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Au revoir! (Lydia DePillis)

Two years ago, the Smartbike program debuted in the District, with 120 bikes on ten racks around the city. Hailed as yet one more step in D.C.’s inexorable march towards world citydom, it was also an easy get for the city, since communications giant Clear Channel owned and maintained the whole system as part of a 20-year bus shelter contract.

Now, the bikes have become obsolete, succeeded by the sleek and supersized Capital Bikeshare program, which has been installing its new stations over the past week. In all that excitement, the old Smartbikes have been somewhat forgotten; the District Department of Transportation doesn’t yet have a plan for making them go away.

“We’re still working that out,” says DDOT spokesman John Lisle. The old stations will ultimately disappear, but Clear Channel still owns the bikes, which DDOT bike program specialist Chris Holben hopes might be donated to Phoenix Bikes, or to DDOT as a kind of “internal fleet.”

As we witness the death of Smartbike, it’s time to ask: Was it ever any good? And how will Capital Bikeshare be better?

According to a June 2010 report, there were 1,696 Smartbike subscribers total—but 220 of those had never activated their cards, and 242 had never rented a bike. On average, there were between 77 (on Saturday) and 163 (on Tuesday) rentals per day over the duration of the program. And ridership doesn’t seem to have increased: In June, that spread was 47 to 100.

To compare those numbers with other bike sharing systems, look at Smartbikes on a ride-per-bike-per-day basis. In D.C., it was about one for one. In Paris, it’s about nine rides per bike, and Montreal’s Bixi system has been running at about four to five rides per day.

No wonder I never saw anyone riding them.

There are a few reasons why Smartbike never took off. First of all, Holben explains, Clear Channel—an advertising company—never promoted the system, relying mostly on word-of-mouth. Second of all, Smartbike only sold long-term memberships, which made them impractical for tourists; at the beginning, DDOT reasoned that they only wanted people who were familiar with the city streets, which Holben estimates eliminated between 25 and 30 percent of potential ridership. Finally, having only ten stations, there just weren’t that many places you could go under the old system, which limited its utility.

Capital Bikeshare has fixed a few of those problems. It’s been heavily hyped, at least online—prospective users voted on the name and their preferred locations for stations. Tourists will be able to rent bikes for 24-hour periods. And it’s bigger by a factor of two, with 1,100 bikes in D.C. and Virginia. Since registration opened in mid-August, Holben says, about 900 people have signed up, 600 of whom live in the District.

The official CaBi “inaugural ride” will be Monday, September 20, at 10:30 a.m. at Tingey Plaza behind the Department of Transportation headquarters at 1200 New Jersey Avenue SE.