It's a glorious Indian Summer morning in San Francisco, and the streets are teeming with bicyclists. Many are mounted atop the lumbering, turquoise steeds composing the fleet of the nascent Bay Area Bike Share.
Your humble narrator queried a great deal of them if they were using the service to accomplish something practical or simply taking a ride for the sake of taking a ride. Every time thus far, we've been told the latter -- often in a heavy European accent.
But we didn't talk to Mike Sonn. The North Beach denizen plunked down the $88 for a yearlong membership as soon as he could. Finally, he could get from his home to the Cal Train station and then to work in Redwood City without suffering the vagaries of hauling a bike on the train or locking it up at Fourth and King (he arrives too early to take advantage of the secured bicycle storage).
Of course, that assumes there's a spot at the Cal Train bike share depot for Sonn and others like him to leave their bikes. This morning, there wasn't.
See Also: We Give Bay Area Bike Share a Test-Ride
Sonn handles his commute methodically, as you'd expect of someone who religiously catches the 6:57 train each morning. He checked the real-time availability of bike parking spots at the Cal Train bike share station before he left -- and there was only one remaining.
Still, he figured he'd give it a go. But when he arrived, all the spots were taken (the program seems to be distributing its bikes with expectations of hordes of South Bay-to-San Francisco commuters grabbing a bike, to the detriment of San Franciscans heading south).
Sonn -- and other confused, early-morning San Franciscans he bumped into -- ended up having to head to Second and Townsend, dropping the bike there, then hoofing it back to Fourth and King.
That's a half-mile ride and a half-mile walk tacked onto the trip. This doubled Sonn's morning commute time, taking a huge bite out of the bike program's practicality.
Popular stations suffering from overloading is a problem we predicted would come up here in the city. It has certainly plagued other bike-share services worldwide. Our queries to Bay Area Bike Share were, improbably, returned by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
Spokesman Ralph Borrmann stated that, hey, this is a pilot project -- and they're "still learning the movement patterns for the bikes." In other words, instances like this, which could ruin commuters' individual mornings, will, hopefully, lead to smoother service across the board.
Borrmann added that bikes are "rebalanced" at the stations every day between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The service's website offers real-time availability stats for every station. But it remains unclear how anyone could detect that users like Sonn are unable to deposit bikes at their desired stations and are being forced to frantically pedal to nearby depots; that's not the sort of thing that easily shows up via analytics. You can detect how many people come and go and where they do it -- but not whether that station was their first, second, or third choice.
In order to impart that sort of information, it seems, users will have to contact customer service.*
Sonn says he's hoping "they are working out how to stock the stations. Maybe they don't have a good read on ridership patterns." That's so -- and it seems that, in the short-term, it's experiences like his that will alter that. Or not.
Either way, his check has been cashed: "I'm in it for the long haul."
*It turns out there is a method of imparting this message short of making a phone call. Those finding themselves at a full station can receive a 15-minute extension to the 30-minute time limit by entering "full station" into the system. Naturally, this data will be recorded.