I had heard rumors of a bike-sharing program in Washington, DC, but I had never really seen it in action. Did it truly exist? As a temporary resident of Paris I used to love renting Vélibs for quick jaunts along the Seine, weekend tours of the city, or late night post-revelry transportation; if there was a similar stateside program, it certainly hadn't attained the ubiquitous nature of its French counterpart. Until, maybe, now. On the day before Earth Day, Washington, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty announced he wants his city's Vélib-esque "SmartBike DC" program to expand from its current size of 10 stations to 100 stations, with over 1,000 rental bikes available to the residents of DC. Paris' cycle share has become a smash hit amongst Parisians, can our nation's capital do the same? I set out in search of a SmartBike DC rental station to find out.
The station I visited is located right outside the Foggy Bottom-George Washington University metro station. Hang a left at the top of the escalators and there they are. One of the first things I noticed was that the bikes were very basic, just like Vélib. No frills, only function. Two bikers were standing nearby so I started up a conversation: How does the program work? How many people are members of SmartBike DC? Where are the stations located? And why on earth don't these bikes have baskets on the front like the ones in Paris? Jerry, one of the guys I met, was a wealth of information. He told me that a subscription only cost $40 per year, and that a couple of hundred people had already signed up (Update: after sending Jerry the link to this story, he replied to let me know that it's actually a couple of thousand people). Both Jerry and the other renter were trying to return their two-wheelers, but had been thwarted by a full docking station. The same thing used to happen to me in Paris, proving that no system is perfect.
Would I try SmartBike DC and love it the way I tried and loved Vélib? Unfortunately, probably not. For starters, the program only operates in the District, and I live across the Potomac in Arlington. You can't even take the bikes outside of DC city limits. What's more, bikes are only available between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Not that I have a strong need for a bike in the middle of the night, but you never know (see reference to post-revelry use above). Three of the things I loved most about Vélib - wide city and suburb availability, use at all hours, basket for market wares or bag - can't be said for SmartBike. Nevertheless, I congratulate Jerry and everyone else who is getting this system off the ground in DC. Bike sharing has transformed the French capital and think it could do the same for the American one as well. If they ever extend into my neck of the woods, I'll be happy to join their ranks.