Sunday, July 5, 2015

A month of HealthyRide bikes

Back in May, I assisted with the city's bicycle-pedestrian count, and for that, I got to try out the new HealthyRide bike rental system free of charge for a month. It went reasonably well, and I recommend the system to anyone. Here is my quick review of the first month.

When it first went online, during the May 31 OpenStreets celebration, only about 1/4 of the stations and bikes were up and running. It took most of that first month to bring all the stations online. The last I checked, 49 of 50 were up.

For short, one-way trips, the $2-for-30-minute rental works quite well. An Oakland-to-downtown trip, or downtown-to-Northside, can actually be done cheaper and faster by bike than by bus, particularly if you have to wait even a few minutes for the bus.

The bikes work pretty well. Each is equipped with head- and taillights, though they shut off when you come to a stop. I wish they had a small battery system that kept the lights running after coming to a stop. If I'm riding after dark and waiting at a traffic light, I at least need to be seen by other drivers, if not also scope out the area I am about to traverse.

Gearing is OK, but could be better. They are equipped with a seven-speed IGH (internal geared hub), so there are no external gears to grease up your pant cuffs. The range seemed geared too high for my tastes. While I did not take it up any steep hills, I did climb Shady from Fifth to Wilkins on one, and that was tougher than I expected. Note that I regularly climb Federal Street, so am no stranger to hills. 

Then there was the slippage. Not one of the bikes stayed reliably in all seven gears all the time, though some were worse than others. Worst seemed to be the mid-range 4th and 5th gears. The situation did improve during the month. I suspect that problem bikes were identified and adjusted, and I hope that this will continue to improve.

They were comfortable to ride, smooth and cushy, unlike my own bikes which are built for road travel, and so give a rough ride. These have step-through frames, so no need to throw a leg over to get on. Each has a small basket, but if you have to carry something, I recommend bringing a tote bag to contain it and a bungee to hold it in place better.

Station spacing could be better, but I think this was as much my own learning curve as anything. One station is right outside the office building where I work, but I did not figure out where the best places to turn in were on the other end, at least not without some practice. At that, I found I could sometimes make the return trip faster on foot. For anyone else, just be sure where you are going before you take out the bike.

I did mount the bike on a Port Authority bus rack once. They're heavy bikes, 38 pounds (? check that) -- not so heavy that they strain the rack's weight capacity, but heavy enough that a small or non-athletic rider might have trouble lifting it onto and off the rack.

Renting the bikes was simple. I just made sure the phone app was started as I came down the elevator, then a quick beep as I scanned the QR code, gave it a yank and was on my way. After over a dozen rentals, I never did get the knack of returning the bike quickly, though I got better with practice. In theory I should be able to roll up to a station rack, shove it into place, get a beep and a blink, and walk away. But I learned to look at the phone app and make sure the system acknowledged that the bike was returned properly. Again, practice. Worst case scenario, I could not get it to work, so had to call the Customer Service number and let them know where the bike was (e.g., locked to a nearby fence). Problem was, that one time I was a little tight on time and so missed the bus I was trying to catch. 

Some have reported trouble with the built-in lock. The couple times I used it, I had no trouble at all. As with anything, YMMV.

I fear that learning these will be like learning the transit system for the first time. It took a bunch of tries to get the hang of making it work smoothly and knowing where to go. Similar to seeking out the best parking garage to drive to instead of having an ocean of asphalt outside every destination, as in the suburbs, there is some inherent human tuning that some people will figure out and some people will not.

Totally separate is the issue of knowing how to ride in traffic. Myself, I am quite comfortable taking a full lane of traffic, whether on a multi-lane street (Grant, Forbes, 7th or 16th St Bridges) or a one-lane-each-way street (Butler, East Carson, Wilkins). I saw plenty of edge-huggers, "salmon" (wrong-way) and sidewalk riders. The safest place is in the street and in the lane, but getting people to do that is not HealthyRide's job -- though I would hope they would say that themselves.

One mild surprise was dealing with Customer Service. Operators are bi-lingual, and their second language is English --their first being German. Expect that, and use the first couple of exchanges with the person to get your language bearings established. I had no trouble understanding them, nor they me, but German accents are not what most of us expect when calling a service number.

Last thing: Keep your 6-digit PIN number where you can access it in a hurry. Better yet, memorize it.

I recommend everyone get the app and use the system a few times, so that you can rely on it in a hurry if you have to. Going forward, I will likely use it on an as-needed basis, since I almost always have a bike in town already. The alternative is a choice of subscription plans, which I won't try to detail here. But $2 for a half-hour rental, then $2 for each half-hour beyond, is not that unreasonable, though some personal tuning might be in order. Taking one out for an afternoon could run into some money that way. I didn't investigate, as that is not a usage I needed nor anticipate needing.

All told, the system works, and is getting better as it settles in. 

1 comment:

  1. Have you tried out Pittsburgh's new bike rental system? I did for a month. Check out my review.