Monday, June 30, 2008

Why There's Nothing Written for June

I visited Washington, D.C. in mid-June. As usual I'd planned some downtime to play a bit. My visit happened to coincide with the published opening of DC's new SmartBike initiative. I'd read about in the April 28th edition of the New York Times.

The below photo shows my glee at standing in front of the US Congress.
The article did not however mention a date of intended service. So a week prior to my trip I did some research on the planned program: one modeled after similar initiatives in Paris, Amsterdam, Toronto, and other cities. The idea is along the lines fo ZipCars where you pay a membership fee which gets you a debit card of sorts. This card allows you to unlock a special bike from one of the SmartBike depots around town. Pick one up in Arlington, ride it to the National Mall and just leave it at another depot. Sounds great! In fact I'd hoped to join the program and rent a bike that week. I get to DC several times a year.

Almost immediately after starting to dig into it things started to look problematic. When I tried to find out information, I kept getting that circular action on websites. You know, when you do a search, then click a link and the link takes you back to the search. Then I finally found the official site But it had the look of something decidedly unfinished. When I attempted to register, it kicked me back to the opening page, over and over again.

It's funny because originally I'd seen promotion about the program saying it would open in March 2008, the April, then May, and finally early June. I was in DC the week of June 14 - June 17th. Then I called the number on the website. Building on my doubts about the system I got a recording.

A few facts....

The DC SmartBike program is being managed by ClearChannel Outdoor Communications. They're the billboard and bus station advertisers. It seems this was set up as a partnership where ClearChannel steps in to help the city financially and managerially. They already run the bus stops, so why not a few extra things?

For a $40 annual fee you get that card and get to "borrow" a bike from one of the depots. You must of course return it - typically within a couple hours. If the bike isn't returned within 48 hours, it's considered lost and you credit card gets nailed for a $200 replacement fee. Below photo is from WABA - Washington Area Bicycling Association.

The bikes themselves are ugly beasts. And there's a reason for that. The idea is to lessen thievery and increase visibility of these unique bikes. The rear wheel enclosure doubles as a bit of advertising space. At this writing I'm unsure if that means ClearChannel will use it for their own purposes or strictly as a promotion for the program.
Below photo of the Old Smithsonion - now the administration building.
So a week goes by and I never get a response to either the email or the telephone requests. I'd even used my magnificent clout as Staff Writer with the Fixed Gear Gallery when I left the messages. Still nothing.

Then when I was visiting my friend Scott Bridgewater at National Public Radio, he took me down the block to the Chinatown station to see one of the SmartBike depots under construction. They had a long way to go.
It appears that things have moved along now. So maybe they'll stop ignoring me and grant an interview and demo when I'm in town again in September. It is Washington, D.C. however, so my expectations are not very high. Perhaps I should show up with a breifcase full of cold-hard greenbacks....or a plumber or two.