Friday, October 12, 2012

City Bikes Stockholm - Part II - it's no Copenhagen (or Boston)

so now that you have read my description of the bike share system in Stockholm, it's time to talk about the pros, the cons, and the comparison between this system and others, most notably the two systems that I have seen and experienced, Boston and Copenhagen.  what?  you haven't read my previous post?  shame on you!  it's all about the Stockholm bike share system, City Bikes.  read it.  you'll like it.

you may remember my not so glowing description of the free bicycle share system in Copenhagen where you only need to slip a small coin (20 kroner or 2 Euro) into a slot to reserve a bike for as long as you want.  at the time this system was launched (1990's), it was groundbreaking in many ways, especially for a well developed city and at such a large scale.  my biggest complaint about that system is that because it is free, (some) people do not take responsibility for their actions and there is no accountability.  I read articles about people putting the coin in the slot, riding the bike around, and literally throwing the bike(s) into the ocean and canals.  vandalism of this nature is possible because there is no system to connect the person who "rents" the bike to the actual bike.

Stockholm took bike sharing to the next level by charging a fee to rent the bikes, by making a direct relationship between the bike and the renter, and by establishing some simple rules (including a slap on the wrist style punishment for violating the rules).  so, how does the bike share in Stockholm compare to Copenhagen?  well, for sure it is a step up in many ways, but it is not perfect either.

I made up a little chart to compare the three bike share programs using a 1-10 scale and assigning a score for each category with 9 as excellent and 1 as pretty bad.  I compared the bike shares looking at these categories: number of stations, number of bikes per station, cost (guest), cost (season), bike quality, access (locations), access (availability of bikes), support, web/ app, ease of use of the system, and range/ time.
bike share comparison chart
comparison chart of three bike shares: Boston, Stockholm, and Copenhagen
let's start with Copenhagen.  the system is free (you put a 20 kroner coin in as a deposit but you get it back when you lock up the bike) which is amazing.  but as I have said before, this leads to issues of vandalism and the feeling that there is no accountability because there is no way to track who is borrowing the bikes.  an additional problem with this system is that people use their own locks on the bikes and basically treat them as personal bikes, riding them around and locking them up anywhere (often not at stations).  almost every station I saw was without bikes and the few stations that had bikes often had problems (the bikes were stuck or locked with personal locks).  

the other major problem with this system is that the stations are hard to find (they don't have a kiosk, signage, or any other way to recognize them).  they basically look like regular bike racks.  because there are so many bikes in Copenhagen, you might not even see the share rack buried under other bikes.  in addition, people use the rack as a place to lock their personal bikes so the bike share rack might be completely full with non share bikes.  the bike share in Copenhagen was innovative and impressive when it was started more than 15 years ago, but it has flaws that make it less successful than some of the newer systems, especially when directly compared categorically.

so let's look at Stockholm's bike share, starting with the good aspects.  Stockholm made some great improvements when compared to Copenhagen.  they added inherent value to the system by making people pay to join.  the amount per season is pretty reasonable, especially if you use the bikes a lot.  they created many stations and spread them out well all over the city, which must have been a challenge because much of Stockholm central is a conglomeration of islands.  the bikes are well distributed and there are almost always bikes at most stations and empty slots to return the bikes.  the swipe NFC card seems to work well (although I had a problem once or twice and had to call the helpline) and the bike locking also seemed successful.  the system is relatively easy to use.  lastly, and most importantly (especially when compared to Boston), the allotment of time on the bike is long and the penalty for going over is minimal.  you have three hours per trip and you get three strikes if you go over before they cut off your card (if you go for more than 5 hours they lock your card).  three hours gives you quite a bit of time to travel around the city and even stop (not at a bike stand) if you are running errands.  I would guess that these simple rules (along with a method to know who checked out the bike) keeps most people in line and keeps vandalism and other problems to a minimum.

the weaknesses in Stockholm are apparent once you've ridden a little bit.  there are a bunch of bikes out there with problems (such as flat tires, broken lights, and wobbly wheels/ hubs).  several of the bikes I picked up did not shift properly or the seats did not adjust and if there was another bike on the rack I would return the first one, which did present a problem once or twice.  one time I rode home on a bike that had a really wobbly front wheel.  I was going down a hill fearing a little for my life.  another weakness of the Stockholm bike share is the 22.00 (10pm) curfew.  I am not sure whether this is enforced, but it seems silly to limit the bikes to this arbitrary time.  it's pitch black at 7pm now in October here, so why 10pm?  and speaking of 10pm, why 6am for the start time?  what if you need to be somewhere at 6am?  and finally, the app to tell you where there are available spots to pick up a bike or lock your bike back to a stand costs $3.  this should be free.  you're already paying for a membership to use the bike.

so how does Boston compare?  before we go too far here let me say that I have the least personal experience with this system because at home I ride my own bikes to work and around town.  let's start with the good stuff.  Boston's system is clearly the newest.  the bikes are mostly in excellent shape.  they shift properly, the lights work, etc.  they are pretty well distributed throughout the central parts of the city and have expanded significantly in the second year of operation, which is hopefully a good sign of things to come.  the app (run by an independent company called Spotcycle) is excellent and easy to use, as is the website.  people that I have talked with who use the system say very positive things about getting around town on the bikes.  the one time I called the helpline they were very supportive (although they could not fix the specific problem).  

another excellent feature of the Hubway bike share is the range of options.  you can sign up for one (24 hour) day for $5, a three day for $12, or a season membership.  the one day pass is great if you know you are going to take two or more trips in and around the city (a subway/ metro pass costs about $2 per trip).  the three day is great for a tourist or guest in the city.  the system is versatile.  one of the best parts about the Boston bike share system, especially when compared to Stockholm, is the overnight hours.  you can use the bikes whenever you need (during the season) regardless of the time of day.  this means the bikes are accessible to people outside of the 9-5 crowd such as dinner shift waiters, over night workers, and anyone who might need to be somewhere early (or late) in the day.

now to the "room for improvement".  the thirty minute trip.  I am not sure how Boston came up with 30 minutes (I have some guesses), but this does not give you much time to dilly dally.  stations are close together and easily reachable within a couple of minutes, but what if you want to stop and smell the roses?  or what if you want to roll somewhere quick to run an errand and then get back to drop the bike where you started?  or what if you arrive to a station and the slots are full?  now you have to book it to the next closest station.  if you are cruising around town, it is annoying to have to always be on the lookout for a new station to swap bikes.  the three hours of Stockholm might be too much, but 30 minutes seems too quick.  how bout 45 minutes?  

the other major problem is that the system has been seen by people as complicated.  there are lots of instructions to read and understand and many people have complained that it is not crystal clear that you are automatically charged for more than a 30 minute trip.  there are very heavy penalties for running over your time limit ($2 for the first 30 minutes over for a guest and up to $100 for 24 hours over).  ouch.  I understand the desire to keep the bikes circulating quickly and I am sure that there are specific reasons for heavy fees for overages and for the 30 minute trip, but (as someone who often pushes to the last possible minute) this seems pretty harsh.  I'd love to see a less sharp fine, maybe some kind of warning, or even having 45 minutes instead of 30.

so who wins?  well let's just say that when I ran the numbers, magically there was a tie between Boston and Stockholm.  but, to satisfy those of you out there who need winners and losers, let me say two things.  one, I think cities and bike culture are different across the world and needs vary depending on location, climate, culture, market demand, etc.  what might work in Stockholm might not in Boston.  for example, most people in Stockholm ride what people in Boston might call "crappy" bikes.  they are not crappy, they are (often) old, beat up, and simple.  this is acceptable because Swedish people have a stronger and older tradition of simple, functional bikes.  so the bike share bikes are more aligned to that Swedish style than to Boston, which needs sharper looking and operating bikes to meet the market expectations.  if the Boston fleet deteriorates to the level of Copenhagen, Boston people might simply stop riding the bikes.  this may not be an issue in Stockholm or Copenhagen.  

the second thing: any city that can successfully run a bike share system and support not polluting transportation options is a winner in my book.  having the option of personalized transportation that puts air in your lungs, wind in your hair, and human powered wheels on the street is an excellent choice.  thank you to all of the people who are making an effort to make bike travel, awareness, and sharing a successful strategy for transportation in Boston and in other places around the world.  if you have never tried the bike share program in your city, check it out.  you might be surprised about how easy it is and how it makes you feel.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

City Bikes Stockholm - Part I - how the bike share works

Stockholm bike share locking mechanism where bike locks to stand
bike slot #18 at a bike station.  you can see the two access points that lock the bike front basket frame into the bike stand to secure the bike.  red light indicates that the bike is locked.  after swiping the card this little light turns green and the bike is unlocked and can be picked up off the stand.
you may remember my not so glowing description of the free bicycle share system in Copenhagen from a couple of weeks ago.  Stockholm's system started more than ten years later and has a slightly different philosophical approach and structure.
bikes locked to bike stand in Stockholm
typical City Bikes bike stand in Stockholm.  bikes are attached to the stand with two metal pieces that are welded to the underside of the front basket.  these click into a locking mechanism to secure the bike and announce to the system that the bike has been returned by the renter (as well as to update the online/ app digital bike counter)
I will compare the two systems (along with Boston's Hubway system) in Part II.  for this post I will explain how the Stockholm bike share system (called City Bikes) works and how I have been using it here in the city.
all bike stations in Stockholm have the same general setup
at every bike stand/ station, there is a card reader, a description of the program, an LCD screen, a helpline number and email address, and a map of all of the bike stands in the city
there are two ways to rent bikes through Stockholm's "City Bikes" bikeshare system.

1.  you can buy a season pass (good from April through October) for 300 SEK (about $45) at the tourism or information offices in the city as well as a couple of major retail locations (there are about 7 places in or near downtown).  you can also order the pass online and save 50 SEK (it takes about 5 business days to receive the pass).  you must be 18 or older and have a valid identification.
bike has 3 speed internal hub, coaster brakes, lever brake, kickstand, front and rear fenders, front basket, adjustable seat post, and front and rear lights
bike stand near Gardet in Stockholm.  one bike left.  the bikes all have front and rear lights (though many don't work), front and rear fenders, adjustable seat posts, front basket, 3 speed internal hub grip shifters, coaster brakes, a kickstand, and a left hand activated "typical" lever brake.
2.  you can buy a three day pass (this seems specifically geared towards tourists).  it costs 165 SEK (about $25) and is not activated until the moment when you first swipe the card to rent your first bike.
each bike stand has an explanation of the system as well as a map
signage at every bike stand in Stockholm explaining the system with the NFC card swipe at the bottom
even though I arrived in Stockholm in September, I chose to rent for the rest of the season (still full price) because Lauren was here visiting and two weekends worth of riding with the three day pass costs more than a season (300 vs 330 SEK).  we picked up the pass at Central Station and also received a map of all of the bike stations, which is also available online.  there's an app for the station locations and bike availability, but it costs $2.99 which is ridiculous, IMHO (In My Humble Opinion).
right before swiping the card to unlock a bike
typical bike stand info pole.  this one is at Karlaplan in Ostermalm.  Lauren is about to swipe the card to access a bike.
there are approximately 107 stations throughout the downtown area and beyond, including the most densely populated areas in the outskirts of the central part of the city.  there are multiple stations in a close proximity in areas that are heavily traveled, especially near major streets and subway stations.
map of all bike stations in Stockholm
this is the map at each bike stand which shows locations of all bike stands in the city
you can rent a bike between the hours of 6am and 10pm any time from April through October for up to three hours at a time.  if you want to have more than three hours you simply return the bike to a station and take out a new one for a new three hour slot.
tells you what number bike you are renting as well as other information
LCD screen at each bikestand announcing information such as the number of the bike you are renting
once the card is paid for renting a bike is easy.  there are a few simple strategies to ensure a smooth process.  in the morning before I leave the flat, I look up on the bikeshare website to see that there are bikes available at the closest stand to my location.  then I look to make sure there are empty slots at the stand closest to where I am headed.  as long as these two conditions are met, I can easily go from point a to point b without trouble.
bike share card reader in Stockholm
Lauren swipes the card on the card reader to get a bike from the stand
for a tourist (or anyone without internet access) this is possibly slightly harder because conditions could change.  for example if there is only one bike at the location closest to my place and between the time I leave home and arrive at the stand, someone could have taken the last bike and I'll need to walk to the second closest station to get a bike.  this has only happened once to me so far, so it doesn't seem to be a huge deal.

when you arrive at the bike stand, you simply swipe your card against the NFC (near field communication) style card reader.  the system thinks for a second and then spits out a number.  this number corresponds with the location of the bike you have rented.  you go over to the spot and lift the bike off the rack (within 45 seconds or so) and now you have three hours to return it to one of the 107 stations around Stockholm.  it's that simple.
bike unlocked after swiping card at bike stand LCD screen
after swiping card the screen tells the user what bike slot will unlock (be released), allowing renter to pick the bike up off of the stand and use for up to three hours
Stockholm bike share locking mechanism where bike locks to stand
bike slot #18 at a bike station.  you can see the two access points that lock the bike front basket frame into the bike stand to secure the bike.  red light indicates that the bike is locked.  after swiping the card this little light turns green and the bike is unlocked and can be picked up off the stand.
the bikes are all similar in style, although there seem to be newer ones and older ones.  the newer ones have better functioning (or at least functioning) front and rear lights that work as soon as you start pedaling.  the bikes all have three speed internal hubs (enabled by grip shifters), plus the old school brakes that work when you push backwards on the pedals (called coaster brakes).  they also all have a left hand regular brake (that you squeeze) which is what most typical bikes use across the globe.  they have front and read fenders, quick release adjustable seat posts (to change the height), and two odd sized wheels (smaller in the front and larger in the back).
3 speed internal hub grip shift
grip shifter for 3 speed internal hub gears is standard for all City Bikes.  most bikes shift reasonably well, but some don't like to go down to first gear
most of the bikes are in decent condition, but I have found quite a few that have either a flat tire, don't shift properly, can't adjust the seat post, or have wobbly wheels.  when a bike is not properly functioning (or if you have a problem at any time) you can call the number on the bike stand and report any issues.  I have called a couple of times to report problems with bikes although judging by the fact that I have found more than a handful of bikes with issues, I would say most people probably don't bother to call.  if a bike is not up to your standards or has a problem, you can simply replace it back on the rack.  in about 15 seconds it locks back into place and then you can re-swipe your card to get a new bike (the system gives you the next bike on the rack in numbered order).
metal basket connects bike to bike stand
another view of the "cockpit" of the Stockholm City Bike attached to the stand.  the basket has the locking mechanism (on the bottom) and the light (on the front) as well as a strap to hold stuff in its metal grasp.
if you are going further afield or not near a bike stand and you want to leave the bike, you are taking a slight risk.  the bikes are not equipped with locks and the only way of guaranteeing the bike is safe is reconnecting it to a stand (there are two metal pieces that click into the bike stand and activate a locking mechanism).  several times recently I wanted to run into a shop or museum (or the Ostermalm Saluhall) for a minute or longer and there were no bikestands nearby and I have left the bike unlocked.  I try to make it inconspicuous or block it with another bike.  I haven't had a problem yet.

more information as well as a comparison in Part II.