Bikeshare Program Rides High In D.C.

Bicycle-sharing schemes are a fixture in European cities like Copenhagen, but now they are taking root on American soil. In Washington, D.C., over the past eight months, the nation's largest bike-share system has become so popular, it may become a victim of its own success.

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For people that want to get their exercise on bikes, they no longer have to own one to ride one. In a number of big cities they have introduced bike-sharing schemes.

Jacob Fenston reports on the nation's largest, in Washington, D.C.

JACOB FENSTON: It seemed like overnight, all of a sudden these funny-looking bikes were everywhere.

ARIELLE: Well, you've probably seen them. They're just a big red bike.

DANIELLA: I don't want to say Dorky. They're thick.

BRADY: They're really distinctive.

DANIELLA: They're big.

FENSTON: They're crowding the bike lane, lining up at intersections, dodging traffic and the people who ride them can't get enough.

JAY: I use it at least once a day, if not more.

ANDREW: I go to meetings for work, I use it to go to the grocery store, I used to see a concert at 9:30 Club.

STEPHANIE: Running my errands or biking to dinner with friends.

JUSTIN: Mostly I use it for commuting.

JENNIFER: I try to everyday, if it's not raining.

FENSTON: D.C. installed the system just over eight months ago with about a thousand of these red bikes scattered across the city.

The idea is simple: Check out a bike at any of the high-tech solar-powered stations...

(Soundbite of beeping and unlocking of bike)

FENSTON: ...pedal across town, and drop it off at any other station It's public transportation on a bicycle.

Mr. PAUL DEMAIO: I look at it as two-wheel buses.

FENSTON: Paul DeMaio is a bit of a bikesharing zealot. He was into sharing bikes way before it was cool. Back in 1995 he was up late one night in college, even before.

Mr. DEMAIO: Even before Google was out I was Yahooing and came across some photographs of Copenhagen's Bycyklen, or city bike program, and just said, we need this in the U.S., we need this everywhere.

FENSTON: The next semester he took off to Copenhagen to study these amazing Bycyklen. And that was the start of his bikesharing crusade. A few years later he quite his day job and started a business as a bikeshare consultant. The system here is one of his clients.

Mr. DEMAIO: You know, right now, for the most part, driving is easy, and that's why people do it. And so if we make bicycling easy, people will do it.

FENSTON: And here in D.C. people are doing it. The system now has 12,000 members. Many of them weren't biking at all before.

ANDREW: I have not owed a bike in probably 20 years.

JENNIFER: I do this instead because it's cheaper.

PETER: Because my apartment's too small to have a bike in it.

CHRIS: I've had two bikes stolen.

GREG: My bike was stolen.

STEPHANIE: And I've had a bike in the city a few years back that was stolen.

FENSTON: The main complaint people have about the BikeShare system is that some many people are using it, it can be impossible to find a bike, especially at rush hour.

Mr. DANIEL GOHLKE: There aren't enough docks at a station, there aren't enough stations around the city, there aren't enough bikes.

FENSTON: Daniel Gohlke used to bikeshare to work - but now he walks because he can never find a bike. Of course, not everyone wants a shiny red bicycle.

Mr. JEFF MILLER: I'm hard-pressed, really, to understand the advantages of it.

FENSTON: Jeff Miller. We're in Arlington, Virginia, a D.C. suburb that's part of the BikeShare system. Miller's a spokesman for the Arlington Republican Party, and lately he's the public face of BikeShare opposition.

Mr. MILLER: The taxpayers are subsidizing $7,000 per bicycle for the startup costs of this system. For $7,000 we could be buying 700 bicycles and giving them away.

FENSTON: These indestructible bikes cost about a thousand dollars each, plus the cost of the bike stations. The District of Columbia got a federal air quality grant to cover most of the first three years.

Tommy Wells is a D.C. city councilmember and a die-hard bike commuter. He says investing in bikesharing is well worth it for the number of people its gotten riding bikes.

Mr. TOMMY WELLS (Councilmember, Washington, D.C.): There's always going to be groups of grumpy folks that came up during a time when streets were only for cars. And so, they're going to have to adapt.

FENSTON: Whether you think it sounds like fun or a waste of money, bikesharing may be coming to a city near you. Already about 10 U.S. cities are sharing bikes. Now Boston is planning to launch this summer. San Francisco has a regional system in works. And New York City is looking to rollout some 10,000 shared bikes early next year.

(Soundbite of ringing)

FENSTON: For NPR News, I'm Jacob Fenston.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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