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3 days commuting to work via Seattle’s new bike share

For three days I used Spin bike share to commute to and from work. I put the bikes and their app to the test, noting the benefits and a few bumps in the road for the new bike share program.

My commute is about a 3.3-mile ride between Roosevelt and Eastlake. I should note that I only rode Spin bikes for three days.

Spin launched 500 bikes in Seattle. The other new bike share in town, Limebike, only launched five (according to the app). Limebike has put more units on the road since then.

The commute

It wasn’t long into my first ride, especially going uphill, to realize that the gears on the bike were not working correctly. Spin bikes have three gears, and this bike was stuck between gears 2 and 3. This first ride made for a rather strenuous trip. But a little over 3-uphill-miles later I locked the bike in Roosevelt and the app told me I was charged $2 (I rode for just over 30 minutes). There is a big difference between gear 1, the easy gear, and the other two speeds. That first gear is the most valuable, especially on even the slightest Seattle hill.

After one week in town, Spin began altering its bikes with the “Twelve,” a bike designed for Seattle (Twelve is a reference to the Seahawks, not the number of gears). All new Spin bikes will have 25 percent easier gears. Old Spin bikes will be upgraded to this new gearing as well.

“That means if you are in gear 1, it’s going to be a lot easier to pedal up an incline than in gear 2,” Ko said. “We are reducing gear one by at least 25 percent.”

Reporting problems: I used the “Help” section of the app to inform Spin about the first bike’s gear problem. They wrote back saying that they will have someone come out and pick it up. The bike was no longer available on the app, but remained in the same spot for five days. Spin has a team that runs from bike-to-bike, addressing problems and repairing units. For example, I encountered another bike that had been vandalized with spray paint. I reported it via the app and someone came out to remove it.

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A Spin bike in Eastlake that someone vandalized. (Dyer Oxley)

Another day, I had to search the University District to find the closest bike. This proved to be a challenge. The Spin app told me that a bike was near 47th and 11th. I walked up and down the block — no bike. I then walked a couple blocks over to Trader Joe’s where another Spin bike was supposed to be. Nothing here either. I came across a guy, also with a bike helmet swinging from his backpack, staring at his phone with the same confused look as myself. Now it was a competition to find the next closest bike before this guy could. So I started walking (striding) away, however, I came across another Spin bike two blocks away that was not on the app. I scanned it, it unlocked. According to the Spin app, I just picked up a bike from in front of Trader Joe’s.

“The strength of cell signal and GPS definitely does affect some of our bikes, but that only happens fleetingly in certain areas in the city,” Ko said.

Coasting down the Roosevelt bike lane (great lane by the way), I passed the other confused guy who was now waiting at a bus stop. As Pronto found out, using these bikes for the downhill ride is quite fun. The downhill commutes from Roosevelt to Eastlake were a breeze and quite enjoyable.

Spin CEO Derrick Ko said the company first targeted Seattle’s most densely populated areas. Spin expects to place bikes in other neighborhoods as they are allowed to roll more out. Spin and Limebike are both allowed to have 500 bikes on the road during their first month in operation. There are likely a lot more bikes, and maybe even more companies coming after that — read about that here.

Bike share: What you need to know

  • These bike companies are not the same as Pronto, Seattle’s failed bike share. You can park the bikes nearly anywhere in town. The rear wheel locks when not in use. Customers use an app on their smartphone to find a bike and scan it, after which it will unlock. Riders are charged $1 for 30 minutes to ride.
  • Parking: You can park the bikes in the “furniture / landscape zone” of the sidewalk — where you usually see a bike rack, bench, or a tree. The sidewalks must be wider than 3 feet. Riders must also park the bikes on a hard, concrete surface. So no patches of grass. You also cannot park them on street corners.
  • The bikes are sturdy. Imagine a compact beach cruiser. At 5’9″ I felt a little cramped on them. But I imagine they will serve a wide variety of body types. You will also feel every bump and ripple in the road. There are no shocks on the bikes and the wheels are solid rubber. There is little relief from the terrain … I stood up at my desk for a while after my morning commute.
  • The Spin app reminds you to wear a helmet when you open it up. Despite witnessing quite a few bike share customers cruising without a helmet, riders are required to wear them according to King County law. Ko said that Spin can remind riders to use helmets, but the responsibility is ultimately up to the customer.
  • After one week in operation, Spin provided 5,008 rides (more than Pronto’s first week). The average ride was 16.71 minutes and the average rider took 2.7 trips.

Final thoughts

  • These stationless bike share systems have a few kinks to work out — locating a bike, gearing, etc. Some of which are already being addressed. But overall, they are quite convenient — no waiting for a bus, or a ride share. No parking hassles. They’re not for every trip, but they have the potential to become a heavily-relied upon piece of Seattle’s transit puzzle.
  • These bikes will likely be one leg of a journey through Seattle — they are great for getting you to bus stops and light rail lines for longer trips. Otherwise, they can get you around the corner for shorter trips just fine. I don’t think they are ideal for a daily commute through Seattle, unless you want to put the time in on a 3-gear bike.
  • Not having to park a car is perhaps the best argument for using a bike share. Parking a car in Seattle is among the worst aspects of the city — we spend 58 hours each year just trying to find a spot. But this is not a factor for bike shares.
  • I would have loved to have given a Limebike a try, as they have eight gears, compared to Spin’s three. They also appear to have larger baskets which seem more apt for trips to the store. But none of Limebike’s five rides seemed to travel beyond downtown Seattle.
  • Drivers: We’re kind of jerks. Inching around a cyclist on the road is not a chore. Yet, I had a couple of drivers honk at me while riding, legally, on the road. One driver yelled something, but moved along so fast, I couldn’t tell what it was. The tone was clear though. We share the road, however, and if having to sway a couple feet over to get around a bike is a major offense to you, then I’d say your life is pretty good.
  • Bicyclists: You’re kind of jerks, too. You don’t need to be on a main artery  primarily used for car traffic. There are plenty of side streets with less competition. Yes, there are a few cyclists with calves of steel who can handle the route, but not everyone. Don’t get mad at cars skimming by you when you opted not to ride one block over. And yes, traffic laws may be on your side. But the laws of physics aren’t.
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