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Friday, August 30, 2013

Bay Area Bike Share: We Give it a Test-Ride

Posted By on Fri, Aug 30, 2013 at 8:45 AM

Your un-hot rod awaits. Just please bring a helmet.
  • Your un-hot rod awaits. Just please bring a helmet.

Thursday's launch of the nascent Bay Area Bike Share program was marked by equally nascent riders tentatively piloting oversize, turquoise bicycles up and down Market Street. They come equipped with a bell -- and people made sure to ring it. 

San Francisco denizens can access cycles from a couple dozen stations clustered, heavily, in the FiDi, with outposts in the Design District, CalTrain station, and Pier 27 (America's Cup, anyone? Anyone?). Nine bucks buys you 24 hours of bike access (or $88 for a whole year), but here's the rub: You can't have any one bicycle for more than 30 minutes without incurring overtime fees. SF Weekly's Ian Port and Joe Eskenazi ponied up for a pair of bicycles and squired them about town. Here's the best and the worst of it:

The Good: If you're worried that these turquoise two-wheelers eerily resemble the balloon-tired behemoth you rented in Santa Monica that time, relax -- they're far more practical than a beach cruiser. Yes, as we note below, they're hefty. And, yes, the steering is slow (at least if you're used to a twitchy road bike; another word for it might be "predictable"). But the upshot of all this is a well-equipped, easy ride. 

Upon mounting your socialist steed, you'll notice that the right-side grip comes with a shifting mechanism: This controls seven speeds inside the rear hub that give you plenty of gear range, from "I want to go fast downhill!" to "Christ, why did I try to ride up Broadway from the Embarcadero?" Just twist forward or back to get a different gear. In our experience, the shifting was fast, quiet, and reliable. The lowest gear is enough to crawl your way up most hills at a speed that will exhaust your patience before your legs. The front and rear brakes were perfectly adequate: You won't lay rubber, even with the hardest pull possible, but you certainly will stop.

Accessory-happy cyclists will be happy to hear that these rides come equipped with the aforementioned neat little bell on the left side of the grip, flashing front and rear lights that come on automatically when you start riding, and a funky basket-and-cord-type thing on the front of the handlebars. In other words, just about everything you could conceivably need for city riding (there is, however, one glaring absence. We'll get to that.).

Once you raise the seat to the proper height with the quick release mechanism and start pedaling, you'll notice that the bikes offer a pleasant, upright riding position suitable for unhurried city riding. The handlebars put everything where you need it. The seat is far kinder to one's glutes than anything we'd put on our own bikes. The plastic platform pedals were ... there. All in all, the bikes at the core of this bikeshare program do everything one would need them to, and perhaps a little more.

Did you remember to bring a chain?
  • Did you remember to bring a chain?
The Bad: The first thing you'll notice about the bikeshare program is that it's not a helmetshare program. You're going to have to bring your own. This is troubling on its face. But it grows even more so when you factor in who's riding these bikes, where they're riding them, and the bikes themselves.

Intuitively, it makes sense that the target clientele for a bikeshare program wouldn't be hardcore cyclists. Hardcore cyclists have their own bicycles. Some even have a few. So, Bay Area Bike Share is catering to folks who likely don't regularly pilot a bike in the vicinity of Market Street -- where the vast majority of the stations are located. This is the very area that the city's own assessments rate as dangerous and accessible only for experienced, even "daring" riders. Again: No helmets provided.

The 44-pound bikes composing the new services's fleet are heavy and ungainly even for experienced riders. You will not be able to accelerate your way out of a problem. You can't get them going very quickly -- but you can't get them slowed down particularly quickly either. 

These vehicles are designed to be satisfactory for everyone -- but satisfying for none. A bicycle that rides this cumbersomely affixed with so many of the aforementioned amenities harks to a blunderbuss equipped with a laser scope. 

In short, sending inexperienced riders into the dark heart of Market Street, helmetless, on awkward bicycles reads like a recipe for disaster.

Once you get beyond that, barring a rapid expansion, the system's business model isn't readily apparent. It's easy enough to swipe a credit card and pedal off -- but, with only half an hour before fines rack up, you do need to know where you're going. And unless you're toting around a U-Lock, you're not leaving that bike unattended for very long (a $101 deposit is placed on your card and it'll run you $1,200 if you lose the cycle). The only practical use for this service is a series of quick, one-way trips. 

Don't dawdle! Thirty minutes goes fast!
  • Don't dawdle! Thirty minutes goes fast!
Glancing at that map, some routes do emerge: FiDi to Cal Train/ballpark; Embarcadero to City Hall; Broadway strip clubs to Zynga HQ. 

But if the program flourishes, some waystations will, naturally, be more popular than others. And, if this is the case, it's likely that space issues will present themselves; woe to a future rider attempting to deposit her cycle near AT&T Park 10 minutes before a Giants-Dodgers game. And, remember, the clock is ticking.  

Also: Why no stations in the Mission -- the most bike-friendly part of town? Riding from Downtown along the Valencia corridor would be a natural option.

We'll end at the beginning. The bike station we went to was serving double duty as a station for at least three different panhandlers -- which could present challenges down the road. We had to run our credit card through the machine several times, and were left with a lingering dread that we'd been double-billed (we weren't. We think.).

Coda: While the two-wheeled core of the Bay Area's new bikeshare program is adequate -- offering well-equipped, if not performance-friendly, bikes -- the implementation so far leaves much to be desired (and fretted over). The program so far seems the rough equivalent of the many quirky former businesses once dotting San Francisco that everyone loved the idea of -- but not enough to patronize. 

Time will tell.

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