The San Francisco region always has been a great place to ride a bike, what with its great scenery, Mediterranean climate and thriving cycling community. From the earliest days of mountain biking to the barely controlled chaos of Critical Mass, the Bay Area has long been at the forefront of bike culture. Another chapter in the story is about to open with a new bike-sharing program.

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, which serves the Silicon Valley, plans to launch the program in 2010. The authority, according to Streetsblog, has wrapped up market research data collection at three Caltrain stations in Mountain View, Palo Alto and San Jose. The stations, which are served by VTA, are part of a plan to allow commuters to grab bike when they get off the train.

The program will give commuters the ability to get to the station by car, bus or bike. Once they arrive at their destinations, they can hop on a bike to finish the last leg of their trip. It’s a slick solution to the so-called “last mile” problem of mass transit — how people get from the transit stop to their final destination.

This type of bike sharing has many benefits. It gives the commuter a choice in what type of transportation mode best suits their needs depending on the weather, the time and their general mood. It makes bicycling more accessible to those who may have more arduous commutes on either end of the train. And by connecting the trains with bicycles the VTA has now expanded bicycling to a viable form of regional transportation for all skill levels.

First, a quick primer for the uninitiated. Bike-sharing is a community service often funded by users, who pay a nominal fee to ride a bike without having to actually own one. In many cases, people “rent” a bike with an annual subscription. Those in the program can ride a bike anywhere they like just so long as they return it to the designated spot within the allotted time.

The Valley Transit Authority’s proposed bike sharing program differs from those in other cities, like Washington, D.C. The nation’s capital offered the country’s first bike-sharing program when it launchedSmartbike DC last year. Most programs, like Smartbike DC, are fee-based programs serving a single city. The VTA wants to serve an entire region.

Smartbike DC has nine designated pickup spots throughout the City. Users pay $40 annually to use the bikes up to 24 hours. Forget to return the bike and you can be charged $550. They’re nothing fancy, just basic transportation. Still, the Smartbike DC has been a success — there are more than 1,000 members, no accidents reported so far and just one bike stolen.

Paris is another capital with bike sharing. It’s called 

Vélib’ bicycles. It was launched in 2007 and provides 20,600 bikes around the city. The idea was to help thwart climate change and provide more transportation options. As many as 150,000 people hop on the bikes, which are located at more than 1,400 rental stations. The bikes are almost ubiquitous in the center of town, where there’s a rental station about every 300 meters.

But according to The New York Times, 80 percent of Vélib’ bikes have been stolen or vandalized. This has forced organizers to hire more people to fix bikes at 10 repair shops around the city. It also promptedJCDecaux, the outdoor advertising company funding Velib, to make the bikes and rental stations more secure and launch an ad campaign promoting good stewardship of the bikes.

For bike-sharing services to prosper, we must learn from the successes and failures of those that have come before and avoid repeating the same mistakes. They also must embrace new ideas and, yes, take some chances so we see more projects like those in Washington, Paris and the Bay Area. Ultimately, they are a good idea for so many reasons — cycling eases congestion, cuts emissions, promotes healthy living and it’s just plain fun.

Photo: Flicker / M.V. Jantzen. Commuters riding bicycles they got through Smartbike DC.