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You Can Ride One of Mayor Fenty's Bicycles (But not the really good one)

(Posted by guest blogger Steve Hendrix) I have seen the future and it looks like something Pee Wee Herman would use to deliver pizzas. Heck, I've not only seen the future, I've ridden it around Dupont Circle. Have a look at it here.

Tomorrow, D.C. transportation lords will unveil their long-awaited Smart Bike program (like the one Paris uses, and Barcelona and Oslo), making Washington the first major American city to provide this kind of grab-and-go bicycle for public use on short urban hops. (It's amazing that we beat Seattle or Portland to this particular Edge City punch.) The first 100 bikes at 10 automated racks around the city won't be officially available until Mayor Fenty snips the ribbon Wednesday, but I begged my way onto a list of beta testers who got access in advance. Last Thursday, I spent a few hours taking a city bike ride on a city bike.

Read the jump if you want the details on my jaunt and how the technical stuff works. In broad terms, it's a two-wheel version of the popular Zipcar system, allowing anyone who's registered and paid $40 a year take a bike at will for rides up to three hours. That's long enough for any point-to-point ride in the city. Or to bridge your commute from, say, Dupont Circle Metro, to your U Street office. Or to provide an aerobic way for a Judiciary Square type to hit the Whole Foods at Logan Circle. It's more about transit than recreation, and they don't want you stashing the thing all day in your office. If you don't return by three hours, you get a black mark against your account. A couple of those and you'll be blackballed. And if you fail to return a bike within 24 hours and you'll find a replacement charge of the $550 on your credit card.

The system--which was largely paid for by Clear Channel Communications in exchange for exclusive access to bus shelter advertising--will grow in usefulness as they add bikes and stations around the city (coming soon, Capital Hill, Georgetown, various spots along the mall). For now, I found that much of my test riding was basically tracking the train routes from Metro Station to Metro Station because that's where most of the racks are.

I know plenty of downtown workers will never opt for a mid-day bike ride for ANY reason, particularly in August (although let the record reflect that the heavily fendered and chain-gaurded bikes are kind to work cloths). But to me, a non-biker in real life, it was near euphoria to make a 12-minute trip from U Street to my office at 15th and L Streets, one that would have taken about 30 minutes by Metro. I'll be using it again. And I suspect that as the system grows, it will attract more than enough riders to keep busy all the bikes they provide.

Here are the details: To sign up for Smart Bike membership, go to and give them your credit card info for the $40 yearly membership. When you get and activate your electronic membership card, take it one of the 10-bike racks, swipe it and the monitor will give you a slot number. At that slot, a green light tells you the handlebar rods have been released from the little docking slots. Pull the bike out, adjust the quick-release seats and off you go.

The website tells you how many bikes are at each rack at any given second, so I left my 15th-street offices knowing I'd fine three of them waiting a few blocks away at rack beside Farragut Square. The 3-speed bikes are sort of retro-functional, red and white, upright handlebars and a sturdy clip for packs and bags. I had brought a rubber band to keep my pants out of the chain, but the Smart Bike is clothing friendly with a covered chain, a front fender and a completely enclosed rear wheel. No grease or rain spots on your person with this bike.

I took off in true bike messenger style, meaning I roared up a wheelchair cut and pumped down the sidewalk, scattering those annoying pedestrians like bowling pins. No, no, no. The Smart Bike is a progressive, civil form of mass transit and the ethos is all about good behavior. I wore a helmet, followed the recommended routes with the City's blossoming number of bike lanes up to Dupont Circle. I left that one and took the Metro up to Shaw and picked up another outside the Shaw station. "It looks cute, like a 1950s bike," said 7th Street resident Kumasic Davis, 29. "I could see using one to run downtown to the museums."

A certain kind of urbanite seemed to know exactly what I was riding. One guy in a car shouted out "Smart Bike! How'd you get it?" as I rode along R Street to a rack near the U Street Metro. After a brief meeting with a friend there, I took yet another Smart Bike down to the rack at Logan Circle a few blocks from my office. That ride by Metro would have taken me a half hour, with the change at Gallery Place. By bike it was less then 15 minutes, door to door.

By Steve Hendrix |  August 12, 2008; 8:57 AM ET
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More people on bikes just gives the Metro buses more targets.

The people in crosswalks are starting to move too fast anyway.

Posted by: DC Voter | August 12, 2008 10:08 AM

What do they do when your shiny new bike is stolen, since there are dang few places to legally lock your bike up?

Posted by: Hillman | August 12, 2008 10:23 AM

Well, Foto-Op Phenty, DC's Cyclist-in-Chief, does like to pose for the cameras in front of glitzy city projects -- that is when he isn't falling off his bike. But how about something a little more useful to average cyclist like more bike racks, more bike lanes, and maybe even a few dedicated bike paths.

Posted by: Googleguy | August 12, 2008 10:27 AM

1. Bike Messengers don't ride on sidewalks.

2. Neither should you.

3. Now if only the city would add bike lanes to all streets.

Posted by: Rules of the Road | August 12, 2008 10:30 AM

Yes Googleguy! More bike racks and bike lanes.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 12, 2008 10:47 AM

More bikes with no safe lanes to ride them. Sounds like a solid DC plan.

Posted by: 123cartoonpie | August 12, 2008 10:56 AM

Go, DC! I hope Arlington will be there soon with its own system (which, ridiculously enough, will not be interoperable with DC's).

Posted by: MB | August 12, 2008 11:15 AM

Yeah, these things will be stolen left and right here.

Posted by: DC Resident | August 12, 2008 11:51 AM

So who's going to create the Smart Driver that won't hit the people on the Smart Bikes?

Posted by: Bascomb | August 12, 2008 12:03 PM

Do you have to return the bike to the same place you got it or can you return it to another SmartBike rack?

Posted by: nashpaul | August 12, 2008 12:10 PM

They ought to add a location at the Nationals' ballpark. Riding one of these to a ballgame seems like the perfect use for this service, but as things now stand you can't do that because you'd run afoul of the "three-hour rule."

"Do you have to return the bike to the same place you got it or can you return it to another SmartBike rack?"

The SmartBike site's FAQ says, "After your ride, you may drop off your bike at the same or any other station with an available parking spot. Make sure that the bike is properly inserted into the docking point (the red LED light must be constantly lit)."

Posted by: Rich | August 12, 2008 12:14 PM

Personally, I'm appalled at the general idiocy of bicyclists in the area. They ride on the sidewalks, don't obey intersection rules, and frequently don't wear helmets.

Can we please PLEASE hit them with our cars?

Posted by: GM123 | August 12, 2008 12:39 PM

Seems to me that SmartBike should also remind users of the local bike laws. WABA's web site has a good summary:

Posted by: mlcdc | August 12, 2008 12:46 PM

This system seems to work like a charm in Vienna, Austria--really excited that it's coming here! I just hope they expand a little further into SW for us south-of-the-Mall commuting types.

Posted by: EPF | August 12, 2008 12:47 PM

Hmm, I wonder what happens if too many bikes end up at the same place and there is no way to dock another bicycle?

Posted by: M Street | August 12, 2008 12:54 PM

I've seen this system in Paris and I must hurrah for Washington!

I am proud that we are taking the lead in something that can make a big difference with our day to day lives

Posted by: Zee | August 12, 2008 1:40 PM

Vespas would be better!

Posted by: johng | August 12, 2008 1:43 PM

Arlington is working on a system very similar to this - though I don't think it will be able to work with the DC system.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | August 12, 2008 1:43 PM

M street - according to the website, it's your responsibility to dock the bike. If at your destination all the slots are full, then you have to bring it to another station.

I would totally do this if there was one in georgetown, and bike between Farragut north/dupont circle and there.

Posted by: Aaron | August 12, 2008 2:06 PM

meanwhile the bike path from Silver Spring to downtown DC remains nothing more than a series of unconnected patches of asphalt. And some of the places already paved, such as the stretch that passes under NY Ave, are occupied by homeless settlements and, a bit closer to Union Station, construction trailers. But it made for a good photo-op when it was first inaugurated.

Posted by: eomcmars | August 12, 2008 2:11 PM

Posted by: more targets | August 12, 2008 2:26 PM

Yeah, sounds great, doesn't it! Let's all just share and be one big happy family. But, don't these communist-style approaches usually end up failing? Can't we let some other US city be the guinea pig for this ... do we really need anymore bikes on the street than we already have?

Posted by: Carson | August 12, 2008 2:39 PM

I'd hope for a more communist-style approach, as that would save us the $40 annual fee for these smart bikes.

And do Nationals games take 3 hours? Aren't they usually behind by an insurmountable lead by the 5th inning or so?

Posted by: Ride 'em | August 12, 2008 3:48 PM

God, what a bunch of naysaying, nitpicking, harping old biddies so many of you are. I think this is GREAT! I probably won't use the service because I live in Takoma Park (where I bike every day to Metro and then walk from Farragut North to my office in West End), but if I lived in the city and needed to travel crosstown, I'd use it often. DC is a perfect biking town. Without question, you can get to critical points between, say, Georgetown, Dupont, Adams Morgan, Capitol Hill, etc., faster on a bike than you can in a car, Metro, or a bus. Apart from the lack of bike lanes, what's there to gripe about? Let's at least try an innovative, non-car focused, eco-friendly way of getting around. And if that makes me a commie, I'm proud to sport my little red book in my Mao jacket pocket.

Posted by: ermiwe | August 12, 2008 4:13 PM

This will be great for this Georgetown workerbee's social life... why isn't G'town not the first place for one of these racks?!
Note: BYO(Bike helmet)

Posted by: dcjoshy | August 12, 2008 4:33 PM

Coming to Ward 8:

Marion Barry's Used Once for Dummies Bike Shop.

No background check.

No credit check.

Everybody's approved.

Posted by: Schwinn | August 12, 2008 4:43 PM

I've lived in DC for 15 years without a car of my own. My current bike has fenders and a chain guard, so I can and regularly do cycle in a suit. According to AAA, doing this saves me about ten thousand post-tax dollars each year.
I really don't see any other real problem with this program than the obvious one- automobile drivers who don't respect anyone but themselves.

Posted by: DC Voter | August 12, 2008 7:34 PM

The only thing that worries me about this program is the users who are not used to riding in city traffic. The Central Business District is a scary place to bike, especially because there are hardly any bike lanes. My advice to casual users: wear a helmet and always assume that the cars do not see you.

Posted by: Bike commuter | August 12, 2008 8:02 PM

Building bike lanes before there are a critical mass of cyclists demanding them is not the way DC functions. If everyone who posted to say, a blog, about needing a bike lane would instead raise hell with their elected officials, there might be some movement.

A post and an email take just as long to write!

Posted by: Sanya | August 12, 2008 9:45 PM

Enough with the constant comments about helmets. The Nanny culture extends into these comments.

Amsterdam has two bikes for every person, the vast majority of travel is done on bikesg.

Only six bike related deaths last year yet NO ONE WEARS A HELMET, even children riding to day car on the handlebars of mom or dads bike.

Posted by: Mark | August 13, 2008 5:13 AM

Congrats to DC for some forward thinking here. One step toward healthier people and earth !

Posted by: TJH | August 13, 2008 6:21 AM

Vespas pollute more in an hour than a 2006 model car or truck does in a week.

I love it more targets in DC and more idiots who have no clue about the rules of the road riding bikes. Can you you say more cycling deaths I can as long as theifs dont steal or the bikes first. The bikes should have Lojak as standard equipment.

I cant wait to run over a few cyclists. its almost as much fun as driving down Elk Run Rd just outside of Catlett and finding a bunch of cyclists doing a group ride and stopping to check the route map around a blind corner. Smart move folks. Have killed 4 of these fools myself in the last 6mos. Sued their survivors and estate. Season ends soon with winter!

Posted by: Anonymous | August 13, 2008 7:11 AM

First, these things are gonna get stolen, and then the company will discover that the credit card used to bill the bike fee is itself stolen.

Second, what happens when I show up at my destination and there is nowhere to "dock" the bike? Do I leave it? (to get stolen) Do I have to ride to another docking station?

Then, what happens when bikes are used for one-way trips (downhill) and "pile up" after folks have used them for freewheeling from Cleveland park down to the mall (and Metro back)...?

Posted by: AAM | August 13, 2008 8:03 AM

Copenhagen actually goes this system one better. The city bikes there work like the baggage carts at some airports. You put in a coin to free the bike from the rack, ride it, and get your money back when you insert it into the same or any other rack. Cost is about $3. Don't want to hunt for a rack? Just leave the bike anywhere. The bikes are very distinctive and you can spot one a block away. The neighborhood kids will take it to the nearest rack to collect the refund. The system works well because the Danes are very bike oriented and very rules conscious. Busses stay in the bus lanes, cars in the car lanes, bikes in the bike lanes, pedestrians don't jaywalk or cross against the light. Very un-American.

Posted by: kguy1 | August 13, 2008 8:54 AM

"First, these things are gonna get stolen, and then the company will discover that the credit card used to bill the bike fee is itself stolen."

Yeah, that's what most people do when they steal a credit card: go online, buy a membership, sit around a wait a couple weeks for the membership card to be delivered to their own address, go to a smart bike dock, take a bike and sell it for about 40 bucks. Happens all the time.

"Second, what happens when I show up at my destination and there is nowhere to "dock" the bike? Do I leave it? (to get stolen) Do I have to ride to another docking station?"

This is a potential flaw in the system. It will take a little trial and error to get this right. They may have to expand some of the stations.

"Then, what happens when bikes are used for one-way trips (downhill) and "pile up" after folks have used them for freewheeling from Cleveland park down to the mall (and Metro back)...?"

As I understand it, Smartbike goes around and re-allocates the bikes as necessary (I think overnight). Again, this will probably take a little trial and error to get it right.

And fake Marc Fischer: it's CapitOl Hill, not CapitAl Hill.

Posted by: Reid | August 13, 2008 9:08 AM

OMG so many sarcastic naysayers! Is Washington THAT jaded that people trying hard to make honest improvements in our quality of life are just targets for cynical? Please. Get a life, you Eeyores.

Posted by: Polly Anna | August 13, 2008 9:13 AM

While I like the idea of having bikes available at Farragut Square, the area around there is not bike-friendly. There should be some dedicated bike lanes on L Street or one of the service lanes on K Street to make it easier to go across town.

Posted by: L Street Guy | August 13, 2008 9:51 AM

I'm also concerned about non-experienced bikers on city streets. The streets are dangerous, especially with maniac drivers, taxis, buses, etc. I'd like to see more bike lanes on the avenues (Connecticut, Mass, Penn, Constitution, and Independence). The bike lanes on Capitol Hill are nice, but they're mainly on residential streets. I'd like to see DC commit to putting bike lanes on thoroughfares.

Posted by: Concerned | August 13, 2008 9:59 AM

1. Not enough bikes.

2. Not enough bike stations.

3. Downside risk of having one stolen and having to pay $600 way too high.

4. Won't be available for tourists, who would normally be heavy users.

5. Another idiotic Dee Cee "home rule" fiasco.

Posted by: Carlos | August 13, 2008 10:11 AM

Are the bikes made in America or China?

Posted by: American Pride | August 13, 2008 10:15 AM

So, "Mark" doesn't like helmets? Fine, Mark, wear a ball cap backwards instead if that's what suits you. But when you're lying there in the street all concussed, don't ask me to waste my valuable Anytime Minutes calling 911 for you. Ain't gonna happen, risk hound.

Posted by: Carlos | August 13, 2008 10:19 AM

Again, I find myself flummoxed (yet fascinated) by the rabid naysayers of this program, whining about the number of bikes, number of stations, trouble with drivers, cost of stolen bikes, etc., etc., without giving it a chance to either succeed or fail on its own. It heartens me that staid, old DC, which has a history of being a sucky city on the urban hipness meter, would have the guts to try something so innovative. All these people with angrily crossed arms hurrumphing away, pronouncing this a failure on its first day need to be a little more forward thinking. As for the risk factor, drivers in EVERY city I've ever lived in or visited tend to run the gamut from courteous to jerk. Even in SF, where I lived and biked for many years and where bikes are far more common on city streets, you ran into (literally and figuratively) terrible car drivers. It's the same here as everywhere. The way to fix that problem is to have more visibility of bikers and to have bikers out in greater numbers, and this new program could go a long toward achieving that.

Posted by: ermiwe | August 13, 2008 10:51 AM


Can I wear my ball cap frontwards? You see, I'm more likely to get skin cancer than getting my head squished.

About the 911 call, no problem C-man, I am totally onboard with your selective compasion. What else do you have to control my behavior.

Posted by: Tom | August 13, 2008 3:31 PM

GREAT IDEA! wow there are gonna be some funky people at work!!!! LOL

Posted by: nall92 | August 14, 2008 11:02 AM

Why is it only for people willing to pay a monthly fee? What about tourists? Does this mean they won't be able to use them?

The system's not free for users, where ClearChannel provides the bikes in exchange for advertising on the bikes, bike stands, and some billboards.

It's not an hourly-rate fee, where you could use a credit card to pay based on how long you use it.

And, there are no bike lanes in DC, and bicycling on sidewalks makes it more dangerous to be a pedestrian in one of the most walkable cities in the U.S.

Finally, to top it all off, Arlington's system won't be compatible with DC's... whose brilliant idea is that? The same people responsible for the Metro extension to Dulles and the traffic lane-sharing streetcars on Columbia Pike?

Posted by: eric | August 15, 2008 8:56 AM

Some problems/quesitons re implementation:
1. The smartbikedc triggers the "phishing" warning in many browsers (at least on a mac). Firefox won't even let you access it.

2. How long is the wait for cards? I've paid (late last week) and called the 800 number, and nobody knows. (Note: this is being run by the DC government, so expectations are minimal).

3. The password provided by the site did not work in the login mechanism that they provide in the left hand column. Again, this may be a mac-specific problem, but if it is the site should tell you what browsers it has been tested with (or if it's been tested at all).

I look forward to hearing back about this.

Posted by: rumpole | August 19, 2008 12:29 PM

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