While other cities, including Chicago and New York, have toyed with the idea of a self-service public bike rentals, this is the first such program to go into effect in North America. It all comes down to who ultimately pays for the service. In this case, the city's Department of Transportation is partnering with Clear Channel Outdoor, which will operate and maintain the SmartBike program as part its bus shelter advertising program.
French hop on for a ride
Clear Channel isn't the only out-of-home company venturing into the public transportation space. JCDecaux's similar program in Paris provides more than 10,000 bicycles to the city, which people can rent free of charge for the first 30 minutes, with any additional fees charged to a credit card. Once the bike has been registered, a Bluetooth application is sent to the rider's phone, offering free directions to the many destinations in Paris and listing drop-off points for the rental bike.
Parisian bikers aren't serviced with ads by their "Bike Revolution," but similar iterations of JCDecaux's program in Marseilles and Toulouse, France, allow for bikes to be completely branded or open the Bluetooth content to ad messaging. Chicago was one city that considered using JCDecaux to set up a bike program last year, but it appears D.C. and Clear Channel beat them to it.
With the high price of energy, adding low-cost transportation alternatives is beneficial not just for commuters but for municipal governments as well. Washington plans to create four miles of extra bike lanes, for a total of 39 miles.
The initial rollout features a total of 120 bikes at 10 rental sites near downtown Metro stations. Other locations are planned for Union Station and outer parts of the District. Rack locations were identified using a number of factors including access to the Metro, employment and residential density, popular destinations, customer survey feedback and proximity to other racks (approximately five blocks apart). Members can rent the bikes for up to three hours.
Built for city use
Unlike the Parisian "Vélib" bikes, the D.C. three-speed bikes are small and lightweight. Designed for an urban commute, they come equipped with mudguards, covered chains and a luggage carrier. They even have motion-activated lights that automatically turn on at night. Their ergonomic design allows skirted riders to go for a spin. The bikes don't come with helmet or locks, but both are strongly encouraged even though Washington does not have a helmet law. If a bike is lost or damaged, the renter is responsible for a hefty $550 fine.
Anyone age 18 and older can sign up online for a $40 annual fee. Bikes are rented every day from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and can be returned at any location. Members swipe their cards over a chip in the handlebars to unlock a bike. Bikes may not be available at every station, but the website has a real-time inventory of bike availability and the number of open slots for returns at each site.
Bikes must be returned within three hours to any SmartBike location, but a member can immediately rent another. Subscribers are free to pedal anywhere, as long as they remain within city limits.