Washington, D.C., Chicago and San Francisco are among a handful of cities implementing European bike-sharing models in an effort to tackle traffic problems, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and boost eco-cachet, but questions linger about their viability in the United States.
In Rennes, France, bike sharing is thriving. Its 200-bike Velo a la Carte fleet has served the city of 500,000 since 1998. Residents use a swipe card to check out bikes for short-term work or play. It was the first of a string of high-tech sharing programs in major European cities.
In Paris, borrowers use the Velib system about 75,000 times daily. The Barcelona system, Bicing, now boasts 25 million miles traveled on its 3,000 bikes. And in Lyon, France, a city of 2 million, residents have access to 20,000 bikes.
American programs, boosted by the popularity of the European systems, are coming close to launch with similar features: a swipe-card system connected to electronic bike racks, partnerships between local government and the private sector, and low rental costs.
"Bike sharing is so new to the United States, almost everything from Europe is being borrowed here," said Paul DeMaio, who runs Washington, D.C.,-based MetroBike LLC, a bike-sharing consultancy.
Of the cities planning bike-sharing programs, the District of Columbia is farthest along. Its SmartBikeDC is expected to launch in May, making it the first high-tech bike-sharing program in the country.
"In certain cities, you've pretty much got your car or your car," said Jim Sebastian, a transportation planner and key advocate within D.C.'s Department of Transportation. "Here, you're going to have bus, subway, bike. You're going to have a lot more options."
SmartBikeDC will launch with 10 stations and 120 bikes spread across two square miles downtown, to "whet the appetite," Sebastian said. Although it's a much smaller launch than Velib, which started with 5,000 bikes in 2007, or Bicing, with 1,500 earlier in the year, the District's plan was created in 2004, pre-dating the larger programs that typify bike-sharing today.
SmartBikeDC's bicycles, designed and created specifically for public programs, will be available to any bicyclist who pays a $40 yearly subscription fee. A $200 fine is charged if a bike is not returned. Rentals will be limited to three hours, as they are in Oslo's bike-sharing program, though many European systems charge per ride or per hour after an initial free period.
"It's kinda like iTunes," Sebastian said. "You get a 99-cent charge on your credit card, it's kinda annoying. We're trying to keep it simple."
Clear Channel Inc.'s Adshel, an outdoor advertising and furniture company, will administer the project. The company is no stranger to bike sharing, having launched the programs in Rennes and Barcelona, among others. Clear Channel will give Washington, D.C., $153 million and a share in its advertising revenue as part of a broader 20-year bus shelter deal that treats public bicycles as an amenity.
Mirroring the successful European programs, income from advertising will be used to offset the cost of the bikes, the racks and maintenance.
But it's more than a financial partnership for the city. Advocates for the programs are more likely to cite benefits such as reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants, improved health, cost savings for car owners who pay for gas and parking, and improved safety, as cities continue to invest in bike lanes and other bike-friendly infrastructure.
"Cities like Paris and Washington are always looking for an edge, and increasing the number of transportation options is a big part of increasing your quality of life for a city," Sebastian said.
Other U.S. cities are considering bike-sharing programs ahead of the launch of SmartBikeDC. San Francisco, under Mayor Gavin Newsom's environmental action plan, will expand the city's bike network and investigate a bike-sharing program that could also be run by Clear Channel.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has met with JCDecaux, a major global advertiser and the operator of Velib. Daley said he wants his city to be the most bike-friendly in the country.
More cities are testing the waters, including New York City, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., but for now, all eyes are on the nation's capital.
"There's interest all across the United States now," said Eric Gilliland, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, or WABA, which will help sell the program locally. "People will really be looking to D.C. to see what works and what doesn't."
Just across the Potomac River in Arlington, Va., DeMaio is spearheading another program that could launch as early as this fall in a busy commercial corridor. Arlington has shunned bus shelter advertising, so DeMaio opted for a low-tech program, using cell phones to transmit bike-lock combinations. The program would be free, subsidized by on-bike advertising.
With no American precedent, Washington, D.C., stakeholders aren't sure how to determine success or set plans for growth. They don't know who will use the bikes or how they will use them, and no targets have been set for numbers of subscribers, bike use, miles not traveled by car, or tricky environmental numbers such as the volume of carbon dioxide saved by switching from a car to a shared bike.
"It's not a terribly easy thing to implement," said Sebastian Buhrmann, an environmental technology consultant at Cologne-based Rupprecht Consult. "This is a mistake that many cities make. They say, 'It can't be so complicated, it's only about bicycles.' But the truth is you have to think about it."
Buhrmann says rental station spacing is critical. In Washington's program, Sebastian acknowledges, the 10 stations are farther apart than the three-block model that has been successful in Paris.
But D.C. has a lot going for it as well: flat terrain, other popular modes of public transportation, high residential and business density, thriving tourism, 150 miles of interconnected bike paths and, perhaps most importantly, a cluster of experienced transportation planners, including Sebastian and DeMaio. Both realize the difficulty - and the potential - of the task ahead of them.
"Bike sharing is going to become as commonplace as subways in the future," DeMaio said, but he added that it wasn't a solution to all cities' problems. "We're up against this huge status quo of automobile use and pollution and global warming," he said.
Most planners acknowledge it will take a program on a much bigger scale to have much impact on the environment, but WABA's Gilliland isn't concerned.
"This is what we have. We'll figure out how to make it work," he said.
[Watch Paul Demaio demonstrate how Arlington's bike-sharing program could work.]