Bike Rental Killjoy or Cassandra?

July 13th, 2011 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Gloomy prediction time…I’ll say Boston’s new bike-rental program fails. There it is and I would sincerely like to think I’d be wrong. My neck is on the block, particularly as a velophile (word?)

I’ll plug this on Harrumph! and Marry in Massachusetts, as it has both personal and political angles. I’ll admit if I’m wrong and folk can feel gleeful in calling me on it.

hublogoUnder the urging of Mayor Tom Menino and the excellent dealing and managing from Nicole Freedman, the city’s director of bicycle programs, The Hubway rental system is not only zooming into reality, it’s still on its original schedule, likely this month. With the outside deals, bureaucracy, and finances, that’s close to a miracle (which we have come to expect from Freedman).

Even before the particulars, I was pessimistic on this program. It has worked in other European, Canadian and a few U.S. cities already though. Here though, I don’t see it getting enough ridership, nor making the vendor happy with income levels, nor adding substantially to the cycles on the streets, nor getting citizen respect for the property.

To the latter point, we brag about our huge college-student population, while paying for it culturally too often. The tales of disturbances and destruction abound. Far more than other cities, we see that bottles seem meant for peeing in to leave on streets and stoops, or to smash on roads or sidewalks. I recall that lesson when I commuted daily from JP to Southie by bike. I had to learn to avoid Columbus near Northeastern, particularly by the campus cop station, where broken, tire-ruining beer-bottle shards were the norm.

Prove me wrong, Boston, but I can easily see drunken, drugged or just nasty college students and other youth trashing the bikes in rental stations. What fun, eh?

Today, looking at the announced pricing structure, I think it is too similar to parking garages. In between only a few initial stations and the pricing reality, the system is not all that attractive. Fundamentally, it works only if you will start and finish in those limited locales and can get where you want to go in under 30 minutes.

hubbikeThe stations will be in what most of us think of as the larger downtown area, out to one here and there also in Back Bay, South End, Seaport, Fenway, Longwood, and Brighton/Allston. I don’t see the actual spots on the site yet, but it’s pretty sure they’ll be kind of like Zipcars and only sort of convenient. Yet, this is not Athena emerging from Zeus’ head fully grown. It’ll take many months to figure out the right station locations.

The nut starts out reasonably enough, with an annual $85 fee (introductory $60). Then the nickels and dimes add up very quickly.

Again, 30 minutes is the magic period (set your carriage-to-pumpkin clock). If you have an annual membership or are an ad hoc renter (Casual member in Hubway lingo), you can theoretically have thousands of 30-minute maximum rides a year for no charge. In fact, if the station locations and timing worked for you, it would make the most sense to go up to a kiosk and use a credit card to reserve a bike every time, so long as you kept to the half hour. Annual memberships come with the convenience of a key that lets you grab a bike, as it maps to your data.

In the real world, if you don’t end up in the midway of your trip at a station, you pay by the hour. Here the fees leap up to and then far beyond parking garages. They really, really don’t want you having a bike out for more than 30 or 60 minutes. The whole pricing card is here. A taste of the acceleration is:

Time Annual Casual
<30 0 0
30-<60 $1.50 $2
60-<90 $4.50 $6
90-<2 hours $10.50 $14
2-<3 hours $16.50 $22

And so it climbs by about $8 an hour for casual and $6 per for annual renters. It tops at 6 and one-half to 7 hours at $94 and $70.50 and then from 7 to 24 hours at $100 and $75.  Lord help you if you keep the bike over a day. Hubway will consider it stolen and truly put a parking garage’s rates to shame — $1,000 on your credit card.

If you think Nexflix’ 60% just announced gouging rates are absurd, this gives some perspective.

On the other hand, for a limited number of potential users, $85 for a year of bike use, zero maintenance, and practically unlimited 30-minute trips is such a deal. Truly.

I remain to be convinced that we’re collectively mature enough for the Hubway. I simply don’t have the faith in Bostonians that Menino and Freedman have exhibited here. In fact, announcing this program at City Hall plaza in April, the Mayor committed to the three Italians, adding U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano and Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, to taking the first trio of Hubway bikes out of the racks.

Here’s hoping they prove me wrong.

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One Response

  1. Matt Finnigan says:

    It’s far too early for me to guess which way this is going to go. I will critique a couple of small points:

    1. I bike-commute daily from JP to downtown, via the SWCP and then after Ruggles, the Columbus Ave bike lane. Never had any problems with bottle shards, but I’ve only been doing it for a year.

    2. The pricing looks identical to the bike rentals in Montreal and London, and to what I’ve heard about other programs. It’s not meant for anyone to rent a bike for a day and tour the city all at once : if you’re renting to go from (say) JP to Southie to meet friends for dinner, you park the bike at a station, ending that rental. That trip should be under 30 minutes, and thus free. Then, when you leave the restaurant and go home, you start a new rental. It encourages short single-leg trips and frees up the bikes. It discourages renting to do a tour of the whole Emerald Necklace. This is meant for bike-commuting, not full-on rental.

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