As we’ve reported, the District of Columbia is carrying out a pilot program for dockless bikeshare, with five companies now operating on a trial basis through April.
I decided to spend a good portion of my Wednesday testing each bikeshare service to see what the buzz was all about. It was enormously fun to try these bikes, but came away with mixed impressions overall.
I’m offering a rundown of my experience here, but first it is worth noting that all of these companies operate using a smartphone app. In most cases, you open an account, enter payment information, and proceed to unlock bicycles by using the app to scan a QR code found on the bikes.
The five companies include LimeBike, MoBike, Spin, JUMP, and Ofo. Each ride was $1-2, depending on the service, though some rides were free due to promotions.
These services differ from Capital Bikeshare, in that the bicycles don’t have a docking station. Instead, bikes can be parked and picked up at any location. (There are some off-limits areas, such as the National Mall.)
LimeBike: Ubiquitous, Easy, and a Little Beat Up
I began my journey around the District at Union Station, and chose to first try and find a LimeBike. And I was delighted to find that there were six within close proximity! My first choice was inaccessible, however, due to some police activity that blocked off the sidewalk. But I found another bike, sitting clearly visible outside Irish Times.
LimeBike was a breeze. I used the QR code on the app to unlock the bike’s wheel (it took a few seconds to figure out how the lock worked) and I was on my way.
I rode around the Union Station area for a bit then made my way down to Judiciary Square, where I figured I’d drop off the LimeBike and find a competitor to ride. I found a clear sidewalk, ended the ride and locked the bike back up. Easy peasy. Cost: $0, because LimeBike offers the first two rides for free. Otherwise, it’s $1 for a 30-minute ride.
If I had one complaint about LimeBike, it’s that many of its bikes look a little worn. I saw one bike missing a seat, another missing its QR code box, and many with numerous dents and scratches. There were also many bikes that looked as good as new, so the company may be actively working to repair or replace many of these beat-up bikes.
Ofo: Where are You?
After testing LimeBike I decided to try and find a bike from Ofo, which was offering free rides throughout the month of January. According to the app, there was one located about a block from the Metro station along 4th Street. But I could not find it. After walking around in a circle for a solid 15 minutes, I finally gave up and went after another bike supposedly a few blocks further south. Zeroing on that bike also proved to be hard, but I eventually did find it.
I used the Ofo app’s QR code scanner to try and unlock the bike, just as I did with LimeBike. But the app froze and my phone shut down. This may have been the fault of my phone interacting badly with the cold weather, but I was forced to abandon this trip and head elsewhere to recharge my phone. I later did find an Ofo bike in another location, but the app would not let me unlock the bike because it thought I was riding the other bike!
SPIN: Locked or Unlocked?
I decided to change neighborhoods, and made my way up to the U Street corridor. I opened the Spin app, which told me there was bike somewhere on 14th Street. The app seemed to indicate the bike was not actually on a sidewalk, but in a building, if that was even possible. I had no luck in finding it—at first. I wandered a bit before switching to try and get a Mobike, which also told me there was a bike nearby. In my quest to find the Mobike, I found a Spin bike! Was it the same Spin bike I had been looking for earlier? Who knows?
My experience with the Spin bike was, well, interesting. When I scanned the QR code to unlock the bike, the bike did unlock successfully. However, the app was confused, indicating that it was having trouble unlocking the bike. I proceeded to ride the bike for 20 minutes, but at the end of my ride, I was unable to lock the bike again because—according to the app—the bike was not unlocked in the first place. With no ability to lock the bike, I also had no ability to move the kickstand down. So my only option was to leave the unlocked bike near a sidewalk, lying on its side. I used the app to report the bike as “broken.”
Despite that complication, I can say that the Spin bike offered a nice ride and its brakes may have been the best of the bunch. Hopefully my snafu with the app was not a typical experience.
Have You Seen a Mobike?
After leaving the Spin bike near the library in Shaw, I renewed my quest for a Mobike. Supposedly, there was one within a close distance. But again, I did not find a bike where the Mobike app said it was. If the app is to believed, it’s somewhere inside a person’s house near the intersection of Rhode Island Avenue and 7th Streets. I had no intention of knocking on anyone’s door to ask if they were housing a Mobike.
I was just about to give up searching for a Mobike when I saw a bright, almost flourescent red bike across the street. It was a JUMP bike, locked to a rack and ready to ride!
JUMP and Get a Little Boost
I had been looking forward to riding a JUMP bike, because it is battery powered, enabling you to ride much faster and with far little effort.
Unlocking and getting going with JUMP bike was a bit more complicated than LimeBike or Spin. To unlock the bike, you have to enter your account number a pin into a key pad. That will release a metal u-shaped bar, which is attached to a bike rack, parking sign, or any other suitable post.
Once unlocked, I found the JUMP bike to be bulkier and little more difficult to maneuver than it’s competitors, but its battery assist makes up for it. This bike was simply a joy to ride, especially on uphill stretches. Some time on a JUMP bike will spoil you and wonder why you’ve been working so hard all this time.
Locking the bike back up was simply a matter of placing the metal U-shaped bar back around a bike rack or something similar.
I will caution that because the bike can travel faster—up to 19 miles per hour—it’s probably a little more dangerous to ride than its competitors. Wearing a helmet might be a good idea. At the very least, you’ll want to be more alert and ready to brake.
Also, be aware that my ride on JUMP cost $2, or twice that of its competitors. So you pay a premium for that battery assist.
Mobike: Third Time’s a Charm?
I had made plans to meet a friend for lunch, and had basically given up on any hope of finding a Mobike. But after a nice Mexican meal near the Convention Center, I emerged to find two shared bikes—one LimeBike and one Mobike—docked nicely on the sidewalk.
The red Mobike bike looked quite new—certainly in better shape than the LimeBike. Unlocking the Mobike was just a matter of scanning a QR code and hitting a button on the app, and away I went. The Mobike was smooth and nimble, and I liked that it’s basket did not pivot with the handlebars as with other shared bikes. (No tipping of the grocery bag on sharp turns.)
Locking the Mobike only involved pulling down a lever. In fact, it was so easy that I felt like I was doing something wrong at first.
Here are some key takeaways from my day of fun with bikeshare.
- LimeBike is everywhere, and that gives it a big edge. I never had a problem finding a LimeBike wherever I went, and their distinct green color made them easy to find.
- I found the bike locators on each app to be less than perfect. As I mentioned, there were a few cases where I could not find bikes in places where the apps claimed they were.
- I never did get to ride an Ofo bike.
- I obviously only traveled in a small section of the city, but there were some neighborhoods where bikes were plentiful and others where they were sparse.
- JUMP, with its battery assist, has a unique and fun product.
- It helps to download the apps and enter your credit card information before you decide to ride. I forgot to do this with JUMP, and had to spend about 10 minutes opening an account and entering payment information before I could ride.
- I did not come across bikes strewn everywhere, as some city residents have claimed. For the most part, people were respectful in docking bikes appropriately, and even those bikes that weren’t docked correctly seemed to blend in with the city landscape and peoples’ personal bikes.