I road into the future of alternative transportation in New York City on Wednesday afternoon, and the view looked promising from the saddle of the bicycle that I checked out from a bike share demonstration station at Bowling Green in Manhattan.

Since NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan announced last week that Alta Bicycle Share of Portland, OR had been awarded the contract to operate the New York City Bike Share, the 10,000-bike system due to launch in 2012, I’d been looking forward to taking a test ride at one of the previews that the DOT and Alta are offering in Manhattan and Brooklyn through Oct. 2.

Business was brisk at yesterday’s trial, according to Jocelyn Gaudi, a member care specialist for Alta. Gaudi said hundreds of New Yorkers had tried out the bikes between noon and 3 p.m., mostly for quick spins in the neighborhood.

Urban Workhorses

As a person who happily rides my own bike for daily transportation, I envision using bike share for spontaneous, point-to-point hops around town with my husband and to close gaps in my public transit routes. So, for my test ride, I dressed in work apparel — a silk blouse and wool slacks with heels and a clutch, plus a tote bag. No special “cycling” clothing.

…two reactions were common among users returning the bikes: “Wow, that was really fun!” and “They were heavier than I thought, but that felt safe.”

The attendant at the kiosk, a DOT representative, handed me a clipboard with a waiver to sign and took my credit card as security for safe return of the bike. He handed me a “key” about the size of a stick of gum (top photo), and invited me to select a bicycle. Since the color scheme and logo of the NYC system are yet to be determined, similar bikes from other programs were on offer: I chose a black bike from Toronto.

NYC Bike Share Demo Bike - velojoy.com

I inserted the key into a slot on the left side of the dock where the bike was parked. A small light shown yellow and then green, signaling that it was okay to remove the bike. Be prepared to give it a good yank; the bikes are easy to remove, but quite heavy.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? Relatively slow, safe riding. These bikes are urban work horses, that, as the attendant observed, “won’t win you any races.” They are simple to operate for riders of all abilities and offer the upright handlebars, good sight lines and low center of gravity that help make riders feel steady and secure on city streets. And, similar in concept to the Dutch utility bicycles I road in Amsterdam recently, they come with the basic features needed for urban riding and none of the high-maintenance extras.

Bikes for the Short Haul

Under the bike share plan, which encourages short trips and quick turnover, users get the first 30 – 40 minutes free; charges for additional time will accrue at a rate that is to be determined. The annual membership key is expected to cost about $100, and casual use with a credit card at the kiosks also is envisioned. The plan calls for 400 stations in Manhattan and Brooklyn at the outset.

I spent my 30 minutes riding from Bowling Green uptown on Greenwich Street, pausing for an errand at Adeline Adeline on Reade Street, and then cruising back downtown on Broadway.

With its step-through frame, I found the bike easy to mount, and the saddle, which is adjustable in height via a simple leaver, comfortable. The chain guard and skirt guard help protect clothes from grease and prevent longer garments like coats from becoming entangled in the rear spokes. I didn’t even bother with my usual trouser strap.

NYC Bike Share Handlebar Grips

Comfort and Convenience

The handlebars grips (above) are slightly padded for comfort, and the hand brakes levers are within easy grasp. A satisfyingly audible bell is situated beneath the left grip within easy reach of the thumb. I shifted smoothly among 3 speeds, according to the road grade, with a simple turn of my right wrist. Dynamo lights on the front and rear automatically illuminate when one pedals, lending day- and nighttime visibility.

The clutch and tote that I carried went into a luggage rack equipped with a bungee on the front of the bike. (One near-calamitous moment: Because I hadn’t fully secured the clutch, it popped out of the rack when I hit a bump and was run over by the truck behind me. Luckily, the truck’s wheels missed, and I collected the bag off the pavement unscathed.)

I felt great on the bike during my ride, even on a route that does not feature bike lanes. My upright riding position, the substantial quality and weight of the bike, and the lights helped me feel visible to motorists and pedestrians — many of whom regarded the bicycle with curiosity. On my own aluminum city bike, which has drop bars, I’m accustomed to being out of the saddle when I push off from a stop at a traffic signal or ascend a hill, and I was surprised that I could do the same with this bike, despite its weight.

NYC Bike Share Demo - Transporting Bikes

‘Wow, That Was Fun’

As I returned the bike to the kiosk at 3 p.m. — closing time — the crew was already disassembling the station and loading the bikes onto a flatbed truck for the next day’s demo at the DeKalb Market in Brooklyn.

Ms. Gaudi of Alta said that two reactions were common among users returning the bikes: “Wow, that was really fun!” and “They were heavier than I thought, but that felt safe.”

Like many New Yorkers who are passionate about cycling and who have high hopes for what is slated to become the largest bike share system in the U.S., I’ve got to think this will be a game changer. More bikes on the streets and greater visibility have the potential to generate wider embrace of cycling as a transportation alternative — with advantages, in terms of health, efficiency and economy, and reduction of pollution and congestion, that benefit the wider community.

In the mean time, you can get your own glimpse of the future at these upcoming demonstrations.

photos: velojoy

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5 Responses to key to the city: my nyc bike share demo ride

  1. Karen says:

    I used these exact bikes in Washington D.C. – Capital Bike Share – during Labor Day weekend. The payment setup is different for the $5 24-hr/day pass, you have to swipe your credit card each time you want a bike, and memorize/print the 5 digit code that the machine assigns you.

    Due to the 30 minutes or less discount, I was constantly setting my phone alarm to make sure I was at the nearest kiosk to check out a new bike. It’s kind of fun, and plunges you into unfamiliar city’s street layout real quick.

    It’s a plush upright ride, hardly feel the bumps due to the huge tires. Love the bungee basket feature, though it’s better for larger packages that won’t slip out easily. Lights are always engaged, so you don’t have to remember to turn it on. The seat posts had numbers marking height, so you could memorize your setting and readjust your bike accordingly in the future.

    The one thing I fear, which I also felt in D.C., is the sidewalk cycling / lack of cyclist education in general, or even at the kiosk as a reminder. Riding on sidewalks is permitted in certain areas of D.C., and people do it here in NYC as well, though it’s not permitted. I dread a whole fleet of newbies on cycles blazing through the sidewalks, or going down streets and bike paths against the flow of traffic.

    • velojoy says:

      Karen, thanks so much for sharing your experience with the Capital Bike Share. Based on your account, I’m wondering how you kept track of the location of the kiosks. Was a map provided? Were you using a smart phone app? Also, I know that many people share the concern that you express about riders who are new to city cycling. A stepped-up public education campaign could help pave the way for safe and effective implementation of NYC Bike Share.

  2. Karen says:

    I researched Capital Bikeshare in advance of my trip.

    They have an app (http://spotcycle.net/), but I’m not a smartphone user :( so I went the collage route of printing out the applicable zone maps and taped them all together from here (http://www.capitalbikeshare.com/station_map)

    Each kiosk had a map of nearby stations, so you can take snapshots if you forget.

    • velojoy says:

      Karen, thanks for sending this additional information. It will be interesting to see what kind of an app is developed for NYC Bike Share…

  3. [...] be interesting to see if these loosen up with use. Be sure to secure your bag: My slim purse popped off the bike and into the path of truck when I rode one of the test bikes that were sent around to various [...]

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