Part of the master plan for Rakish Ride has always been to build a bike sharing/rental scheme and that plan is coming along rather nicely. As part of the planning process I do “research” on bike sharing and rental schemes and most importantly I actually use them every chance I get.

IMG_1521This past week I was in Boston and New York City and had my first chance to try both of their schemes, which are based on the same short term rental systems that exist in major metros from Paris to Minneapolis. Since the systems themselves are essentially the same in terms of the bikes and the infrastructure that supports them I won’t comment too much on that part of it here and will instead focus my attention on how the schemes operate and most importantly, how they function for the end users.

I’ll start by saying that I find even the worst bike sharing scheme preferable to taxis and this is especially true in big crowded and relatively compact cities. While Boston is not really “compact” my own travel needs were very minimal, traveling about 2 miles from my hotel to the MIT campus each day.

The first notable thing I discovered about the Boston Hubway bike share scheme is that they are struggling to operate the system in a way that puts the bikes where they need to be when they need to be there and because they do not have a smartphone app to show you where the stations or bikes are located the system can be pretty frustrating to use.

Update: Hubway found my review and pointed out there are multiple smartphone apps for their system such as 

Thanks for the heads up and I am confident using one of these would make the Hubway system much more user friendly.

My first experience started out well enough, there was a station right around the corner from the Sheraton Boston hotel where I was staying but due to shortcomings in the Boston system I actually spent twice as much time trying to find a place to park the bike as I did riding it from point A to point B.

The first station had only two bikes available so after I unlocked mine there was just one left there at about 8:30am. Surely a problem for anyone else leaving my hotel for a meeting that started at 9am or so. I walked by the station the night before and noticed there were only a couple of bikes there but assumed (incorrectly) that the Hubway folks would be moving bikes around over night like most schemes to do balance things out. Sadly that does not appear to have been the case.

Even worse the destination station, which was not really very easy to find based on the map, was completely full of bikes so I could not dock the bike there and had to go looking for a second station, which was also completely full but luckily there was a Hubway person there offloading bikes so after a minute I could dock mine. Interestingly the person was loading the bikes into a rented van, confirming my suspicion that the Boston system really does not have the infrastructure or operations parts of the process figured out just yet.

Update: Was glad to see Hubway responding to my review so I expect they are aware of and working on the distribution of bikes, which cannot be an easy thing to solve.

As far as the bike riding goes the bike themselves appeared to be well maintained and Boston’s bike path system was pretty good. However, Boston does not have protected bikeways and Boston drivers were in my experience overly aggressive and going WAY to fast on average for inner city traffic. My experience in both Boston and NYC further confirmed my view that in order for cycling to really reach it’s full potential to transform our cities and make them more enjoyable to live in we need significant changes to both infrastructure and laws in order to protect cyclists from the “entitled motorist” culture we have in the US.

Until motorists start treating cyclists like human beings that might be their own brother/sister/daughter/mother you can forget the idea of putting the average person onto a bike in a major metro like Boston or New York as it would scare the shit out of them and rightfully so.

Moving onto the NYC scheme it had the same problem as Boston in that they do not do an even reasonable job of getting the bikes to where they need to be. It seems that the vast majority of stations in and around midtown and times square always have plenty of bikes but in the other areas I was in near Soho and Greenwich Village most of the stations were empty or near empty most of the time. I had to visit 4 stations one morning before finding a bike. Although the NYC system does have an on screen system for finding nearby stations and showing how many bikes they have (for all I know the Boston system also has this but I did not use it) it does not help much if all the stations around you are empty.

In the case of NYC parts of the bike path system are great such as the Hudson River Parkway but others are a treacherous nightmare that will confound and scare even a seasoned urban commuter such as yours truly. Again, there is zero chance I would put my sister or daughter on one of these bikes and set them loose on the streets where bike lanes bounce from one side of one way streets to the other for no apparent reason and even worse end abruptly in the worst possible spots leaving the rider in the middle of some of the most aggressive drivers on the planet.

NYC has a very long way to go to make bike sharing viable for tourists and it’s no surprise that the vast majority of the users of Citibike are in fact New Yorkers with subscriptions.

So, the bottom line verdict from the Rakish Ride on the Boston Hubway and NYC Citibike systems is that if you are a seasoned and courageous urban commuter traveling to one of these cities and need to travel a short distance in the center of town they might just work for you. However, if you are a casual cyclist I would recommend either system as a great way to do a little sightseeing on the river parkways and dedicated bike paths but I would not recommend you use them as a substitute to get you across town through city traffic.

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