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Washingtonians Soon to Share City Bikes

Published August 15, 2008

BY LYNETTE CARPIET

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Move over Paris, you have some American competition. Well, not quite. But a much scaled-down version of its highly successful Vélib bike rental system should be hitting the nation’s capital this month after a few months delay.

Offering 120 bikes across 10 stations, it’s quite small compared to Paris’ more than 20,000 bikes and over 1,400 stations—but it’s a start.

“We hope to expand once we get phase one off the ground and evaluated,” said Jim Sebastian, bicycle and pedestrian program manager with the district’s department of transportation.

Though small, getting the program—dubbed SmartBike DC—off the ground hasn’t been an easy task. Originally intended to launch in May, the program’s start has been pushed back many times. In late July officials hoped it would be up and running by August.

One of the biggest challenges so far has been constructing and powering the bike racks, Sebastian said.

Being the first always means working out the kinks, but one advantage is that the provider, Clear Channel Outdoor, has been doing it for years. Its first bike rental program launched in Rennes, France, in 1998.

Today, the outdoor advertising company has 11 established bike rental schemes throughout Europe in cities including Barcelona, Stockholm and Dijon. It’s currently working on a 1,200-bike scheme for Milan, scheduled to open this fall.

“It’s a proven system from Europe—fifth-generation bike so it’s ‘plug and play,’” Sebastian said. “There’s no need to design new hardware and software.”

Bike Rentals Go High Tech. Clear Channel provides the bike rental program as part of its citywide bus shelter program.

“They give us new bus shelters, with advertising, and provide some of the revenues to us, in addition to providing the bikes,” Sebastian said, adding that plans have been in the works for five years, before Paris had a single bike.

“Most of the good systems were part of outdoor advertising contracts. We happened to be putting out a new RFP (request for proposal) for bus shelter advertising, and it included an option for bike sharing,” he added.

Clear Channel officials declined to comment on the cost to launch SmartBike DC, but Paul DeMaio, owner and founder of MetroBike, a firm that advises cities on bike-sharing schemes, estimates that most advertising programs cost about $4,500 per bike.

Why so much? The range of technology costs, including locking and unlocking and tracking of the bikes, DeMaio said.

SmartBike technology allows it to gather data about usage, such as rental time and duration, according to Martina Schmidt, Clear Channel’s SmartBike director. Clear Channel also handles ongoing operation and maintenance of the bikes.

Its kiosks send signals to a service team warning them of repair situations. They register unusual bike movements, such as if bikes have been returned within a short time span to the same station, signaling a potential need for repair.

Washingtonians gain access to the bikes with a radio frequency identification (RFID) card they receive after subscribing online. The cost: $40 a year, which gives them unlimited access to a bike for up to three hours at a time.

“It’s certainly a different approach in the U.S. than in European countries. However, the need to provide an alternative, inexpensive mode of transportation for residents and visitors are the same and municipalities are very interested in learning how they can bring a public bike-sharing program to their city,” Schmidt said.

So much so, that Clear Channel is working with San Francisco, where SmartBike is part of its contract for transit shelters. The city is in the midst of conducting a feasibility study to determine how it wants to bring the SmartBike program there, Schmidt said. And Albuquerque officials are also in discussions with Clear Channel to bring a program to their city, she added.

Coming Soon to a Station Near You. D.C. may just be the tip of the iceberg as congested U.S. cities from East to West look to adopt similar schemes.

DeMaio said some cities have begun releasing RFPs in search for providers including Boston, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, New York City, Portland and Seattle. And just north, Vancouver and Montreal have set wheels on plans as well—Montreal plans to launch as soon as next spring.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of interest in bike sharing,” said DeMaio, who’s working with Arlington County to offer a bike-sharing program through Nextbike, a lower-tech and less expensive system. “In the future, as bike-sharing providers come on the scene without an advertising connection, there will be other ways of doing the program.”

Today, all wide-scale public bike rentals are offered by outdoor advertising companies. Clear Channel’s competitors include JCDecaux (Vélib) and Cemusa, which recently launched a program in Rome.

DeMaio recommends that jurisdictions look into providing the services themselves, much like bus or transit service.

“If they’re controlling the system, they have more day-to-day understanding of operations and can ensure bikes are maintained to a high level of repair and don’t have to lean on the private sector to do this,” he said. “They can work with a local bike shop to maintain the bikes or hire a bike mechanic on county or city staff.”

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