Public Bike Rental Programs: A Cool, Convenient Way to Explore a City

by  Blane Bachelor | Apr 1, 2010
Bike / zozzzzo/iStock

In 2007, Paris launched a program that’s changing transport in some major metropolises: Velib. The remarkable public bike rental system, whose name is a combination of the French words for bike and freedom, has been a rolling success, with Parisians and tourists racking up millions of trips every year, less car traffic and exhaust fumes – not to mention an increased harmony between cyclists and motorists. Velib has worked so well that it’s being used as a model for cities across the globe – many of them in Europe, with its ingrained cycling culture. But American cities are starting to roll out programs of their own: San Francisco, Houston, Portland and Boulder have all been named as cities that are considering such programs or are in active negotiations. See how Velib works after the jump

Here, our picks for cosmopolitan spots – Stateside and beyond – where you can swipe your card, grab a bike, and get pedaling:

Denver: Visitors in the Mile High City can start logging their own miles via bike, thanks to the newly announced B-Cycle program. Like Paris’s Velib, B-Cycle will operate via solar-powered, self-contained stations. The program kicks off with 500 bikes but only runs through November. Annual memberships run at $65 ($40 for students) or pay per use with credit cards right at the station.

Lyon, France: The company behind Velib created another bike lover’s paradise in this scenic French city with Velo’v. Commuters can rent comfy, sturdy bikes from 340 stations all over the city, which are equipped with kiosks that accept all international bank cards.

Montreal, Canada: Launched last year, Montreal’s public bike rental program, Bixi, already has a strong presence. Annual, monthly and day-long passes are available, and you can rent bikes round-the-clock. Until May 15, the website is offering a $10 discount on a one-year subscription.

Washington, D.C.: Where else to launch the country’s first public bike rental system, called SmartBikeDC? The program isn’t as comprehensive as international programs like Velib, but it’s a solid start: Users can rent a bike for an annual fee of $40 a year, and SmartBike is growing in popularity. But you can only rent bikes from 6am to 10pm, and it’s not clear how much a single-usage fee is. (Despite being run by Clear Channel, the person who answered the phone number listed on the website could not answer any questions about the program.)

Here’s how Velib works: For a small fee (€1 for a day pass; €29 for the year), you can rent one of the more than 20,000 bikes – sturdy three-speeders with a basket, lock and generator that powers the lights even when the bike is stopped at traffic signals – at 1,450 stations sprinkled throughout the city. Rides under 30 minutes are free; after that, an increasing fee scale kicks in, a structure that’s designed to keep the bikes in circulation. The program is available 24/7, with self-serve rental kiosks and workers who redistribute the bikes from busy, rush-hour stations daily. Real-time information is available on how many bikes are available at a certain station. There’s even a floating mechanic’s garage: a barge that cruises up and down the Seine River and picks up bikes that need to be fixed; on-board mechanics repair them.

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