When you live in Baltimore you hear a lot about potential. If you squint real hard and look at things in a certain light and just believe a little you can see how great everything is supposed to be… how great it is going to be in the very near future. And sometimes it is. Harborplace is pretty nice. Oriole Park didn’t always exist and now it’s impossible to imagine the city without it. But then other times all that potential amounts to nothing more than a canceled Red Line, a highway to nowhere or a Superblock.
Given our city’s history and the enormous dysfunction in city hall it feels like an honest-to-God miracle that Baltimore Bike Share exists. But it does! it really happened. You can go rent a bike right now and you should!
We were eager to test drive the bikes and the system, and hit the streets as soon as we could yesterday. We’ve been hearing for several weeks now that October 28 was the launch date, but we were frustrated early when we woke up yesterday morning to see on social media that most of the stations slated to open did not have bikes on them. Where were the bikes? They were at city hall. Her honor the Mayor Not Standing For Reelection had staged hundreds of bikes there for a photo op timed to the noon news. It would have been quite sufficient to just use the bike stand already located at city hall and it’s inexcusable for the mayor to delay the rollout, and to make the contractor work that much harder on an already busy day.
Besides, the mayor has absolutely no leg to stand on in taking credit for this program. It should have been done six years ago! We’ve heard the figure $2.36 Million thrown around quite a bit as if it were expensive. This is a woman who hands out half million dollar consulting contracts by the dozen every time the BOE meets. Two and a half million is a bargain for a system of the size and quality we’re getting! And in six years six years! she hasn’t been able to find a title sponsor. But that is typical of SRB: fail in every way imaginable and when you succeed even a tiny little bit make sure there’s a ton of press there to brag in front of.
There was a ton of press. At least what passes for a ton of press in this town in 2016. By the time we got to city hall around 2:30 there were still over 60 bikes there just sitting around doing nothing. We saw WJZ’s Pat Warren with a cameraman, who didn’t bother to say hello or ask if we’d like to be interviewed, but instead just stuck the goddamn camera in our face when we tried to rent a bicycle.
Here is how we know Pat Warren is a hack reporter. When we made it clear that we didn’t want to be interviewed but would be happy to chat off the record she became quite curt and literally turned her back on us. We’ve met some good reporters, like some of the ones the Sun is currently refusing to give raises, and it is true that good reporters want to learn as much as they can about the stories they’re covering. Given the chance to talk to a local who’s done quite a lot of cycling in Baltimore Pat Warren (and many others like her) are only interested in getting the requisite amount of footage and B-roll and getting back to the station. A story like this unfortunately requires no imagination and little effort. You just go through the checklist: a quote from the mayor or someone in the transportation department, a few questions for Liz Cornish, and maybe a smoking hot take from Doc Brown if you really want to spice it up. Nobody’s talked to the contractor or the founding members or people who live or work near stations. Nobody’s made a real comparison to other cities’ programs. Nobody really gives a shit. Here are three stories at the Brew, WBAL, and the BBJ. They all contain a HUGE factual error: Bike Share does not cost $2 per ride. It costs $2 per day. Two dollars buys you a pass that is good for unlimited 45 minute rides in a 24 hour period.
For years this blog has been limited in scope because we’ve purposefully shied away from doing reporting or anything that smacks of journalism. But we did do one thing that no reporter in this town thought to try and that’s ride the damn bike and tell you what it was like.
So what was it like? Well, we encountered some difficulty in actually getting our hands on a bike. Using the bike share website we got an error in processing our credit card and were unable to purchase a pass online. The iPhone app was even worse, as there were no selections to choose in the pass field, halting the whole transaction at that step. An email to their contact page was not immediately returned. We received an error message when we tried to buy a pass at city hall, and when we walked to West Shore Park we got a different error- which turned out to be that the machine did not take American Express. After trying again with a Visa, we got a day pass in the form of an RFID card, similar to a Charm Card.
Users can (theoretically) use the app to undock bikes, or use the pass. We’d like it a lot if the passes were merged with the Charm Card we already have instead of carrying a new card. We assume we’re meant to recharge the card the same way a Charm Card is done, as there is a panel for that on the machine, but as with many aspects of the program the vendor is unclear in the website and kiosk instructions. We imagine that for many users both locals and visitors this may be their first experience with a bike share, so more clarity and ease of use would go a long way. It’s also not clear why only some stations receive credit cards. It would be nice if they all did. The few other riders we encountered at stations seemed to be experiencing similar early-stage difficulties.
Once we had the pass, it was smooth sailing. You just tap it to the handlebars, take your bike and go.
These are indeed the nicest bike share bikes we’ve ever seen. They’re heavy, as all share bikes are, but they’re comfortable for us as a 6′ rider and we assume they’ll be comfortable for riders of all heights, ages and experience levels. We loved the digital display at the stem that alternates between a speedometer and a timer counting down the minutes you’ve got left. It also shows the battery charge and miles ridden which is good to know. We didn’t try the secondary lock feature, but if you want to make a trip to the store or run an errand each bike is equipped with a steel basket and an integrated cable lock to keep it from wandering off while you’re inside.
The basket placement is perhaps our biggest criticism of the bikes, in that it does not allow you to see where the front tire is going. These bikes have different size wheels, and the front tire is smaller than what many riders are used to. With the conditions of downtown’s streets and sidewalks being what they are, it could be quite dangerous not seeing whether your wheel is about to go into a pothole or miss it by two inches- go up the curb cut or run into a concrete lip, etc. It would also be a benefit to see what your turning circles are on the ground, particularly around pedestrians as all share bikes are difficult to maneuver at slow speeds.
Being brand new the bikes are all in mint condition. It will be interesting to see how well maintained they are at periodic intervals but today all the ones we rode were smooth and efficient. The non-electric models have seven speeds, which feels like a luxury and should be more than enough for getting from station to station. In 7th gear on Pratt Street we were able to clock a bike at 17.5 mph over flat ground. We’re also pleased to report that these things handle cobblestone streets like a champ. Being heavy and having beefy tires comes in handy there. Brakes worked well and safely as expected.
There is a certain awkward unfamiliarity with the frame and style of bike but we’re sure that for even occasional riders that won’t be an issue after several rides. These things are also drawing a lot of looks, both at the stations and in motion. This isn’t a bad thing though. People had a very positive reaction in general. If you’re an early adopter of share bikes, you should be prepared to field a lot of questions, and for the success of the system we think it’s particularly important for those early adopters to be as genial and informative as possible, and to encourage as many people as possible to try these bikes. It’s two bucks. It should be an easy sale!
We had fun tooling around downtown and seeing each station slowly start to fill with bikes, but the real fun began when we got our hands on one of the electric models. From a distance they’re indistinguishable from the traditional geared models, but the electric ones are indicated on the display panel in small type. If you’re looking for one at a station the lack of a shifter on the right handlebar is a quick way to tell.
What’s it feel like to ride? It feels like you’re Mister Burns gliding along on the front end of a tandem bike while Smithers is behind you pedaling his ass off. It’s great. The electric boost kicks in after just about a third of a pedal revolution, and it kicks off again if you stop pedaling. We got it going to 21 mph on a slight downhill, but it topped out at 14.5 over the same flat stretch of Pratt Street where the geared bike did 17.5. We can say with confidence that you could run these things uphill all the way to Charles Village or Remington easily. It would take a fraction of the effort it takes to ride your own bike that far.
The stations are, for the most part, very well located. The more we talked to people during the rollout the more we got the sense that our bike share system is meant to be primarily a solution to the problem of last-mile transit. You can come off the subway or light rail and get right onto a bike and be at the next station very quickly with no bus or long walk involved. And there are enough stations that one is bound to be close to your destination. Station locations coincide well with clusters of restaurants, nightlife, and attractions, i.e. where people want to go. It could be that they are a little too clustered, but only time will tell. A few could eventually be moved if it came to that. It is unlikely we’re going to see stations more than about five or six miles from the center of town. That’s about the distance we live from downtown, and frankly while getting around on our own bike is easy enough, trying to utilize a share bike instead of a bus to go to, say, Oriole Park would be very impractical.
But if you live near a station this is a very convenient way of making short trips. Forty five minutes may not sound like a lot of time but even on a heavy bike like this it’s possible to cover several miles in that time. It would be nice- hell, it would be a miracle if everyone who owned a car and lived near downtown didn’t see this as ‘for tourists’ or ‘for the bike people’ or whatever. It’s not that. It’s for you! Don’t look at it as a couple parking spots missing from one particular block. Look at it as you getting to keep your parking space all weekend because you can now get across town in 15 minutes by bike for $2.
We can’t say enough how great the pricing is in this program, and we wish the media and the company had been better in clarifying. Aside from the $2 day pass there’s a $15 monthly pass, which pays for itself if you ride more than 7 days in a month, and the Founders’ Pass at $100 a year, which comes with longer rides, a Zipcar membership with driving credit, and a few other perks. It’s really an exceptional value and those passes have sold well.
All in all today’s rollout was… bad. There were the problems mentioned above, as well as some issues with the app giving wrong information about the number of bikes available at particular stations and other technical issues not worth getting in the weeds about. That said it wasn’t a disaster. The bikes are on the streets. Finally. If the city can get out of Bewegen’s way and let them do their jobs there is no reason why they can’t have every single issue ironed out by the time of full implementation in the Spring. When that time arrives there’s the potential these bikes will be widely adopted and adored by people in central Baltimore.
But before that potential can become a reality the city needs to get out of its own way. We wrote 3 weeks ago about the current sorry state of downtown. In those three weeks we’ve seen three downtown businesses either close or announce their intention to close, with all three owners citing the downtown environment and dealing with the city government as their entire reason for either closing or moving. There were also 3 shootings near Baltimore and Howard in a week. The preponderance of construction sites and road and utility maintenance going on all over the city, but especially downtown and in Fell’s Point/Harbor East will be a major obstacle to the wide adoption of bike share. While many users may be somewhat timid riders even under ideal conditions, the industrial hellscape and poor road conditions existing downtown are challenging to any cyclist, and we found them even harder to negotiate on a share bike.
We hear a lot about the potential of the coming bike infrastructure to transform the riding experience, but the city’s track record on that so far is poor. Beyond being unsafe from a crime perspective, they never did complete Guilford avenue, and have already torn out the traffic calming circles they installed there a few years ago, leaving the road surface much worse for wear. They likewise tore out freshly installed bike lanes on Fulton Avenue a few years ago. When they do get a “complete street” built such as next to Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus on Charles Street, the road bottlenecks and is confusing and practically invites people to drive in the bike lane. It’s a horrible thing to ride a bike through. Practically the only bike lane that’s even halfway pleasant and efficient is the one on Saint Paul Street (not without its own flaws) but even that one just ends abruptly in a chaotic mess of taxis and off-ramp traffic.
Too much of what this city calls bike lanes at this moment in 2016 are absolutely worse than nothing at all and are very dangerous. When we rode around Cathedral Street and down to Liberty Street there were cars driving in what’s supposed to be a protected two way lane, cars using the lane as a turn lane, cars turning where they’re no longer allowed to turn. These lanes are totally unprotected as of now and are ill marked even where they’re complete. Where they’re not complete they’re just a jumble of spray paint. These brown lanes on Pratt and Lombard are no better. People just drive all over those with impunity. And these are the very places where bike share stations were designed to go. It’s not hard to imagine someone picking up their first bike at Cathedral and Mulberry, running a gauntlet downhill and barely escaping with their lives, and ditching the bike at Hopkins Place in a fit of disgust. And they wouldn’t be wrong to do it, either.
Below are some pictures we took along our ride yesterday. It was a typical afternoon. There was no stadium traffic or water main break or anything. If you go riding downtown you will see all of what we saw today. These are just a select few images. The truth is that we saw construction in nearly every block and could have taken hundreds of photos. Also these are mostly from the eastern part of downtown. The sinkholes, construction, and general messes are even worse on the west side of downtown. If bike share is going to succeed, and we truly hope it does, it’s got to be in a better environment than this.