Photo by Jill Kimball

Different spokes: Test-riding Seattle’s three new bike shares

Photo by Jill Kimball

Seattle is a famously bike-friendly city, yet in the five years I lived there, I probably went on a grand total of five bike rides.

I have numerous excuses for this error in judgment, some of them silly (exercise is too hard; I don’t have any padded shorts) and some legitimate (the weather is terrible most of the year; the city is famously hilly; Seattle isn’t quite as bike-friendly as many would have you believe). Since moving to Colorado and becoming a full-blown cycling addict, I’ve wanted to return to Seatown and rectify the mistake…but I haven’t quite known how.

Until now.

This summer, it became insanely easy for anyone–visitor or resident–to cycle around Seattle. No fewer than three bike-share startups popped up in the Emerald City this year, and they’re so eager for your business that they’re practically giving bike rides away. (By “practically,” I mean “literally”–my husband and I took about 10 rides in three days, and the companies’ generous free-trial policies meant we never paid a penny.)

All three of these companies–Limebike, Ofo and Spin–operate in much the same way: They’re all dockless, meaning their bikes are scattered across the city, parked on sidewalks, in parking lots and along multi-use trails. Once you’ve unlocked one with a simple QR code scan or smartphone tap, you’re free to ride as long as you please. When you’re done, you can leave it pretty much anywhere that doesn’t obstruct car or foot traffic. Well, except in the middle of a lake or up a tree.

So, to recap: It’s easy. It’s convenient. It’s cheap, if not free. In other words, there’s literally no reason not to try out a bike share the next time you’re in Seattle. (Well, except for the helmet issue…which I’ll address later.) But which bike should you choose? Read on to find out what I thought about each company!

LIMEBIKE

If you live in Seattle and haven’t yet seen LimeBike’s green and yellow frames gracing the sidewalks, driveways and trails of the city, you probably live underground. Back in the summer, LimeBike boasted the biggest presence of any bike-share company in the city by far.

Limebikes are classic cruisers with swept back handlebars and Dutch-inspired step-through designs, which means it’s easy to hop on and off whether you’re in slacks or a skirt. A Limebike comes with eight gears, and shifting between them will be painless and intuitive for pretty much anyone who’s ever ridden a bike. The bike comes with a loud, satisfying bell, and it too is easy to use.

There were a few things I didn’t like about LimeBike. For one thing, I had to add payment information as soon as I downloaded the app, even though the company immediately granted me five free rides upon download–and that slowed down my momentum a bit. For another, the suspension on LimeBikes is terrible…although they’re not alone in that regard. And finally, there’s my least favorite feature: the seat post. While the seat of a LimeBike is adjustable, it doesn’t move up high enough to comfortably fit anyone who’s even remotely tall. I’m 5’8″, and I sat so low on my LimeBike that every little hill was a slow, laborious climb. (LimeBike has promised to fix this soon.)

COST: $1 per 30-minute ride. Your first 10 rides are free, and you can earn another few free rides by swapping promo codes with a friend.
BEST FOR: Petite people who love the feel of a beach cruiser
BAD FOR: Anyone taller than 5’6″

OFO

Unlike the other two Silicon Valley startups, Ofo is based in China and already has robust dockless bike share systems in 170 cities worldwide. Ofo differentiates itself from LimeBike with a solid yellow frame and black handlebars, boasting a look that’s a bit more sophisticated and less cartoonish. The design is something between a Dutch step-through and a commuter hybrid, which appealed to me–I’d love to see more companies designing cute commuters. I thought adding a cup holder to the basket was a fun touch, especially considering Seattle’s coffee fixation.

Ofo impressed me in the areas where Limebike fell short: Its seat actually adjusts to fit a variety of heights, making for a much less physically demanding ride. And rather than asking for payment upfront, Ofo let me get on a bike immediately after I downloaded the app.

However, Ofo, too, had its drawbacks. Like LimeBike, the suspension was terrible. The basket was too shallow to hold my purse. I found the handlebars to be a bit too close together for someone of my height. The gear shifters worked fine, but they were a little bit less intuitive than those on LimeBike. I didn’t like that the app asked me to enable Bluetooth, and I found it annoying that I had to shuffle between my Settings and the app to give Ofo permission to use my camera, when for the other two all I had to do was press “allow” within the app.

Yet even with all these drawbacks, I’d choose Ofo over Limebike in a heartbeat for the better seat adjustment alone.

COST: $1 per hour, with a first-timer promotion of five free rides
BEST FOR: Tall people and coffee drinkers
BAD FOR: People who carry large purses

SPIN

At the time of my visit, Spin’s bright orange bikes were probably the most difficult to track down. For every dozen LimeBikes I encountered, I’d see a handful of Ofo bikes and just one Spin. Yet I was the most interested in trying this company, as their bike design probably hews closest to that of a standard commuter bike, my preferred model.

So you can imagine my frustration when my search for a Spin was unsuccessful.

It’s true–I never actually got to ride a Spin bike at all. After a pleasant Ofo ride to Golden Gardens Park one afternoon, I downloaded the Spin app and spotted one of their bikes near the beach parking lot. But when I arrived at the bike and scanned its QR code, I found out someone else had already reserved it.

With reservation capabilities, Spin has made itself a two-wheeled Car2Go, giving it an edge over the competition. It’s great for, say, commuters who want a solid transport plan in place before they head out the door. But it’s not so great for spur-of-the-moment riders or first-timers like me–people who don’t yet know the rules and are destined to be confused and annoyed to find the only bike nearby is already taken.

Like Ofo and unlike LimeBike, I didn’t have to provide my credit card information up front on Spin’s app, which was a plus. I liked the bike’s nice deep basket–it’s perfect for a purse or a grocery bag. My husband, who was able to ride on a Spin, noted the gear shifter was a bit sticky (a common complaint); I, panting behind him on a LimeBike, noted with envy that his bike frame was larger and his seat higher than mine. But given I didn’t actually give Spin a test ride, there’s not much more I can say.

COST: $1 per 30-minute ride. Over the summer, Spin was giving away 10 free rides to new customers.
BEST FOR: Commuters and regular riders
BAD FOR: One-off riders

Photo by Jill Kimball

THE HELMET ISSUE

That visitors and locals alike have taken to bikes with abandon thanks to dockless bike share is really exciting. That none of these companies plan to offer helmet rentals in the future is…mildly concerning.

There’s always been a debate about whether wearing a helmet while biking really is safer. But regardless of what you believe, the irrefutable fact of the matter is, it’s illegal to bike without a helmet in Seattle.

That obviously poses a problem for almost every potential bike share user, from local residents looking for a spur-of-the-moment ride home after a night out to tourists looking for a fun way to cruise between sights without the hassle of traffic and parking. Most people don’t pack helmets in their carry-on luggage, nor do they stash one in a purse or backpack on the way to work every day. I admit that even I didn’t wear a helmet during any of my rides around Seattle, and I felt a bit on edge without one–back home, I wear one every day during my commute to work.

There’s a huge disconnect between the city’s bike laws and its open-armed welcome to these three companies–and that has to be addressed sooner rather than later. Until then, tourists and casual riders will have to choose between flouting the law or making a temporary investment in a helmet.

Jill Kimball

My Seattle biking getup.

Have you ridden any of Seattle’s shared bikes? What did you think? Sound off below!

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2 thoughts on “Different spokes: Test-riding Seattle’s three new bike shares

  1. rh says:

    Jill, this is your ol’ Seattle friend Rachele. Your post was featured on Seattle Bike Blog’s Twitter and that’s how I found it because HEY I RECOGNIZE THAT NAME! I’ve loved seeing people out on these neon bikes but they all look pretty clunky to me. Cruisers are not ideal for hills so I fly by these bikes on the trails.

    Glad to see you’ve taken up bicycling! Next time you visit let’s go on a ride!

    • jillckimball says:

      Rachele, I miss you!! How cool that we connected again via non-KING channels! I can definitely attest that all these bikes are clunkier than any bike a Seattlite would buy, and taking on hills can feel like MURDER on a three-speed. Luckily, I spend most of my Seattle visits traveling between Ballard and Roosevelt, so I can just hop on the Burke Gilman Trail and avoid all those hills. Next time around, I hope to take one of these babies on the Dexter path and see how it fares; you can come along and laugh at me huffing and puffing!

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