The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

The 90% solution

San Francisco has installed a whole fleet of those take-’em-one-place, leave-’em-another bikes, just like the ones that have been so successful in New York. (It’s the same company behind most of these.) Initially, I turned my nose up at them, and not for any good reason — just because they looked dorktastic. This is a city of cyclists, I sniffed, and they give us those clunkers? Heavy, dopey, swaddled in plastic…


But then I was downtown, with a need to get to North Beach, just a few blocks up, and something softened my grinchy heart and I decided to try one. You can see this coming: it was fabulous. The experience of snagging a bike, riding it for five minutes, then leaving it behind forever is magical. And the bike itself was, indeed, heavy and dopey, but it was also tough and stable and surprisingly zippy. It turns out that simply having a bike, any kind of bike, gets you 90% of the pleasure. You don’t need much; two wheels and a seat. Everything else — the weight, the paint, the sleek skinny tires — is gravy.

I suspect there’s a metaphor lurking here. In any case, I just purchased my annual pass — $90 for unlimited rides. What a world!


The big thing I’ve seen from San Franciscans is that there aren’t enough bike locations spread throughout the city. The genius of Citibike in NYC is that they actually work really well as commuter bikes: pick up a bike in your hood in Brooklyn, ride it to your work in lower Manhattan or Queens and boom, done, no straphanging necessary. So the more stations you get, particularly in SF’s bedroom and workplace neighborhoods, the better network effects you get.

NB: I don’t ride a bike and viscerally have mixed feelings about bicycles and bicyclists. The neighborhood I just moved to in Brooklyn is rife with cyclists who jet the wrong way down one-ways. Plus, I just learned in DC, it’s legal for bicyclists to 1) ride on the sidewalk and 2) drink while cycling! KEEP YOUR DRUNK BIKING ASS OFF MY SIDEWALK. (And I will support your responsible urban biking initiatives.)

The SF system would definitely be better with more stations in the Mission, Hayes Valley, etc., but I had heard this criticism too (it’s just downtown, it’s just for tourists, etc.) and it colored my perception of the whole fleet; another reason I looked upon the racks so sourly. Turns out getting around downtown provides a pretty solid use case, especially north/south, i.e. perpendicular to Muni.

That said, I’d love to know more about the model that Alta uses to design these systems… I mean, why not put a station at 18th and Valencia in this first wave? I’ve got to believe there’s a specific reason. Like, they know the bikes will only flow one way & they’ll never be able to keep the station stocked? Something like that? (I’m flashing back to one of my favorite courses at MSU, the economics of transportation, in which we learned all about planes and trains and automobiles but never about bikes…)

Also, the DC bike share bikes are candy apple red. Which is all but asking for drunk sidewalk trouble.

I think you guys know this, but worth mentioning that this is a pilot and there’s concrete plans to add at least 300 bikes in SF in spring 2014. Hopefully it will be a lot more.

I agree, being able to jump on a bike anytime would be great. I have a bike at home, so what I’m most interested in is how easy it is to check a bike in/out; what’s your take?

Also, nothing wrong with the tourist angle; I love the idea of being able to jump on a bike when visiting other cities. It’s really the best way to get a feel for a new place (assuming the place is big enough that walking is inadequate). In the past I’ve boxed my bike for longer trips so that I can have mine with me in a new place, but this is less practical with today’s air travel restrictions. If visiting Portland, OR, you can just ask to borrow a friend’s extra bike, but for everywhere else a bike share program is great. Does your membership in SF let you hop on bikes in other cities?

Ohhh, a national bikeshare membership! I don’t think that’s part of the deal right now, but gosh, it ought to be. I mean, it’s all the same company — the same fob. I’m sure it’s technically possible. It would be fantastic.

Yeah, the way to do a national bikesharing membership would to be have it be like museums: if you’re a member at one, you can be a courtesy/guest member at all the participating institutions in the network. (That would work even without having Citibike or whomever run all of them.)

Dan says…

The Divvy bike share program here in Chicago has been hugely successful as well:

Steve Jobs: “What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.”

Kay Ryan: “I simply want to celebrate the fact that right near your home, year in and year out, a community college is quietly—and with very little financial encouragement—saving lives and minds. I can’t think of a more efficient, hopeful or egalitarian machine, with the possible exception of the bicycle.”

To what do we compare a bike sharing program?

Rob, I’m wondering if, as Jobs says, the computer is a bicycle, the bike sharing program isn’t a bit like the network – i.e. that the function of the individual thing changes because of how it enables access to an interlinked system.

Although Toronto’s relatively new bike-sharing program is struggling and like SF’s has too few stations, using it, my primary feeling was a feeling of a reconfigured city – i.e. the thing that was a 1 hour walk away, or a 30 minute trip by public transit, is now a 20 minute bike ride. Space has suddenly shrunk, and corners of the city and the events and locations they contain open up to you because the network of bike stations has given you this weird feeling of freedom.

And yeah, Robin, that idea about “leaving it behind forever”! Why does that feel so great? It’s like the usual hassle and worry about locking a bike up or finding a spot just disappears, almost like you have dematerialized the bicycle. It’s like it feels as if you’ve hit a button and it dissolves Star Trek-style, then you come back out, call up to the Enterprise, and they beam one down for you.

Actually, I guess that perhaps a better metaphor is cloud computing – log in to your online desktop from wherever you are and, boom, you have opened up access to this whole world.

Nav, I like that cloud computing analogy. Reminds me of Kevin Kelly’s post arguing that universal access trumps ownership.

Sorry Josh, I missed this earlier – but yeah! Almost like bike share is Rdio, owning a bike is iTunes.

Boston’s bike-sharing program started in 2011, and last year they held a data visualization contest, publishing a CSV containing data from half a million (!) rides. The winning entry is fairly mind-blowing. Hover over each data point to see the travel time the rider saved…

I really like this visualization; would be great to compare to car trips too! Boston’s subway system is very… uh… center-centric? So not too surprising that there might be a lot of point-to-point trips that are faster by bike than riding one subway in to the center and then another back out. I don’t know the bus system too well.

Also interesting, according to these data the Boston system (600 bikes) had 514k trips in its first ~14 months. The SF bikeshare (700 bikes) just announced they had 81k trips in the first 3 months. So far the SF rate is a bit behind, but if you assume things will start a little slow and pick up it seems like pretty similar adoption rates.

I was excited to try the Boston system last time I was in town, but was a bit appalled to find that you can’t ride the bike across the river as there are no stations in Cambridge. Hopefully that’s changing soon?

Okay, here I am, fourteen days later, just joining in. I am still figuring out how to put words on the Internet as an amateur, now that I also put them there as a professional.

Back in September of 2011, Matthew Battles wrote a post similar to this one. It might make good cross-reading—he starts with the same inkling that, y’know, the bikes are big, lumbering, not for him. Then:

As I steered the thing into morning traffic, however, a different sensation took hold, akin to the same slightly giddy satisfaction I recall feeling when I started taking books out of the library a long time ago. This is a bike that belongs — to me, to Boston, to my fellow city dwellers. It’s native to a civic commons. It’s infrastructure.

(Also: Perhaps this is unrelated, but in the spirit of Rogre: Emily Badger also wrote about the ethics—and enforcement issues—of bike-sharing in September.)

We have bike-sharing in DC—I think one of the more successful national programs. It’s a funny thing. It has become, for me, infrastructure, though I mean that in a sense closer to how we normally talk about the built city and more distant from Battles’s exalted italics. Bike-sharing is just a choice for me now. Every morning, I can choose: Walk to work? Bus? Train? Or puts on sunglasses bike-share? Each has a specific downside: Long wait-times, long transit-times, cold knuckles.

DC can be an uncaring city, but the bikes wind up functioning almost as wormholes. You’re here!… you get on a bike, pant really hard for ten minutes, then, shwoop!, you’re there. (They’re helped in this by the district’s diagonal avenues.) Know how to use them, and they don’t exactly change the terrain of the city, but alter the plasticity and texture of different zones. “Don’t try to get into Columbia Heights at night!,” you know. “All the ports fill up!” But, you know too, day or night, Foggy Bottom also accepts a weary traveler.

Maybe this is how all public transit functions, or at least functions in DC, where walking often beats—literally, is faster than—the underground series of tubes or aboveground bus network. But the bikes seem part of a network of dark magic, best wielded by those with experience, resourcefulness, and wit.

“…alter the plasticity and texture of different zones.”


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