How I Learned To Bike Share

Thomas Breen photoI set a challenge for myself this week: Could I get to work, to the grocery store, to reporting assignments and interviews all over town relying on one of New Haven’s new bike share bicycles?

On the fourth day of my commuting experiment, I faced a more specific problem:

How do I bike to an assignment on Meadow Street without breaking my back carrying my laptop and camera case, and without having to return home first before heading to the office to write. 

The solution, I learned, lay right above my back wheel.

As I picked up a bike share bike at the Audubon Street station, I realized I didn’t have to carry my laptop and camera case over my shoulder as I pedaled down Orange Street. I could just put my reporting gear in the basket above the bicycle’s back wheel and focus on the pavement in front of me instead of on the weight on my back.

Granted, I had to stretch my hand back now and then to assure myself that nothing had fallen into the street. But each time I made the trip, my laptop and camera survived the commute.

Such were the types of seemingly obvious but surprisingly transformative realizations that occurred over the course of a work week in which I left my own bicycle at home every morning and traversed the city exclusively via bike share bikes.

For this week, I wanted to see if I could reasonably get to where I needed to go each day without the help of my own bike, but with the help of one of the 100 new lime-green two-wheelers dispersed throughout the city.

There were plenty of glitches and bumps and problems to troubleshoot along the way. But the more that I rode, the more I recognized that the city’s nascent bike share program is not just for visitors or leisurely exercise.

I learned that in fact it’s possible to make bike share work for New Haveners. It takes some tinkering — by the rider, and also by the managers of the program.

I needed to get to reporting assignments and interviews and tutoring sessions and the grocery store this week, and, using the bike share program as my primary means of transit, I was able to do just that.

When the city’s new short-term bike rental program, Bike New Haven, launched in February, I was eager to sign up. I bought an annual subscription for $90, which allows for an unlimited number of 45-minute bike rentals over the course of the year.

The program currently has 100 bikes available at 17 different stations. According to the program’s manager, Carolyn Lusch, those numbers should increase to 300 bikes at 30 stations by the end of April, and to 400 bikes at 40 stations by the end of the year. 

Whenever I travel, I always try to use bike shares to get around a new city. In Austin and Boston and Toronto and New York, I’ve found that the ability to pick up a bike at any time of day to explore an unfamiliar neighborhood or to wind my way back to wherever I’m spending the night is a fun and invaluable way to get around.

But using a bike share program in one’s home town is a little bit different than using one while traveling.

In the two-year lead up to Bike New Haven, city staffers and bike share advocates touted the program as more than simply a vehicle for tourism or leisure.

They described it as an extension of New Haven’s current public transit system; as a functional alternative for commuters who don’t want to use just a car or a bus or their own two feet to get to work or to school or to the grocery store.

Here are a few lessons I learned from my work week of commuting via Bike New Haven, in case you too find yourself on your way to work or school or a grocery store or coffee shop and see one of those bright green bikes stationed nearby.

Lesson #1: The Hardest Ride Is The First One

Before you can ride a Bike New Haven bicycle, you need to sign up for the program. That’s not as simple as it sounds.

Before you sign up for the program, you need a smartphone, a credit card and a little bit of technological patience.

On Wednesday morning, I met up with the Bradley Street Bicycle Co-op’s John Martin to ride from his shop in East Rock over to Wooster Square to grab a cup of coffee and to get a local bike expert’s opinion on the new bike share.

We walked to the nearest station at the corner of Pearl and Orange Streets. Martin pulled out his phone and started reading through the detailed instructions on the aluminum plaque that stands at every station.

He downloaded the Bike New Haven app, created an account, and waited for a confirmation email so that he could log in to use the service.

“It’s definitely taking a little too long to get the email,” Martin said as two minutes passed with nothing in his inbox. He entered a secondary email address, in case the first one for some reason would not take.

The email finally arrived at his first email address. He opened the app, turned on the phone’s Bluetooth connection, and used the phone’s camera to scan a QR code on the front fender of one of the bikes.

Before the bike unlocked, he chose the $8-day pass subscription option. He entered his credit card information into the appropriate area of the app.

The automated metallic lock on the back wheel unclasped, and he was finally ready to ride.

If all of that sounded like a lot of steps to go through to rent a bike for the first time, I’d agree with you.

Beyond the requirements of having a smart phone and a credit card, bike share customers must be technologically savvy and patient enough to know how to download an app, how to work through various registration steps, and how to figure out what may be going wrong when the process is delayed.

Customers need to register only once. Using the app to purchase access and unlock bikes becomes easier and easier the more you do it.

As Martin pointed out, Bike New Haven and its advocates need to make a concerted outreach effort to city residents to explain how the registration process works, and to make sure that interested riders are not scared off by potential technological barriers.

“They need to do some kind of Get Out The Vote campaign, but for biking,” Martin said.

Carolyn Lusch, the program manager for Bike New Haven, said that she is currently planning that very campaign.

She said she plans on working closely with Bike Month and Rock to Rock to get the word out about the bike share and how to use it. She said she will be making the rounds at community management teams throughout the city starting in April, where she will provide updates on the bike share pilot and offer tutorials to anyone interested in riding.

As of this Thursday, 469 people have registered to the bike share program and have made a total of 2,421 bike rides. Lusch said that ride number is a little inflated by bike mechanics who need to “rebalance” the stations each day by bringing bikes from one station that may have too many to others that may have too few.

She said that most riders thus far have paid by the ride ($1.75 per ride) or by the day ($8 per day). Twenty-one people have purchased $90 annual passes. One elderly rider has purchased a discounted $50 annual senior pass.

The program also offers $50 annual passes for students and $15 annual passes for qualified low-income riders.

Lesson #2: Carry A Helmet, Just In Case

Like many bike share programs around the country, Bike New Haven allows for rentals of bicycles but not helmets. If you want to ride and feel protected against a fall, you’ll have to bring your own helmet.

On my first ride of the week Monday morning, I forgot to bring my helmet with me. I got to the corner of Audubon and Orange Streets at around 8 a.m., realized that I had left my helmet at home — and immediately saw a nearby pedestrian trip on a downed tree branch and tumble to the sidewalk with a curse.

He was fine, but his fall seemed a bit ominous.

Fortunately, my ride went just fine. And for every one of my subsequent 11 bike share rides this week, I remembered to carry my helmet along with me, strapped to my head while I walked to the station or buckled around my laptop or camera case.

Although I would strongly recommend that anyone on any bike ride a helmet, I did find that the bike share bicycles are stable, easy to ride, and well-balanced. Most bike share bikes are unduly heavy, presumably to protect against theft and high-speed riding, but New Haven’s are surprisingly light and flexible.

I always felt comfortable and safe riding on these bikes, and received confirmation from Martin that the bikes’ uniquely large tires will protect riders from getting a flat and allow for flexibility when riding over the occasional pothole or bump in the street.

Lusch said that no one has reported any accidents or injuries resulting from the bike share in the five weeks since the program launched. The only act of vandalism involved someone slashing six tires at the Hillhouse location.

She said that several employees at the Devil’s Gear bike shop downtown are serving as the bike share’s official mechanics via a new company they formed, called New Haven Bike Mechanics LLC. She praised them for their responsive and professional work in assembling and tending to the bikes.

Lesson #3: Plan Your Route Ahead Of Time

The bike share app includes a GPS-oriented map that shows where all of the bike stations are located around town, and how many bikes are currently available at each station. You can rent a bike for 45 minutes at a time, but, if you don’t return the bike to any one of the stations within that period, you’re charged an extra $2 for every hour you have the bike out.

Although the bike share map works well before you begin your rental, I found that, once my 45-minute rental had begun, the app no longer showed me where the other bike stations were located around town. As I biked down to the Hill one morning to take a picture of the Health Department’s headquarters at 54 Meadow St. for a story I was working on, I found that I couldn’t look up where nearby stations were located until I returned the bike.

Even more of a concern was that I couldn’t check in the app to see how long I had already had the bike out. Because I had been keeping notes on each of my rides for this story, I knew that I had around half an hour to find a station to check my bike into. But before you begin your bike share trip, I’d recommend checking the map to see which stations are nearest your location, and using your watch or timer to keep track of when the 45-minute rental is up.

Fortunately, I remembered passing a bike station earlier in the week at the corner of Howard and Congress Avenues. I cut across the lawn adjacent to Church Street South and biked up to the Yale Medical School campus.

Sure enough, there was a station at Howard and Congress, and I was able to return the bike.

Lusch told me that the bike station map should work even during the rental time period. She promised to check to see if anyone else had been experiencing that problem.

She confirmed that the app does not currently display the amount of time one has left during any given 45-minute rental. She and the app developer would discuss adding that feature if enough customers requested it, she said.

For now, I learned to add a 10 to 15-minute cushion to my commute when using a bike share bike instead of my own bike.

Because you have to drop off bikes at valid bike stations every 45 minutes or so, I found that going to the grocery store at Edge of the Woods required making a quick layover at the Hillhouse station. Commuting to my New Haven Reads tutoring session at Science Park required parking the bike at the Munson Street station and walking the remaining three blocks up Winchester Avenue.

On the flip side, not having to return a bike to the same station where you picked it up from makes one-way trips convenient.

On Tuesday afternoon I picked up a loaf of bread from Atticus’s bakery while walking around downtown. I was in a rush to get back home, and then to work, and so I hopped on a bike at the York and Chapel station and dropped it off at the Audubon station. There was no need to return the bike to York Street, and my commute home was a good 10 or 15 minutes shorter than if I had had to walk.

Lesson #4: There’s A Basket. Use it.

After four days of slinging my laptop and camera over my shoulder on my morning commute to the Independent’s office or to an assignment in one of the neighborhoods, I realized, much to my back’s relief, that I could put my gear in the basket on the back.

I rented a bike at Audubon Street on Thursday morning, put my laptop and camera in the basket, and biked down Orange Street. It was an overcast morning, but the air was crisp and clear, and I waved to a few friends as they walked to their offices downtown. Birds twittered and chirped somewhere overhead as I waited for the light at Orange and Elm.

I biked down to Meadow Street, over to Howard Avenue, and then up to Dixwell Avenue to take a photo of the station outside of Stetson Library for another story I was working on.

I dropped the bike off at the Grove Street station downtown and carried my bags the remaining few blocks to the Independent’s office. I had travelled to three different neighborhoods and back to my office over the course of the hour, all with my laptop and camera in tow.

My back wasn’t in pain. Definitely the sign of a good commute.

After grabbing a coffee from the Wooster Square café with John Martin on Wednesday morning, we picked up two bikes at the Wooster Square station and headed back to his Bradley Street shop.

He had recently picked up five cartons of eggs for his apartment and needed to ferry them from his Bradley Street shop to his home a few blocks away.

He piled the cartons one by one into the basket, checked to make sure they were stable, and then hopped back on his bike and headed down Bradley Street.

We kept our eyes out for two key potholes between his shop and his home. Passing each bump, the eggs stayed securely in the basket, no broken shells or golden yolks marking the street behind us.

Two minutes later, we, and the five dozen eggs, had made it to his apartment. He checked one of the cartons. All was intact.

You may not need to carry a laptop, a camera case, or five cartons of eggs every time you go for a bike ride. But in case you do, these baskets have you covered.

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Comments

posted by: elmcityboy on March 30, 2018  12:40pm

i saw you riding around town the other day and figured that this article was coming! thanks for all of the insight. i don’t have a smartphone, but i’m curious to hopefully try one of these things some time soon.

posted by: nhresident30 on March 30, 2018  1:00pm

I have a couple of questions.  Are there any efforts in the works to add helmet access to this program?  Helmet discounts or giveaways?  It just seems really dangerous for people. I’m surprised health officials atYale didn’t raise concerns about this. 
Is there a place to find the general “rules,”  and laws regarding bike riding?  I can’t find one on the Bike Share New Haven site.  Such as, Is it legal to bike on the sidewalk?  With or against traffic?

posted by: robn on March 30, 2018  1:52pm

BTW,

Where are stations 9, 13, 14, and 22?

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1hHnWEsbjh7JVPUCKI3hRUywmQoLLCpu9&usp=sharing

posted by: GregL on March 30, 2018  3:00pm

@nhresident30

I know that if you search for CT state statutes, you can find all of the state laws regarding bicycles, I’m not sure if there is a more user-friendly location to find them.

To answer a couple of your questions:

The state of CT allows you to ride on the sidewalk (acting as a pedestrian), but New Haven has an ordinance that forbids it.  I believe there is a $75 fine.

A cyclist should always ride with traffic, and never against.  That is both a law and the safest way to ride.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on March 30, 2018  5:12pm

“the occasional pothole or bump in the street” - which city were you riding in? :-) Great story!

posted by: brownetowne on March 30, 2018  5:40pm

FWIW: Yale gives away a free helmet to anyone who enrolls in one of their free bike safety courses, which is free for students and employees.

5 cartons of eggs?  Oh, yeah: Easter.  HaHa.

posted by: 1644 on March 30, 2018  6:37pm

1. Great article.
2.  After your ride, did you crave McDonalds?
3. What were all the eggs for?

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on March 30, 2018  7:46pm

Again Snake-Oil and Three Card Monte Being Sold.As I said in the pass.This whatwill happen very soon here in New Haven and the bike share will be gone in about two years.

Bike Sharing? Sure. The Racks? No Way.

The critics say the kiosks are a blight. They clash with the character of residential areas of the West Village or Fort Greene, Brooklyn. They are already magnets for pigeons, garbage bags and dogs in need of relief.Lawsuits have been prepared. Kiosks have been defaced. At one community meeting, an inelegant analogy was drawn between the Bloomberg administration and the Taliban. “None of us are against bikes — most of us have bikes that we stow in our building,” said Lynn Ellsworth, 54, from TriBeCa. “But why they put these giant racks in these little streets is crazy to me.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/15/nyregion/complaints-rise-as-bike-share-program-nears.html

posted by: david_b_lewis on March 31, 2018  6:42am

Please don’t ride the wrong way, against traffic, on Bradley Street.

posted by: david_b_lewis on March 31, 2018  6:45am

Hi, Did you find any advantages over using your own bike?

posted by: nhresident30 on March 31, 2018  7:57am

If Yale has a program to give away helmets and bike safety courses (for its employees and students)  the City of New Haven should have those too! 

As part of this roll out they should have teams visiting schools, libraries and community centers. Give away helmets now with bike safety and information sessions for the kids and residents of New Haven!  There should be bike riding rules posted on their kiosks and sent to every resident by mail!  They should start a helmet lending program for visitors and residents at all community centers and libraries!!!  Let’s not wait until someone gets hurt!


PS.  @ Brownetowne , Thanks, p.s.  (I never tried to dye brown eggs, lol, )

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on March 31, 2018  5:59pm

3/5ths, the story you linked is nearly five years old. Since it was published the scope of New York’s program has grown substantially. I would be happy to make a small bet that New Haven’s program will be around in two years.

posted by: William Kurtz on March 31, 2018  11:59pm

NHResident30:

As Greg mentioned, you can search the laws of the state of Connecticut for a comprehensive overview but general need-to-know guidelines can be found here, on the Elm City Cycling website:

https://elmcitycycling.org/advocacy/cyclists-rights-responsibilities-and-safety/

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on April 1, 2018  11:37am

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on March 31, 2018 5:59pm
3/5ths, the story you linked is nearly five years old. Since it was published the scope of New York’s program has grown substantially. I would be happy to make a small bet that New Haven’s program will be around in two years.

The story is based on the people.In fact Here is a up date.

August 31, 2016 / Brooklyn news / Transit Issues / Park Slope / Mean Streets

Citi gripes: Slopers hate Carroll Street Citi Bike rack

https://www.brooklynpaper.com/stories/39/36/dtg-carroll-street-citi-bike-gripe-2016-09-02-bk.html

I would be happy to make a small bet that New Haven’s program will be around in two years.

The reason why I say this is that the Major of people all ready have Bikes.Second   New have is not a tourist attractraction.Most tourist use biuke shares.

posted by: nhresident30 on April 1, 2018  11:06pm

A potential rider should not have to work hard to find biking safety and road rules they are expected to follow while using this service!  Yale has a bike share and also provides a bike safety training program for their students, staff, and faculty.  They give away a FREE helmet with the course.  It would be great if New Haven had this type of program. Giving helmets to residents!  Or maybe a helmet lending program through libraries and community centers.  (not sure if this is feasible hygiene wise, but I have rented ice skates and bowling shoes) The NH Bike Share app does say that you must have a helmet, and hopefully we don’t have people disregarding the rules, (cause that would never happen). I also posted on the Mayor’s Facebook page. 

Link to Yale’s safety program:  https://bmsweb.med.yale.edu/tms/tms_enrollments.offerings?p_crs_id=2410


https://bmsweb.med.yale.edu/tms/tms_enrollments.offerings?p_crs_id=2410

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 2, 2018  6:56am

3/5ths, most bike-owners won’t use the program. But many New Haveners do not own bikes. And the number of visitors/temporary residents is growing. The people who will be using the long-term stay hotel going up on Crown Street and the one planned for Elm Street will be a good market for the program. In addition, construction is underway at the new apartment developments in the Hill and the northern edge of downtown and will start this summer on Munson Street. Collectively, these developments will add nearly 1,000 housing units.

New York has 8.6 million residents. Even if 99% think the program is great (and I doubt that 99% of New Yorkers agree on anything) there would be plenty of people to complain about it.

posted by: Mark Oppenheimer on April 2, 2018  10:01pm

1) Enough with the helmet fascism, people. I almost always ride a helmet, but the jury is out on whether they make riding safer (one study shows drivers give wider berths to people /not/ wearing a helmet), plenty of people might skip the helmet for a very short unplanned ride, and I’d rather the $$ go to more racks. People who want helmets (like me!) can helmet up on their own. Let’s celebrate the bike program.

2) Three-fifths: have you been to NYC and seen the extraordinary success of their program. I am in the city once a week and use Citi Bike unless it’s raining—so have used it 100x at least—and it IS AWESOME. If you have had experience with it, pro or con, please share it. If not, defer to people who know.

3) I understand the program has to start centrally and expand outward—in a fair and equitable way—but it seems odd that neither phase 2 nor phase 3 has a Westville station planned. Nothing on Edgewood, nothing on Chapel west of the park. That seems odd…

posted by: RobotShlomo on April 3, 2018  1:11am

And if those new apartments are asking for rents that are anything like most apartments in New Haven, many of those “temporary residents” are going to be looking for places in East Haven, Hamden, Orange, or Branford at about half to a third of the price, and then commute in. I doubt that Doug Hausladen is going to advocate biking in from Branford in middle of winter when there’s 5 inches of snow on the ground.

According to Vice, the whole “if you build it and they will come” approach doesn’t work. In Dallas bikes pile up, are vandalized, ended up at the bottom of the Trinity river, and are times found in trees. It’s even spawned an instgram called Dallas Bike Mess. 

https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/vby5j4/bike-sharing-doomed-to-fail-dallas-limebike-ofo-transportation-cycling

https://www.instagram.com/dallasbikemess/

In Seattle it’s much the same;

https://twitter.com/docklessbike?lang=en

If Hausladen can make it work in New Haven, then great. But I have the sneaking suspicion that as I drive past the full rack on Chapel near Columbus Park, that we’re going to be reading about a similar story.

posted by: William Kurtz on April 3, 2018  8:01am

Helmets do not make riding safer; they make crashing safer. Helmets and other protective gear are the last resort when all else fails. Better training and education for people on bikes, better training and education for motorists, and bike and pedestrian friendly infrastructure are the keys to making riding safer.

Rental and loaner helmets are absolutely not a good idea, for reasons beyond the ‘ick’ factor which will no doubt keep people from using shared helmets. Helmets are designed to absorb the shock of a single impact. The foam crushes to protect the head. A user of the bike share system would have no way of knowing whether the helmet has taken a hit already and is now compromised.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on April 3, 2018  9:58am

posted by: Mark Oppenheimer on April 2, 2018 10:01pm

2) Three-fifths: have you been to NYC and seen the extraordinary success of their program. I am in the city once a week and use Citi Bike unless it’s raining—so have used it 100x at least—and it IS AWESOME. If you have had experience with it, pro or con, please share it. If not, defer to people who know.

I am from New York.I am always in the city.In fact I have a house in New York.Opps! let the cat out of the Bag.Yes I own a brownstone in New York on South Portland Ave arcoss the street from Ft.Green Park.Next time you are in the city ask the people on my block about Citi Bike.And they will tell you those Citi Bike are a eyesore.The rack arcoss the street from my house have take over the side walks.

Notice how the racks have take over the Street by Ft.Green Park

https://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C1NHXL_enUS759US759&q=cit+bike+on+south+portland+brooklyn+new+york&npsic=0&rflfq=1&rlha=0&rllag=40687603,-73974623,246&tbm=lcl&ved=0ahUKEwjalPiin57aAhUn6IMKHd9LC6AQtgMIKw&tbs=lrf:!2m1!1e3!3sIAE,lf:1,lf_ui:3&rldoc=1#rlfi=hd:;si:15418175560950587005;mv:!1m3!1d15754.663227809751!2d-73.98675109999999!3d40.69830064999999!2m3!1f0!2f0!3f0!3m2!1i251!2i250!4f13.1;tbs:lrf:!2m1!1e3!3sIAE,lf:1,lf_ui:3

posted by: robn on April 3, 2018  10:46am

3/5,

So does that make you an absentee landlord? Do you rent the house with race based criteria?

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 3, 2018  2:35pm

RS, you may recall that years ago, Sly and the Family Stone had a song with the line “different strokes for different folks.” You don’t want to live in the new developments. But based on the experience of 360 State Street, The Union, etc., the developers of Audubon Square and the Munson Street project are betting millions of dollars that there are lots of people who want to live in town and can afford market rents. This population is separate from the short-term residents who are the market for the extended stay buildings.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on April 3, 2018  9:30pm

posted by: robn on April 3, 2018 10:46am

3/5,

So does that make you an absentee landlord? Do you rent the house with race based criteria?

I did not said I rent My House Out. In fact my house is paid for.I just pay my taxes.Your Point?.

posted by: robn on April 4, 2018  8:32am

3/5,

I guess my point is that if you’re a person who owns houses in two cities, I can see why you’re super happy to be at the receiving end of a generous public pension. Congrats 7%!