Sunday, April 26, 2009

Two Wheels in Washington

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.

6 comments:

Cancemini4 said...

I just saw some of these on Saturday and thought of you! The ones I saw were stationed outside of the Judiciary Square metro stop. There were only 3 or 4 on the rack--not sure if this was because of their popularity or if they only have that many there all the time.

Nomadic Matt said...

they had this in taipei too but only in the taipei 101 area!

Erin & Lou said...

As a tourist I have pedaled around Copenhagen and Helsinski and would never have stumbled upon the neighborhood cafes or flea markets otherwise. Mobile bikes are a perfect way to see a new place in a short amount of time.

Tanya said...

@Cancemini4, We're on the same wavelength!

@Matt, What's with the limits on the bike programs? Paris has really done a good job on this thing.

@Lou, I agree, bikes are such a great way to discover a city. On foot is good too, but there's something even better about bikes.

Zhu said...

I wish Ottawa had a similar program, it would be perfect for the summer! Because of the winter (the long long long winter), few of us like to invest in a bike.

I heard Montreal adopted their "Velib" but people complained it was expensive...

Cancemini4 said...

Great article on this program spreading across Europe

http://travel.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/travel/03journeys.html?src=twttwt=nytimestravel