I’ve been trying to like Lime bikes
Some little while ago—a year? 9 months?—a rainbow of brightly colored bicycles sprouted in Seattle. All of a sudden dockless bike sharing had arrived. There were three vendors and three colors: Ofo (yellow), Spin (orange), and Lime (green, duh):
Dockless was a new thing. Seattle had had a flirtation with docked bikes (company name Pronto!), but that didn’t work out. Part of the reason, surely, was that docked bikes could be picked up and dropped off only at certain points in Seattle, and those were concentrated downtown. Dockless bikes, on the other hand, can be practically anywhere. There’s no stand or station. Using an app on your phone, you locate a bike close to you (they’re all GPS tracked). When you find a bike, you unlock it with the app, hop on, and ride wherever you want. When you’re done, you get off, lock the bike, and walk away.
A key point is that it’s literally wherever. People take these bikes onto the light rail and presumably leave them in far-flung neighborhoods. The companies hope that you will leave the bike well parked in a convenient location, but they can't enforce this, so bikes show up all over the place.
Another appeal of the dockless bikes is that they're cheap to rent: you can ride for one dollar. (More on that in a moment.) This makes dockless bikes great for a kind of impulse ride—you want go for a ride, or you need to get someplace, and hey, here’s one of those bike right there. One dollar and 30 seconds later you’re riding.
I have a two-part commute. Normally I ride the train (light rail) from our apartment to downtown Seattle. From there I take a bus to Fremont, the neighborhood where our office is. At some point, however, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to get off the train downtown; the train goes to the University of Washington, which is about 2-1/2 miles from our office. I can then take a bus from the U for my second leg. Or, as it occurred to me, I could ride a bike.
So I gave it a try. I installed the app, and after getting off the train at the U, I used the app to locate a bike. I found one, unlocked it, somewhat awkwardly got on, and pedaled away.
Well. My very first lesson is that these bikes are extremely … sturdy. 42 pounds, oof. As I also quickly learned, they have 8 gears, but they’re geared pretty low. (You shift by twisting the handle—easy!) Even on level ground, and even in the highest gear, you are working to move that bike. This is particularly evident if you’re riding on a bike trail, because people on sleeker bikes are constantly whizzing past you.
This is understandable, of course. Both parts, I mean. For the sturdy part, if you’re designing a bike to withstand both the elements and people’s inevitably casual use, you favor something that can take some knocks. And for the gearing part, you need low gears so that people can just get the danged thing moving. Plus you’re accommodating a wide range of riders (weight, strength, skill), and you want a pretty low common denominator.
Safety not first
The spontaneous nature of grabbing a dockless bike does have a downside—namely, that you’re unlikely to have thought to bring a helmet. Seattle ordinance requires a helmet, but the bike-share companies don’t provide. This is an interesting dilemma for me. I could carry a helmet around, but I use these bikes comparatively rarely, so that would mostly be dragging around the helmet for no reason. My approach for the time being is that when I do use a dockless bike, I don’t ride on city streets at all; I ride only on bike paths that are separate from the road.
The jalopy bike
The first ride was a learning experience. The second was as well, but in a different way—the gears slipped if I pedaled too hard, making for an unpleasant and even more laborious ride. And this I suppose underscores a different problem of these bikes, which is that people don’t treat them well. They’re rentals, after all, so people ride them hard, and let them fall, or worse:
I tried a few more times, but had one more incident of a slippy gear and a couple of bikes where the seat was loose or there was some other problem. My experience overall seems to have been typical—the Seattle Times did a test and concluded that only about 64% of Lime bikes were ridable. So between the crapshoot of a getting a bike that had problems and the more general prospect of having to work so hard to bike 3 miles, I didn't really embrace the whole idea, and I sort of forgot about Lime.
Chapter 2: Electronics to the Rescue
Somewhere along the line, Lime (only, afaik) introduced ebikes, which have an electronic assist to your pedaling. This makes sense in Seattle, which has a lot of hills. (It makes sense everywhere, but there are certain popular routes in Seattle that just don’t seem feasible with the normal Lime tank-bikes.) This re-piqued my interest in using a Lime bike for a leg of my commute, so I gave it a shot.
Oh. My. God. As soon as you step on a pedal the bike practically lunges off. It isn’t effortless, but the assist does a lot to overcome the inertia of the heavy bike, so it’s a very welcome improvement.
But there are some issues. One is that ebikes are extremely popular, so it can be a challenge, unlike the all-manual bikes, to find one nearby. A complicating factor is that the ebikes lose their charge, and Lime won’t unlock a bike that has less than 20% charge. Another issue, at least theoretically, is that local rules say you're not allowed to ride an ebike on a sidewalk or bike path, which means that you're legally only allowed to ride them on city street. Yeah, that's not going to happen. (As with the helmet laws, it remains to be seen whether the city will try to enforce this rule.)
And then I learned about the cost. As I noted, you can ride a manual bike for a dollar. The price for ebikes is one dollar plus 15 cents per minute from the moment you unlock. It had never occurred to me that the price would be different until I got notification from Lime that one my rides had cost me $3.40. Only then did I go back and check their pricing page, which does not even mention ebikes; I had to poke around to get the details on ebike pricing. This rather more substantial cost has given me pause. I mean, it's not like taking an Uber or anything, but I do have to ask myself just how much value I put on being able to pedal myself, albeit with electronic assist, to or from the train. At the moment, I'm riding a dockless bike maybe, dunno, every other week? Still cheaper than an unused gym membership, I suppose.
It's the future
Dockless bikes appear to be doing well in Seattle. There are currently about 10,000 bikes in Seattle, and for the months of May and June (which were clement), they were ridden an average of 7,000 times a day. The city of Bellevue, our cross-lake suburban sister city, is beginning its own experiment with dockless bikes. Just recently, Seattle expanded the charter for dockless bike companies, and we could have up to 20,000 of the bikes circulating through the city. (That's 4 companies times 5,000 bikes each, assuming the companies want to pay the fees that Seattle is asking.)
In the meantime, Lime is experimenting with new form factors. They have manual bikes and ebikes now; they're adding electric scooters, which we'll be seeing soon in Seattle:
Given my lack of balance, this does not seem like a vehicle I should be piloting. But who knows—maybe the lure of an inexpensive way to try one out will get me careering down the Burke-Gilman trail on a scooter. I'll let you know.