Bicycle sharing rides into DC

? Washington joins the ranks of Paris and Barcelona this week with the launch of the first high-tech public bike-sharing program in the United States.

Transforming Washington into a “world-class city” has turned into a mantra for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who is an avid cyclist.

SmartBike DC will rent 120 bikes at 10 self-service racks mostly in the downtown area, including near metro stations. A $40 annual fee gets riders a membership card, which allows them to pick up a cherry red three-speed bike. They can tool around the city for up to three hours. Those who want to keep going can pick up another bike; there’s no limit on the number of trips.

“It’s really going to be replacing cab rides and car trips for a lot of folks looking to get around the city quickly,” said Jim Sebastian, bicycle and pedestrian program manager for D.C.’s Department of Transportation. “Plus they won’t have to worry about parking.”

Escalating gas prices and growing civic consciousness about the environment have boosted the popularity of bicycling, making what people once thought of as childhood play a practical and increasingly hip form of urban transportation.

Similar bike-sharing programs have taken off in Europe, most notably in Paris, where “la Velorution” has swept the capital city in barely a year of existence. Velib, a hybrid of the French words velo (bike) and liberte (freedom), has more than 20,000 bikes available for rent at more than 1,400 rental kiosks.

In the United States, cities including Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas, have experimented with low-tech versions called “beater bikes.” Most were vandalized or stolen after a short time.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is also interested in the two-wheeled concept. Visiting Paris last summer to learn about Velib, the mayor listed rider safety and liability issues among his concerns about bringing the program across the Atlantic.

In D.C., Sebastian said each SmartBike member will receive a safe-cycling guide, a pocket manual outlining D.C.’s cycling laws and a bicycling map of the city. The program does not provide helmets, but their use is encouraged.

Sebastian said several steps have been taken to deter theft. Unlike Velib, only those with membership cards may rent bikes, and the replacement fee for a stolen or damaged bike can reach $550. In Paris, bikes can be rented by the day or week using a credit card.

“We’re concerned, but we don’t have a reason to believe (theft) is going to be a big problem,” Sebastian said.

In most cities, bike sharing is a public-private partnership between city governments and outdoor advertising companies. D.C.’s program will be maintained by Clear Channel Outdoor and is part of a 20-year bus shelter contract.