Sunday, September 14, 2014

A (Biased) Review of the Denver B-Cycle Bike Share Program

I need a basket for my bike.

Char and I have been chatting up bike shares and bike advocacy for years and finally got the chance to put our money (and lives) where our big mouths were.

With her cousin’s wedding in Denver over Labor Day weekend we contrived a scheme that would allow us to: try out the bike share program, get some saddle time in over the long weekend, scare the living snot out of her parents, experience Denver biking at its finest, and arrive late to the wedding in true hipster style.

In the end, we were both successful and survived all of the above.

The Denver B-Cycle bike share program is fairly straightforward and mirrors most other bike share programs. Stations are located across the city, with many clustered in high usage areas. Kiosks can take a membership card or credit card to check out a bike if you are a first time user or already possess a membership account. For a one-time use it’s $8 for a 24-hour period. The first half hour of every ride is free with a $1 charge for the next half hour, and $4 for every half hour after that.

Plan Number 1: Grab some bikes from the B-Cycle station just across from our hotel and take one of the streets with dedicated bike lanes the three and a half miles to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Leave at 5pm and it would put us at the wedding a half hour early with plenty of time to spare. But the B-Cycle NOW mobile app showed that station was out of bikes.

Plan Number 2: We headed over two blocks to another station along our route to pull two bikes from that station, head down another street, hopefully with enough bike lanes to protect us from the heavy afternoon traffic leaving the Taste of Colorado festival downtown. We managed to pull one bike from the station before the kiosk froze and we spent almost 15 minutes trying to get someone on the customer service line to help us. The exasperated and helpless voice on the other end of the line tried to explain how the kiosks were all wirelessly connected to the cell towers and there was nothing he could do to fix any particular station if it wasn’t connecting on its own.

Plan Number 3: We hightailed it three blocks down the street to another B-Cycle station, this one hidden behind metal barricades inside the Taste of Colorado festival. Thankfully, Char and I each now had a shiny red behemoth in hand, it was only half past five, and we were on our way.

Of course, it was too late to circle back around to the beautifully painted and protected bike lanes, so we hightailed it up the hill and turned onto 17th street. No bike lanes, heavy traffic and we’re decked out in our best hipster/wedding finery. For the most part the cars gave us enough space to avoid riding in the gutter, though at times the traffic flow was a little quicker than I would have liked. However, the drivers reacted to our hand signals, let us merge or switch lanes as necessary, and those alone were new experiences for me. There weren’t very many strange looks from passersby, something that I’m quite used to when riding a bike unless I’m in the middle of an organized race/ride or in a bicycle hub like Durango.  Mostly, we just cruised along as fast as possible, worried that we’d be late to the wedding, and had almost no problems along the route. The B-Cycle station at the Museum was easy to find and there was plenty of room to turn our bikes in. We arrived just in time to find our seats, a little out of breath and a-glow with a layer of perspiration. Not too disheveled, but definitely rocking a semi-hipster look for the wedding.

A quick review of the bikes is in order. They were very heavy, but not nearly as heavy as I had read about in other reviews of other cities’ programs. Pedaling up hill was no problem and the two lowest gears (out of three total) were more than enough to get moving and to conquer most decent grades. The highest gear was enough to cruise along comfortably, but once we got moving into heavier traffic I was spinning as fast as I could and praying for another couple rings to slide into. The handlebars were pretty wide and each start felt wobbly until the momentum steadied everything out. I regretted not bringing any straps to blouse my pants and worried they would get caught in something, but managed to keep everything unstuck the entire ride.

Even the Squatch approves!
But most important of all was the basket! Just the right size to throw my jacket in for later with room left over for a briefcase, bag of groceries and a six-pack if needed. Never before had the lack of a bike basket in my own life ever been more apparent, nor the need to immediately find a way to have one installed on my commuter.

The ride home was fairly quiet. After we dried off the seats from the late evening rain we pedaled away to applause from other departing wedding revelers. The streets were mostly empty and we were free to comfortably spin along. There’s just not much traffic at 11pm on a Sunday night, even in downtown Denver. We started with our jackets on but soon warmed up enough to remove them and, you guessed it, toss them into the waiting basket! I must have one of my very own!

The station by the hotel had empty slots and we cruised the last few blocks along a protected bike lane, masters of our own little bike-sized road. Along the way to and from the museum there were plenty of other bikes of all shapes and sizes, with a similar variety of riders, heading in every direction. Along some streets we saw blatant dangerous and unlawful behavior from some cyclists (salmoning against traffic, ignoring street signs and lights, no helmets, etc.) but for the most part they seemed to blend right into the flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. The signs of both locals and tourists using the bike share were everywhere, and we passed many riders heading in opposite directions on similar bright red machines, waving and laughing.

While the delay and frustration in dealing with the broken kiosk was extremely annoying, in the end it didn’t take much time to find another working station and retrieve a bike. We were also charged a second $8 fee during the kiosk confusion (and offered a refund by the confused and harried customer service rep) and a single $1 charge while we were dragging one bike around while looking for one for Char to ride. Unless you’re already running late, careful planning and preparation would seem enough mitigation against most unforeseen issues. However, I must caveat that we only rented bikes one day, on a Sunday afternoon/evening, and rode them twice, to and from one destination. There’s plenty of room to delve more deeply into the world of bike commuting in Denver, but for a single holiday weekend the Denver B-Cycle bike share program made for quite an adventure for two amateur cyclist out-of-towners.

And now I must go shopping for a basket for my own bike (and, of course, one for Charla).

Making Denver B-Cycle look good!
This is serious business.