More and more cities worldwide are embracing the idea of bicycle-sharing programs. Officials and advocates say it's convenient, cheap, healthy and promotes a greener environment. As other cities in the United States are working to introduce the concept, Washington, DC has just launched the largest bike sharing program in the country.
The nation's capital is one of the latest cities to launch a bicycle sharing program. And Washingtonians and visitors have eagerly embraced it.
"I love it. I use it every single day to get to school," said one female student. "As soon as I saw it, I joined automatically. It's a great transportation system and I wish a lot more people would use it because DC is just too condensed with cars," said another user.
Chris Holben, the project manager for Washington, D.C.'s "Capital Bikeshare," a program that offers daily, monthly, and yearly access to public bikes across the District of Columbia and parts of neighboring Virginia said "As of today, we have 93 stations with close to a 1,000 bikes, 15 more stations in Arlington County as our partner with another 100 bikes there."
Holben says the program has been successful so far. "We already have over 4,000 members; they've taken 35,000 trips, which is one person taking one bike out of a rack per day or any time. And that's only in a month and half," he said.
Holben says it's easy to use. Insert a key into any bike dock. When the green light appears, pull the handlebar firmly toward you to release the bike. You can even adjust the seat to your height. Once you are done, go to any station, and push the front wheel firmly into an empty dock. Wait for the green light to turn on to make sure it's properly secured.
Holben says the system is also easy to operate. The stations are solar powered and they are modular, meaning the stations' sizes can be expanded or contracted easily if needed. Fees range from a daily rate of $5 to $75 a year for members, which amounts to 20 cents a day. The first half hour is always free.
He says the honeymoon period has been remarkably problem-free. "There has been some minor vandalism with some people slashing tires but to tell you the truth; in a month and a half it's been very minimal," he said.
Most people say they really enjoy the program but have a few suggestions. Natalia for example compares it to the Parisian system. "It's great to do your food shopping but the cart (basket) is just a little too small compared to the one in Paris," said one women.
This student didn't have a problem with the basket size. She can easily fit in her book bag. But she has had some problems finding stations. "They don't really have interactive maps yet and if you don't have an iphone to know where the next place is," she said.
Even those who have their own bikes, like Michael Williams, can imagine using the system. "I would definitely use it when I have friends come visit. If we all wanted to go and tour the city by bike, it'll be more convenient and probably much cheaper than renting a bike at a bike shop," he said.
Other cities in the United States are also following the trend. The city of Denver launched its first large scale bikeshare program back in April. Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper calls it "a total win-win situation." "Over the next couple decades, we'll get more and more people riding bikes. They are healthier, thinner, they get cars off the road, the air is cleaner, there's less traffic. It's a win-win-win," he said.
San Francisco is developing a system called "Bixi," a combination of bicycles and taxis. Timothy Panpandreou, of the San Francisco Metropolitan Transit Authority, says bikesharing is the final piece in the puzzle, in the move towards more sustainable mobility. "Sometimes it's better to walk, bike, take transit, take car sharing, drive your own car, but not all the time. So if we can link them all together, we kind of feel we will get there," he said.
Washington and other U.S. cities have a long way to go before they can match the success of bike share programs in a number of other countries. But some say they can imagine catching up soon with cities like Montreal, Lyon and Paris -- which started its own system a few years ago and now has 20,000 bikes and 1,000 stations across the city.