If you’ve been to the Annual Georgetown CCF Conference for children’s groups here in Washington, DC over the past few years, you might have come on our informal evening bicycle tour of the Potomac and national monuments. Here at CCF, we are proponents of healthy children and families, and that includes plenty of exercise – so we are leading by example!
As the tour organizer, I’ve had the pleasure of taking our friends out to experience DC in an entirely new way. And, despite my occasional heartburn over corralling a large cycling group through a metropolitan area, DC’s significant bicycle trails and infrastructure make this a great activity.
For our group I’ve turned to the ubiquitous red Capital Bikeshare bicycle system, one of the most successful and earliest bikeshare systems in the country. Anyone who has visited DC knows these bikes and the stations where bikes are picked up and returned. The bikes have always worked well at our conference and I regularly use the bikeshare system around town like many DC residents.
However, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Time and changes in the condition and constitution of society may require occasional and corresponding modifications.” And so it is with bikeshare systems. There are now four new competitors to Capital Bikeshare and I tested two of them last week — obviously, strictly in the interests of work and our next conference bike ride.
The biggest appeal of these two new DC bikeshare options is the ability to pick up and drop off the bikes at locations other than an official bike share station – just about anywhere a bike rack or bike parking area exists. The two systems I tested, Mobike and LimeBike, use simple apps that work with a smartphone camera to scan and unlock the bikes wherever they may be. When finished, the rider finds a convenient bike rack or similar place to park, slides a built-in lock shut on the bike, and the app confirms the ride is finished.
First up in my test was Mobike, whose silver bikes with bright red wheels and accents are clearly visible. Compared to the red Capital Bikeshare bicycles, Mobikes are significantly lower quality, but much lighter, which makes it much easier to get up some of the District’s many hills. As a former bicycle mechanic, I know that reducing wheel rotating weight is key to an easier riding bike and Mobike’s airless tires and light plastic rims certainly check that box. One downside: by using foam instead of air in the tires, more shock is transmitted to the handlebars while riding – especially on some of Georgetown’s famous cobblestone streets. Despite decent shifting of the three-speed hub on the bikes I rode a stuck seat on one bike and chain noise on multiple bikes detracted from the riding experience.
Next in my (again, strictly for work purposes) test circuit was the LimeBike – bright green bikes that attempt a slightly higher quality ride than the Mobike. Unlike on the Mobike, the LimeBike’s front basket moves with the handlebars and there is a stiffer crankset, creating less slop in the pedals and a somewhat better ride. LimeBike’s lower weight and use of plastic rims with light foam tires are pluses over the Capital Bikeshare bikes as well. However, a big downside was LimeBike’s phone app, which led me to two purported bikes along a sidewalk in a residential area that I simply couldn’t find — even when the app insisted I was standing right on top of them. In addition, the LimeBike’s scanning function wouldn’t work to unlock the bikes. I had to manually enter numbers to complete the process.
Compared to Capital Bikeshare, the lower quality of Mobike and LimeBike share a downside: on both systems the bikes I rode had significant problems. One of the Mobikes had a crank rubbing the chainguard with an insistent thunk-thunk and, at around mile 15 of my 20 mile endurance test loop, that got very, very old. Even worse, the LimeBike I rode the farthest had a significantly stretched gear cable. The only way to get the bike into low gear was to hold the shifter well past the stop. Luckily I eventually headed downstream beside the Potomac so having easy access to other than one gear was less of a problem.
It’s possible that the LimeBike/Mobike business model includes the lower quality of the bikes and less maintenance built in – presumably if one bike doesn’t work there will be others around. However, in a city where having lots of non-working bikes littering the streets is not acceptable, this will be a problem in addition to being frustrating for riders.
However, despite the quality problems, I think we may well be adding the new bikeshare systems at our conference next year. The convenience of picking up and dropping off the bikes anywhere bikes can park is just too helpful to be ignored. My personal example – I’ve used the red Capital Bikeshare bikes to get to Washington National airport from here at Georgetown. Without an airport bikeshare station, this involves riding the bike to Crystal City and walking about 15-20 minutes along the Mt. Vernon trail. With the LimeBike I was able to ride directly down the bike trail, take the spur to the airport, and park the bike just outside the lower level of the DCA metro station. It’s hard to beat that convenience and so I expect at our 2018 conference we will be seeing some Mobikes and LimeBikes on our annual ride.