Thursday, November 22, 2012

Hubway Bike Share: First Impressions

I took a trip to Boston this past October.  It was a quick in-and-out for business: arrive late in the evening at South Station, sleep over, and then leave the next day from South Station immediately after the meeting.

In the past, I would take the T to get around town: I can't tell you how many times I've found myself waiting for the Red Line late at night at South Station.  But this time... this time, I figured I would try out Hubway, Boston's new bike share program.  Instead of my Charlie Card, I took my bike helmet.

Upon arrival at South Station, I had no problem finding the bikes.  And after a few minutes of studying the instructions, I figured out how to use it and paid $5 on my credit card for a 24-hour membership.  The price was incredibly reasonable, as this would serve all my transportation needs for the next day: three trips in all.

The first thing I did was add lights to the bike.  They have built-in dynamo-powered lights.  But the lightweight LED headlight I strapped on to the handlebars was much brighter.  Same thing for the LED light I'd attached to my backpack.  In my book, you can never have too many lights on your bike.

And then off I went.  I headed across Downtown Crossing, then cut across the Boston Commons to the Arthur Fiedler Memorial Bridge.  From there, it was an easy level stretch along the Charles River: always a pleasant way to get in and out of downtown.  I rarely feel unsafe biking alone at night because --- someone would have to stop me before they do anything.

By this time, it became clear to me: these bikes are NOT built for speed.  They are indestructible and not particularly heavy.  But their 3-speed gearing is rather low, and I was simply not able to go more than maybe 12 mph.  Since I'm used to getting around at about twice that speed, this was hard for me to get used to.  Patience is a virtue.... anyway, it still beat waiting for the T and walking.

I popped back over Storrow Drive in the middle of BU and found a nicely renovated bike lane on Commonwealth Ave.  Great job!

Hubway allows you only 30 minutes of ride before they add a surcharge.  But you can ride as long as you like if you "check in."  So that's what I did on BU Campus.  I found another bike rack, turned my bike in, and then tried to get a second bike.  For that, I had to insert my credit card again.  Not to charge, just verify.

Uh oh... the machine couldn't read my card, and I might find myself walking the rest of the way.  NOT COOL.  Luckily, it finally did manage to read the card, and off I went again.  I found that the BU Bridge was now safe on bike, something it never was in the past (thank you, nice job), and then left the bike at Micro Center.  It was an amazing feeling to just roll up, stick the thing in the rack, and then just... walk away.  No muss, no fuss.

All in all, my entire trip from South Station to Cambridgeport took less than 30 minutes.  That is comparable to the T.  This particular location is a 10-minute walk from the T, which made the bike so much more convenient.  Unfortunately, I still had to walk a couple of blocks from Micro Center.

The next day went smoothly.  I picked up a bike at Micro Center (the same bike as last night, in fact) and had no problem riding to Harvard Square.  Again... these are slow bikes, and that didn't feel as good as my own bike riding in traffic on Putnam Ave.  But I got to Harvard Square all right and had no problem finding an empty rack slot.  No muss, no fuss.

Given the slow speed of these bikes, I was a little apprehensive of riding all the way back to South Station. They're not as fun as my own bikes.  In the end, I ended up talking with my colleagues for so long, I had to get a ride to South Station. And I must say, the way you can just drive down the Pike and then right up into the parking garage on top of the bus station is pretty cool.  Before I knew it, I found myself on a Greyhound heading back to Port Authority.

So what do I think?  Overall, a great system, but the bikes are slow.  Patience is a virtue.  It was a great value for $5, even though I got only 2 trips out of it, not 3.  Do I plan on using it the next time I go to Boston?  Certainly!

What does this mean for New York?  New York is bigger than Boston, but I'm afraid the bikes won't be any faster.  Members will need to become well versed in the bike-swap procedure in order to get many interesting places in New York --- certainly any inter-borough travel will require that technique.

The biggest possible problem for the  casual user would be broken credit card readers and getting stuck mid-trip because of them.  This could be fixed if they allow you to enter a code to re-rent once you've turned in a bike, rather than having to insert your physical credit card.  Or if they make an app and use RFID phones.  Or... there are a million ways to solve this problem.  But it does need to be solved.

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