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SmartBike Open for Business in DC

Wear a helmet. That's the one essential you're not going to get when using the new SmartBike DC system to take a three-hour tour around the city.

SmartBike Wheel.jpgSmartBike logo on rear wheel. (Thomson)

Such a deal: For $40 a year, people 18 or older can register online and receive an electronic card, like a SmarTrip card, that allows them to take bikes from one of the docking stations across downtown Washington and use them for up to three hours. There are 10 docking stations now and more are on the way.

Mayor Adrian Fenty formally launched the program today, next to the SmartBike rack at the Reeves Center at U and 14th streets NW.

Chantal Buchser, who works at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association in Dupont Circle and has been beta testing SmartBikes, rode up in a dress suitable for office wear.

The bike's design, with its low bar and well-protected chain, should allow just about any office worker to cruise the city in comfort before returning the bike to any of the stations with a spare slot. There's a basket with a Bungee cord in front of the handle bars, which come equipped with a bell.

Buchser, who is used to urban biking, said the transition from her own bike to the SmartBike design felt comfortable and safe. She noted that the SmartBike's distinctive design and red-and-white markings made it stand out, getting the attention of drivers and pedestrians as she rode across town. That's good for safety, she said.

SmartBike Web.jpg Bike rack near Washington Circle. (Thomson)

Don't keep the bike out more than three hours, and above all, don't lose it. A replacement fee of $550 will be charged against you if the bike you took is not returned within 24 hours.

But basically, it's a two-wheel Zipcar. Go to this page if you want to start the enrollment process.

Do bring a helmet and a lock, if you're planning on stopping someplace between the SmartBike stations. Look here for the District's bicycle laws and regulations.

Eric Gilliland, the executive director of WABA, was at the Reeves Center ceremony to pass out the organization's guide to safe biking in the Washington area, but you can find that guide online here.

SmartBike is part of the same deal the city struck with Clear Channel Outdoor to set up new bus shelters across the District. The company gets to sell the advertising on the shelters.

Ready to go? This link will take you to a biking map of the District.

By Robert Thomson  |  August 13, 2008; 2:39 PM ET
Categories:  Biking , Commuting  
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What happens if you don't return it within three hours (say you return it in 4)? Do you get charges extra? Do the bike police come and getchya?

Also, can you take it back at the three hours and then immediately take another one out again?

Posted by: Laura | August 13, 2008 4:27 PM | Report abuse

Don't forget lights- It's the law to have lights after dark.

Posted by: Mike | August 13, 2008 8:11 PM | Report abuse

I've seen these bikes and they look fun! From what I could tell, they have a front and rear light mounted on them already. Not the strongest beam on the front, but it looks like you would be seen.

Posted by: John | August 13, 2008 8:57 PM | Report abuse

"What happens if you don't return it within three hours (say you return it in 4)? Do you get charges extra? Do the bike police come and getchya?"

Their site says that they reserve the right to revoke your membership if you do this repeatedly. I imagine if you do it once in a great while they wouldn't hassle you (suppose you go to return it near the end of the 3 hours and the stand is full--you have to find another location).

"Also, can you take it back at the three hours and then immediately take another one out again?"

Their site says you can.

I walked past two of these yesterday on the way over to the Phone Booth. Most of the slots for bikes were empty, which made me wonder whether the program got off to a fast start or whether (more likely) not all the bikes were in place yet. Either way, seems like a nice idea in concept that needs to overcome two limitations: (a) It's not useful for tourists due to the cost ($40 per year with no "daily fee" option); (b) You can't use this service to go to Nationals Park due to the 3-hour time limit. Going to the ballgame strikes me as a great use for this--IF they had a location there. (If all the bikes are gone when the game ends, you just hop on the Metro.) Perhaps they'll expand this in the future. But I find it hard to imagine local business types using this service to across town at midday. Biking to work and changing clothes when you arrive is sensible enough, but biking across town at midday in business attire doesn't strike me as something many people will do. I'm rather surprised that they haven't come up with a way for tourists to use this.

Posted by: Rich | August 14, 2008 8:52 AM | Report abuse

I'm a daily bike commuter from Northwest DC (Chevy Chase Circle) to downtown. Nevertheless, I signed up for SmartBike. Why?

Using my bike mid-day is a hassle. It's locked up in the office garage, and has cleated pedals. At a minimum, I'd have to change shoes.

SmartBike gives me a way to get go on farther than walking distance errands or to locations that might be otherwise difficult to get to.

My rub is that the closest SmartBike spot (McPherson Square) isn't terribly close to me. I work near the Wilson Building. A better location would have been Freedom or Pershing Plaza, where there's a ZipCar spot. Maybe next year?

Posted by: Eric | August 14, 2008 10:06 AM | Report abuse

"My rub is that the closest SmartBike spot (McPherson Square) isn't terribly close to me. I work near the Wilson Building."

There's a SmartBike spot at 12th & G on the northeast corner. Perhaps that might be closer? (There were only two bikes there yesterday afternoon when I walked past it.)

Posted by: Rich | August 14, 2008 10:19 AM | Report abuse

I think this is a good start, but for this to really take off, there needs to be many more locations. I'm most concerned about returning bikes. What if you are taking it to work and your nearest bike station is full? If you have to other stations and hunt for an empty spot, this could add a significant amount of time, especially if you had to walk/cab from a station where you eventually found a spot.

Posted by: tj | August 14, 2008 12:03 PM | Report abuse

The real question is, "If SmartBike is the answer, what is the question?". Perhaps the most interesting way to analyze this is to compare SmartBike to VĂ©lib, Paris' system of bicycle mass transit. You can read a rather more in-depth comparison at:

PS: Is it true that SmartBikes do not have lighting systems? What an oversight, if so!

Posted by: Robert Anderson | August 15, 2008 7:45 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: Anonymous | August 18, 2008 5:19 PM | Report abuse

On my drive home this evening I passed the 12th & G bike stand. There were five bikes available for rent, but three of them appeared to have flat rear tires. Seems like a bad way to start this new program (having three bikes at one location with flats seems unlikely to be an accident).

Posted by: Rich | August 19, 2008 9:55 PM | Report abuse

Hmm Rich, do you think it was vandleism? If so, I'm not really sure how they will be able to prevent that. Also raises another question in my mind, who goes around inflating tires if they are low on air?

Posted by: Laura | August 20, 2008 12:06 PM | Report abuse

I have no idea, but the fact that three were flat made me think it might be vandalism. But I don't know for how long they had been flat, so who knows. It seems a tad unlikely that someone would have done this during the workday when there are lots of people around there (the bike location is right in front of the Metro Center escalators across 12th Street from Hecht's outside the building where Williams & Connolly's offices are located).

Marc Fisher reported that the SmartBike staffers are supposed to move the bikes around at night to make sure that all the rental locations have an adequate number, so they probably fix flats and the like at that time.

Posted by: Rich | August 20, 2008 12:36 PM | Report abuse

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