Call it Zipcar for the pedaling crowd. This summer, Washington, D.C., will roll out a bicycle-sharing program in which members can rent a two-wheeler from spots around the city with the swipe of a card.
Organizers say the automated program is the first of its kind in the United States. Like bicycle-sharing programs that have proliferated in Europe over the past decade, SmartBike DC is set up as a public-private venture between the city and an advertiser. In this case, it's Clear Channel Outdoor—a division of the radio giant—which provides the bikes in exchange for ad space on bus shelters. The Phoenix-based company, which already runs bike-share programs in 13 European cities, also inked a contract with San Francisco for a bike share (officials are still working out the details). Meanwhile, Chicago, Albuquerque, N.M., and Portland, Ore., are all considering proposals from advertisers.
Jim Sebastian, Washington's transportation planner, sees bike sharing as a step toward alleviating stress on the city's transportation systems. "We're trying to become a more bicycle-friendly and walkable city, but we also like the idea of reducing congestion and emissions," he says.
Security. In D.C., members will pay an annual fee of $40 for access to 100 red cruisers, which will be stored at 10 centrally located kiosks around town. Users swipe their cards to electronically unlock a bicycle, which must be returned within three hours. Those who don't return bikes promptly will be issued warnings that could lead to a freeze in membership privileges. The penalty is $200 for lost or stolen bikes.
With its electronic payment, locking, and tracking systems, the SmartBike program is eons more advanced than its grass-roots U.S. predecessors, which include Austin's Yellow Bike Project. Such community-driven programs, which allow people to freely borrow donated bikes and return them at will, have been plagued by theft and vandalism.