Where are the D.C. Smartbikes?

NG Books Editorial Assistant Hunter Braithwaite likes bikes, and tells us a bit about his hopes for the D.C. SmartBike program.

On the first of July, aboard a very crowded Metro, I read this article in the Washington Post’s Express.  Seems that we’re going to have to wait a little longer for the SmartBike program to take off. You know, those cute little (empty) bike racks that are popping up around northwest D.C. I for one am very excited to think that Washington is attempting a bike sharing program, which is healthy, progressive, and sustainable. Who cares if it’s being done in typical D.C. fashion, that is, slowly and illogically? 

IT has done several stories on Paris’s Vélib program, the astonishingly popular initiative set up last summer by the City of Lights. Since then, there have been beaucoup de praise and a few criticisms; namely, that it’s giving access to bikes to people who shouldn’t have access to bikes (tourists, the uncoordinated). And to be fair, this isn’t far from the truth. Paris is a bicycle-friendly city, but it’s still a city. A big one. And most tourists are just that, touring. They don’t have a firm grasp on the nuances of Parisian geography, traffic patterns, or the relentless tide of teenagers on scooters. In short, they’re bad cyclists. But a few broken scraped knees and dented Peugeots shouldn’t be held against them, should it?

But with the three recent deaths of cyclists using the Vélib system since May, some frustrated Parisians are now talking of putting an end to the vélo-fun. Bertrand Delanoë, the city’s mayor, answers with a resounding “Non,” and points out that the accident rate has increased only 7 percent in the city, while the use of bikes has jumped up 24 percent. The city has had over 27 million rentals on the Velib system so far and the program continues growing with every passing week. The city started out with more than 10,000 bikes, and that number has doubled in the past year. And this isn’t just a Paris thing—other cities have their own versions: Barcelona, Lyon, Seville, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Munich.

Back in D.C., the streets are choked with traffic, and the Cold War-era Metro breaks down with the changing tides. Add to this that it’s summer, so the District is flooded with tour groups. We have a baseball team now with fans who ride the Metro, and gas prices are causing people to, gasp, rely on public transportation. It’s great, I know, but it’d be much better if there was a public transportation system capable of supporting everyone.

Enter the SmartBike program, D.C.’s answer to the Vélib. Announced back in January, the program was met with high hopes. By May, these bike racks (ten, as compared to Paris’s initial 750) were to be filled with bikes, the program directors said. But May was bikeless, as was June. July doesn’t look much better. All the while there’s been more tourists, more traffic, and rising gas prices.

Not to mention that the initial efforts would garner sacre bleus

from even the most humble of Frenchmen.  Whereas Paris (area pop. 11 million) started off with more than 10,000 bikes, D.C. (area pop. 5.3 million)

starts off with 120. OK, so Paris is bigger, but not…83.3 times as big.

While that number of bikes will do very little to ease the strain put on the Metro, they’re definitely a start. If only the program would start. (Perhaps a bit of a challenge from New York City

would be enough to provoke them, as NYC just put out a planning request for a bike-share program earlier this month.)  But the question remains.

Once it actually starts, will this type of program work in D.C.?  Even though Jefferson and L’Enfant planned for an American Paris, the cities have evolved in different directions.

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The concept of communal bikes has been around for years, but the infrastructure just hasn’t existed as it does now. As earlier efforts in Amsterdam and Portland have shown, the honor system doesn’t apply, and rider accountability is a must. Denizens of Amsterdam would, no joke, throw bikes in the canals when they were finished. The SmartBike program requires a $40 dollar annual membership, so there will be rider accountability, but what about vandalism and theft; and with only 120 bikes, will there even be one available? I can’t help but wonder if next year all 120 bikes will be destroyed, and the people in charge of the SmartBike program will simply say, “See guys, this is why we can’t have nice things.”

Photo: Adam Fagen via Flickr

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