Station at 14th and Harvard, NW.

DC and Arlington deserve a lot of credit for having the vision to bring modern bike-sharing to DC. As a result, things will never be the same again when Capital Bikeshare launches 36 stations in DC and 13 in Arlington today.

It was almost five years ago to the day that DC first announced that they would be bringing bike-sharing to the District. It wasn’t considered very important at the time. It only garnered a five-

word throwaway line in the press release about a bus shelter advertising contract. In reporting on the contract, only the Examiner even bothered to mention the bike sharing system, and again, only in passing.

That was before Vélib. Almost two years later, bike-sharing hit the big time when Paris introduced a 10,000 bike system. At that point, DC could say “we’re working on that too.” And a little over one year later on Aug 13, 2008, DC had the first bike sharing system in North America.

Unfortunately, it was tiny, with only 100 bikes at ten stations. And expanding the system within Clear Channel proved to be problematic. By the time SmartBike had kicked off, Arlington was already working on their own bike sharing system. In part, the reason Arlington was even thinking about bike-sharing was because DC was already doing it.

It proved to be fortuitous, because once the SmartBike discussions fell through, DC found it easy to join in Arlington’s already-negotiated agreement with Bixi.

Some might say that SmartBike was a failure because it was so small and because, “heck, after only two years we’re replacing it.” But without SmartBike, there might not be a Capital Bikeshare — not now at least. SmartBike served as inspiration for Capital Bikeshare. It was because of experience with SmartBike that DDOT had the know-how and expertise to go in big with Capital Bikeshare. And it was SmartBike that made area residents believe it could be done.

Dan Malouff is right when he says, “Bike sharing is going to be awesome.” It will be the biggest thing to happen to area transit since Metrorail opened. It will change travel patterns and attitudes. It’ll be good for the economy and public health.

The DC region has seen a steady climb in bike commuting from 1.26% in 2005 to 1.63% in 2008. That number could double in a couple of years and then double again before mid-decade. We’ll see the percentage of trips — already as high as 5-7% in some neighborhoods — go up even farther where Capital Bikeshare stations are located. Metro usage could see a bump as well, as Capital Bikeshare is a perfect compliment to rail and bus transit.

As the nation’s capital, what happens in this region carries extra weight. It will create demand nationwide when visitors come here and see how easy it is to use. And what impact will it have when Congressional leaders see that half their staffs use bike sharing to get to work?

As first mover, DC could reap other benefits as well. Already DC is becoming a hot bed for bike sharing consulting. And with repair expertise that the system will create, a regional repair or assembly center could locate here as other cities adopt Bixi.

The complaints thus far have been that there aren’t enough stations (more will be better, and DC and Arlington are working on it) or that the two pieces are too far apart (20 minutes from Crystal City to the closest station in the District) or that half an hour is too short (it works elsewhere, and you can daisy-chain the trips together), but I suspect many of those criticisms will disappear with time.

Today, DC and Arlington are starting the largest bike-sharing system in the United States because they had the vision to see its potential, and we’re all going to be better off for it.

Cross-posted on the Washcycle.