Thursday, 7 October 2010

Trying CityCycle

While I was living in Rennes (a lot of my stories seem to start this way nowadays), the local council had a city-wide bicycle hire scheme, called Velo a la Carte, run by a large advertising company (Clear Channel). I never used it, but the parking stations were everywhere, and I saw people riding the clunky bikes around town fairly often, and trucks moving them around balancing load across stations. It turns out (and perhaps someone will correct me on this) that this was one of the first cities to have such a scheme in recent times, in many cases bankrolled by advertising companies. Since it launched in 1998, there have been dozens of cities, among them Paris, Dublin, Vienna, and this year Melbourne, the first in Australia. Last week, Brisbane joined them.

Australia offers some challenges for this kind of system, as does Brisbane. Australian cities are much, much sparser than European cities, where apartment living is much more common. Our climate is much warmer. Most significantly, we are the first country to implement this kind of system in conjunction with mandatory helmet laws. I've read that Melbourne has had significant teething problems. In Brisbane, which has the additional problem of being much hillier than Melbourne, the city council and JC Decaux (the French company running the scheme) have gone in boots and all. Walking around the city and my neighbourhood, there are bike ranks every block or two, and construction sites for more springing up all the time. If it fails here, its going to fail spectacularly.

I mostly live and circulate in the inner suburbs of Brisbane to which the scheme presently limits itself, presumably for reasons of population density and demographics. I'm not, however, its idea target. I already own a bike, and I already use it for commuting (albeit not as much as I should) and for getting around to visit friends. However, I can see situations - one way or mixed mode trips - where it would be nice to not have to find somewhere to park a bike. So, although I didn't sign up at launch, I did sign up pretty quickly (actually, the only thing that stopped me signing up at launch was probably that the parking station nearest me wasn't open at launch).

I tried it this morning to get into work. The machine to hire a bike is a little clunky; it took me two attempts to get the bike (timeout), and there were some vestiges of french language on the machine, which was cute. Once I did get the bike I was struck by how heavy it was - at a guess at least 3 or 4 times the weight of my bike. I adjusted the seat up as high as it would go, but it was still a bit too short for me. The basket got me some looks as I was riding, but not having a backpack sweating onto my back was worth it.

My route was problematic. I have two routes I can cycle to work. The first is 7km, and flat, but has a few traffic lights, and takes me about 20 minutes on my normal bike. The second is 5km but quite hilly, and takes me about 15 minutes on my bike, but is more tiring. With CityCycle, journeys over 30 minutes cost money so, being worried that a 20 minute trip could well turn out longer, I opted for the hilly route. I regretted it almost immediately. Having three gears instead of 18 is fine, until you need to up a hill (Kent street, in my case). Being in the wrong gear, combined with the great weight of the bike, meant I was pretty tired after the first hill. Still, I got to work (there is a station about 50m from my building) in about 20 minutes, and returning the bike was pretty easy.

I'm not sure how much I'll end up using the scheme. The 30 minute limit is a real nuisance - if I'm visiting friends in West End, then it will probably take me more than 30 minutes on those bikes, depending on traffic. At $2.20 for the second half hour, I'm better off on a bus. I'll probably try it for popping down the shops though, where I don't want to take my bike because I'm coming back loaded up with groceries.


Anonymous said...

I don't see the 30min thing as a problem. I have, a couple of times, checked into a station en route to reset the counter (and have a nice break).
I avoid hills like the plague but already (with under a week of riding behind me) I can feel myself handling my regular routes more easily.
I know the least hilly routes to most of my fav haunts and friend's homes already!

Emily said...

I used this system in Hamburg when staying with someone signed up (who could hire 2 bikes at once). It was very convenient and fun. I think they also introduced it in London this year.

The Netherlands has introduced OV fiets at almost all train stations nationally in the past year (plus some other locations) and for around €10 annual subscription you can hire up to 3 bikes, costing around €3 for every 20 hours.

I find that Germany and the Netherlands (and Belgium) have good cycling infrastructure, cycle lanes and racks available, and no helmet necessary. The situation is different in Australia as you said.
How are they managing the helmet system?

Westrella said...

30 mins is a problem. For example, if I shop for groceries (even bachelor style to fit in the basket) then I can either dock my bike to stop time, or pay the $2.20 and park right outside supermarket. If I want to ride across suburbs to drop in on a friend, I would also have to dock my bike in the city, then take another bike for the rest of the journey. Never under-estimate cheapskates to undermine systems. A free introductory period would have been good - that is, free to hire. Or give out pin codes to have 5 free hires. This gets people to at least give it a go once.

Jim said...

Emily: The helmet system is the elephant in the room. I was going to ride in to a gig in the valley the other day, but I'm hardly going to walk into a bar carrying into a helmet.

Keith Duddy said...

Just saw this on The Age web site. The URL gives the headline:

Jim said...

I assume the helmets are supposed to be one size fits all, although judging by that video, "all" doesn't include the heads of ministers!