I 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.