Bike Shares Stalled Across the Country

Portland and Chicago put bike rental systems on hold.

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Bad news for the bikeless: Hourly bike rental systems are being delayed in three U.S. cities because of various concerns.

Chicago residents won't see rental bikes until legal issues are resolved—the city must establish whether the biker, company, or city is legally liable for any injuries incurred while riding. Officials have not announced a time frame for the rollout of the bikes. In Portland, Ore., plans are stalled indefinitely while city officials study the pros and cons of similar programs in Paris, Rome, and New Zealand.

And here in Washington, Smartbike, which was originally planned for this spring, will be available to renters in August because of meter installation and maintenance issues. The hottest month of the year in D.C. is not an ideal time to roll out a bike-sharing program, when most people would prefer taking the Metro or the air-conditioned comfort of a cab. A similar program will be unveiled in nearby Arlington, Va., but not until 2009. The Arlington bikes will not be interchangeable with the D.C. system's bikes. All of the programs are based on the bike rental program in Paris, where people can pay a yearly membership fee for access to bikes at stations around the city for short periods of time. According to a Washington Post article that ran last spring, before the rental bikes were first introduced, a study analyzed trips through Paris by car, bike, and taxi, as well as on foot, and found that the bike was always the fastest. The bikes reportedly have alleviated congestion on the city's narrow streets.

Once systems have rolled out in U.S. cities, bike sharing will hit a few more snags. In cities where many people are used to driving or taking public transportation, and where bike lanes aren't prevalent, there may be accidents. Car drivers may not know to check their rear-view mirrors before opening their doors, which could cause serious accidents by making bikers swerve into the roads. Bikers who are new to city riding may not follow traffic laws, putting themselves in danger. On top of that, Smartbike and most other bike-sharing systems do not provide helmets to riders, for hygienic reasons.

The D.C. fleet will start small—only 120 bikes, compared with Paris's 10,000—so it will hardly be a formidable challenge to cars and public transport. Regardless, Chicago and Portland—and other cities looking to unclog roadways and green up their cities—will be basing their decisions on whether enough Washingtonians will hit the road in August with two wheels, instead of four.