Starting in June, residents and visitors to Washington, D.C. will be able to run errands or see the sites on a borrowed bike. This high-tech bike-sharing program, a miniature version of the highly successful Velib program in Paris, where users rent bikes for a nominal annual fee, will be the first of its kind in the United States.
Underwritten by Clear Channel, which holds the city’s outdoor advertising contract, the program has been in the works for three years. With ten stations and 120 bikes, Washington’s program is modest in scale, conceived as it was before the rollout of the much larger Paris program, which involves thousands of bikes and hundreds of stations—and many happy customers. A recently released study found 94 percent of Parisian users were highly satisfied with the service.
“It’s good to start small in the U.S.,” said Jim Sebastian, pedestrian and bicycle program manager for the District Department of Transportation. Sebastian hopes to expand the program to include a thousand bikes and many additional stations, after some fine-tuning following the launch.
While praising Washington’s initiative, Wiley Norvell, communications director for the New York–based Transportation Alternatives, thinks the program’s tiny roll-out may be a handicap. “The ubiquity is part of what makes the Velib program work,” he said. “The perception of availability is important. In New York, you’d need thousands of bikes and hundreds of stations.” Still, he argues, bike sharing is an essential component in the development of bicycling as a large-scale mode of transportation. “New York needs to do more.”
Other American cities are getting in gear. On April 29, the Philadelphia city council endorsed the development of a similar plan. They are exploring two funding methods: one using an outdoor advertising contract similar to D.C. and Paris; and another that would manage the program through a non-profit organization, similar to Philadelphia’s car-sharing program, the largest regional car-sharing service in the world.