This week marks the official beginning of a bold new experiment with bike sharing in the United States.
It just won't be in Portland, which this year became one of only two U.S. cities to earn the League of American Bicyclists' highest honor—a "platinum" Bicycle Friendly Community designation.
Instead, the nation's first such bike-sharing program will begin Wednesday, Aug. 13, in a fourth-tier "bronze" city—Washington, D.C.
SmartBike D.C. works kind of like the more-established Zipcar for car-sharing—with bike users paying $40 a year to share two-wheeled vehicles instead of four-.
It's starting slowly, with only about 100 bikes and subscribers as of last week. But, according to its D.C. backers, the program already has something Portland taxpayers might envy: no direct costs.
Last month, Portland city leaders halted a plan to bring a similar bike-sharing model here (see "A Delay in Wheel Time," WW, July 16, 2008) after they realized they couldn't guarantee the city wouldn't end up covering any program losses.
Unlike in Portland, D.C.'s transportation department has figured out how to make the bike-sharing program work without upfront money from district's taxpayers. How? By making the program's start-up and maintenance a requirement of a largely unrelated, yet lucrative, district contract dealing with selling ad space on D.C.'s bus shelters.
The idea was that any company that stood to make millions on that contract selling ad space could afford to spend some of that money on covering the city's costs of a bike-sharing program.
In the past decade, European cities such as Oslo and Rennes, France, have started bike-sharing programs using this model through contracts with Clear Channel Communications, the Texas-based company that eventually won the multimillion-dollar, 20-year D.C. ad-selling contract with the bike-sharing provision. (See this week's Rogue of the Week for the company's Roguish side in Portland.)
Don't expect a similar setup in Portland, where state law on free speech in the public right of way would thwart such an ad model, says Sue Keil, Portland's transportation director. Also, TriMet, not the city, runs the bus shelters.
"Everyone strives to be like Portland," says Jim Sebastian, the bicycle guru for D.C.'s transportation department who is overseeing Clear Channel's work. "This is the one thing we've got on Portland."
Subscribers to SmartBike D.C. use a credit card to sign up for a membership and then receive a SmartBike card in the mail. Users swipe the card at the computerized kiosk at one of the district's 10 operating locations. A green light on the bike rack lets the subscriber know which bike will be unlocked automatically. Riders then have only three hours before they must return the bike to one of the 10 locations. (The district plans to add more sites in coming months.)
The three-hour window perplexes some D.C. residents who say that time limit will reduce the number of users. Subscribers can't pick up a bike in the morning, ride to their office and return the bike in the evening after work.
"I don't get the business model here," Mike Doan writes on thewashcycle.com, a D.C. bicycling blog. "The $40 annual fee excludes most tourists, who are only here for a short time. And the three-hour limit excludes commuters, who work eight hours a day."
But Sebastian says skeptics are wrong. The program is designed to work like other modes of public transportation. "You don't get to keep the bus at your office all day," Sebastian says. Even if a rider owns a bike—for commuting or recreation—Sebastian says the rider will find the bike-sharing model convenient in the same way people who own cars sometimes use taxis.
Portland officials, including Mayor-elect Sam Adams, are still hoping to play catch-up with D.C. They don't yet know when, but those officials plan to send out a new request for proposals on the longed-for bike-sharing program
"We are very keen on the bike-sharing concept and are committed to rolling it out in a smart way," says Tom Miller, Adams' chief of staff.
At the outset, the D.C. bikes don't come with helmets or locks. Riders are penalized if they bring the bikes back late. Three late returns and you're out.