clear Channel’s SmartBike program, who goes on to note that fees may vary in different cities because contracts arrangements will be different.

Schmidt supplies a quick summary of SmartBike’s history: “Clear Channel Outdoor opened the first computerized, public bicycle rental program in the city of Rennes in France in 1998. We have since thensmartbikebarcelona.jpg opened programs in several other European cities, such as Oslo, Stockholm, Dijon, Barcelona (pictured here), and others. Just last week, Clear Channel Outdoor was awarded the bike program for Milan, Italy.”

While the basic idea has remained the same, she says, “There have been quite a few technological improvements and developments over the last decade, such as the computerized locking system, an even more ergonomic bike, a new station design and others.”

Why would SmartBike make its American debut in D.C. instead of a more populous city, or one more associated with environmental activism? Simple: The District was the first to extend the invitation.

“Washington D.C. was the first city who asked,” issuing a proposal request in 2004, Schmidt recalls.

The district, which the Brookings Institute ranks as first in the nation for “walkability,” apparently wants to become one of the most “rideable” as well. It is making a push to expand bicycle commuting and has “just hit a milestone of 30 miles of bike lanes in the city,” according to Le Blanc. (The DC Bicycle Master Plan calls for a total of 50 miles of bike lanes.)

“There are many municipalities that have contacted us, which are gathering facts and evaluating their local infrastructure,” Schmidt adds, mentioning contenders both obvious — Portland, Oregon and New York City — and less so, like Albuquerque.

Presumably, planners and transportation chiefs in other cities will be eager to see how SmartBike fares when it starts Washington operations. Le Blanc confirms that the program was set to launch in May but has been delayed a time or two, and is now expected to be running “before the end of summer.”

“It’s a first-time installation, and there were electrical issues with wiring the control units,” she explains.
While the system isn’t yet selling subscription cards and Schmidt admits Clear Channel planners “don’t have projected user numbers,” she states that “from the feedback we have been receiving over the last few weeks, we can say that there is a lot of interest in people wanting to subscribe.”

And, even before the first pedal is pushed, “Clear Channel Outdoor is discussing potential expansion plans with DDOT.”

  • For more information on biking for recreation or commuter biking, see the Washington Area Bicyclists Association. Tourists interested in incorporating biking into their visit to the nation’s capital can find info on bike routes and rentals at GoDCGo.

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