Bumpy Road for SF Bike Share?

By Joel P. Engardio

If you are excited about bike sharing coming at the end of this month to San Francisco, the best advice is to be patient. If our experience is anything like New York’s version, expect plenty of glitches.

In the Bay Area launch, just 700 bikes at 70 kiosks will service all five participating cities – San Francisco, Redwood City, Mountain View, Palo Alto and San Jose. San Francisco will offer coverage from Embarcadero to City Hall along Market Street with some stations in North Beach and SoMa.

But the Bay Area’s approach of starting small to work out kinks and grow later makes sense.

New York launched Citi Bike this summer to lots of fanfare and headaches. Software problems plagued a system that requires swiping credit cards at kiosks and entering codes on keypads at bike docking stations. We are using the same company – Oregon-based Alta Bicycle Share – to run Bay Area Bike Share.

Racks filled with dozens of blue bikes line many Manhattan street corners, at least below Central Park. Hip areas of Brooklyn are included, too. But promised growth throughout New York’s boroughs hasn’t happened yet.

New York’s launch also had special problems. The worst was Hurricane Sandy, which flooded a Brooklyn warehouse where equipment was stored. Now Alta is suing its insurance carrier to recover more damages.

I was eager to try Citi Bike on a recent trip to New York. But it was a technological and physical struggle to get the bike out of its docking station.

The kiosk wouldn’t read any of my credit cards. A tourist from London had the same trouble. I walked to the next station, which successfully generated a code to access a bike. But the keypad that unlocks the bike didn’t work at any of the docks. Several rejected riders complained with colorful New York language.

I walked to a third station, wondering how many potential users would have given up. I finally got a bike. But the process felt cumbersome: swiping a credit card at a kiosk, getting a code printed on a receipt, punching in the code at another keypad where the bike is docked.

A better system would use your phone next to the bike without relying on a piece of paper for the code. There is a smartphone app, but it is static, just showing you a map of station locations and available bikes -- and the app didn’t always match the real inventory.

People wrestled with their bikes at every station I visited. It takes a couple hard tugs to retrieve the bike and even more upper body strength to lock it back in.

Once on the bike, I happily rode around the Big Apple. It’s a functional if slightly clunky bike with three gears perfect for Manhattan’s gently sloping avenues. We’re promised seven gears for San Francisco’s hills.

While New York’s bikes feature the deep blue Citibank corporate logo, our bikes will be generically branded as Bay Area Bike Share. They are light blue and funded by a consortium of local government agencies.

Don’t lose track of time while riding. You only have 30 minutes to return the bike to the next station, or your credit card will be charged an overage fee (it would be nice if an app counted down the remaining minutes). Longer rides require switching bikes at a station along your route for another half-hour. Ideally there would be enough stations to let you drop the bike off at a secure location near any destination without worry.

That’s an important point because New York charges $1,000 for stolen bikes. The penalty is higher ($1,200) in San Francisco, which is hopefully not an indication of a bumpy road ahead.

Also published in the San Francisco Examiner August 25, 2013