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Test-Driving Hubway

BU Today takes Boston’s new bike-share program for a spin

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Anyone navigating Commonwealth Avenue knows it’s a circus. Cars, trucks, bikes, trolleys, and pedestrians barrel along and skitter across the four-lane divided avenue that is the pulsing artery of the Charles River Campus.

So it seems counterintuitive to add one more element to that mix. But, voilà: New Balance Hubway. Launched at the end of July, Boston’s new bike-share program is already being hailed as a success, with 2,600 members and 600 bikes at 53 stations around the city. Three of those stations are along Comm Ave, with another in South Campus and one on the Medical Campus. (An additional eight stations are planned in Boston, with more to come in Cambridge, Somerville, and Jamaica Plain).

Whether hopping from FitRec to class in East Campus or taking a more scenic route to downtown Boston, the bikes promise a cheap and easy transportation alternative for the BU community 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 3 seasons of the year. (Hubway will hibernate December through February, to reemerge with the nicer spring weather.)

That sounded to me like a deal too good to be true. So I decided to test it out. Here’s a recap of my inaugural Hubway adventure.

3:18 p.m.

I arrive at Marsh Plaza, site of one of the Comm Ave Hubway stations, to find 7 of 19 bikes docked in a stand alongside a kiosk and a city map. Sidling up to the kiosk, I read the company’s three cardinal rules before slipping my credit card into the machine.

  1. Hubway places a $101 hold, for up to 10 days, on a user’s card as a security deposit. (Bikers low on cash shouldn’t use debit cards, and cash is not an option. Hubway held my $101 for three days before returning it.)
  2. There’s a two-bike rental maximum per card. (Remember this for later.)
  3. Bikers must be at least 17 or accompanied by an adult. Why? Because it’s illegal in Massachusetts for riders 16 and under to ride a bicycle without a helmet.

Hubway does not provide helmets at any rental station. Riders should come with their own helmet or visit a nearby store (clearly marked in red on kiosk maps), where they can buy a discounted one for $10 or less.

Hubway posts multiple signs online and at their kiosks encouraging riders: “Wear a helmet.” Yet, among the other Hubway riders I came across that day, I was the only one sporting headgear. (A red helmet with a Boston University Terriers patch, no less.)

Riders can choose from three membership options. I select the 24-hour membership for $5. (That’s not including usage fees. More on that later.) Other options include a three-day rental for $12 or a $60 annual membership, available through online registration, after which a Hubway key is sent to your home.

The kiosk’s touch screen prompts are user-friendly, and I grab a printed copy of my unlocking code within minutes. (Still, during that short period, two more bikes were swept away by key-toting members.) I choose one of the remaining bikes and punch my five-digit code into the parking dock. A green light flashes, I pull my bike away from the dock, and I’m ready to roll.

Before taking off, I check out my two-wheeler. It has fat tires, a wide and cushiony seat, front and rear flashing LED lights, wheel reflectors, and a front basket with a bungee cord—a big bonus for anyone toting backpacks, briefcases, or purses. There’s a bell attached to the left handlebar and a three-gear shifting system built into the right handlebar.

My bag securely fastened, I head east on Comm Ave toward the closest Hubway station, at Kenmore Square. It’s a beautiful day for a bike ride. The late summer sun shines warm and bright. Traffic is light in the pre–student move-in lull. And…why does it feel like I’m riding sidesaddle? Note to self: adjust seat before hopping on bike.

Leslie Friday, Marsh Plaza Hubway bicycle station

BU Today’s Leslie Friday rents a Hubway bike from the Marsh Plaza station.

3:37 p.m.

I make it to Kenmore Square in well under half an hour, which means my ride is free. More than 30 minutes and I would have started racking up a bill. The rate is reasonable at first—$2 for up to an hour ($1.50 for members)—but jumps rapidly later on to $38 for three hours ($30.50 for members) and $100 beyond seven hours ($80 for members). Hubway acknowledges that its bikes are best for short trips and advises riders to visit a bike rental shop for extended, open-ended rides.

I snap my bike into the dock and see the green light flash again, meaning I’m good to go. A quick errand later, I’m back at the station ready to rent my next bike. Among the 19 spots, 6 bikes remain. One of them needs a little TLC. Its pedal is perched atop the dock waiting to be reattached. I press a red service button to alert Hubway staff of the needed repair.

On a tip from a rider visiting from Los Angeles, I insert my card into the kiosk again to receive a new unlocking code (they expire after each use), select a bike, and head toward the Public Garden.

My ride along Comm Ave toward downtown is smooth (I adjusted the seat this time), except for a driver yelling advice at me through her car’s open window: “Bikes go on the other side.” Insert “idiot” at the end. Oops. Right-o.

4:07 p.m.

Less than 30 minutes later, I park my bike at Hubway’s dock on the Public Garden’s south side, and another errand later, am ready to pick up my third bike. By this time, I feel like a Hubway pro. I slide my card, go through the prompters…then hit a roadblock. “Sorry, the maximum number of concurrent bikes you can rent has been reached,” the touch screen tells me. No sweat, I’ll just stroll to the next station, two blocks down at Berkeley and Boylston streets.

But I’m out of luck—the station is completely empty of bikes. I decide to walk another two blocks to the Copley Square station. My heart beats a tick faster as I catch sight of the dozens of tourists swarming the area and contemplate how many are simultaneously zeroing in on that same Hubway station. My pace increases. And then, salvation. The station has four bikes left. While two tourists hover around the parked bikes, I swipe my card again. The same rejection message appears.

Time to call in the reinforcements. A Hubway customer service representative answers my call (1-855-4HUBWAY) within 30 seconds. With only my last name and the final four digits of my card, he fixes the problem and gets me back on another bike.

All along Newbury Street and Comm Ave, habitual bikers whiz by me, their backdraft mocking my steady, but slower, speed. Hubway bikes are made for heavy-duty use by people of all skill levels—more like beach cruisers than speed racers, so I enjoy the sights. The Citgo sign looms as I cross back onto campus. By now my legs are burning, the setting sun is striking me squarely in the eyes, and I’m going uphill to my last stop: FitRec.

5:10 p.m.

I pull up to the station and scan the docks for an opening. The very last slot, camouflaged by the Hubway map, is open. Eureka! I dock my bike after another free ride and silently wish those bikers arriving after me good luck. They can swipe their card to get a free 15-minute extension on their rental, but they’ll still have to search for the nearest empty station—not exactly convenient if you’re a student and have just 30 seconds to get to your next class. Riders might want to consider using the smartphone Spotcycle App to find an open dock in those situations.

So, lessons learned: visit Hubway’s site beforehand, bring a helmet and a cell phone, and don’t rely on these bikes if you’re on a tight schedule. I wasn’t, so I chalked it up as another urban adventure.

View a map of Hubway stations here.

12 Comments
Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

12 Comments on Test-Driving Hubway

  • Zvi Bodie on 09.13.2011 at 5:26 am

    Hi Leslie,
    Great review of the hubway. I cannot understand why they did not put stations along Beacon Street in Coolidge Corner, Washington Square, and Cleveland Circle. Is it because the first two are in Brookline.

    • Leslie on 09.13.2011 at 9:37 am

      Hi Zvi,

      Thanks. According to Nicole Freeman, Boston’s director of bike programs, Hubway looked at citywide bike usage and placed stations near high-use zones. I also know they plan to install more stations before the end of this season. So, who knows, the sites you listed may be the home of future stations.

  • Kristy Alaura on 09.13.2011 at 7:39 am

    I love the idea of these bikes. I think it’s great for tourism here in Boston and a great way to encourage more physical activity in all. However, I think Hubway should add a few “biking rules” to their kiosks. Bicycles are vehicles, therefore they are require to follow the same rules as cars and trucks on the roads. When riding a bike, one DOES NOT ride INTO traffic, but follows the flow of traffic (unlike walking) and riding on the sidewalk is inconsiderate and unnecessary with all the bike lanes throughout Boston. Ride smart, renters.

    • Hater of Ignorant Young Cyclists on 09.13.2011 at 10:00 am

      Good point -and another rule that apparently needs to be painstakingly drilled into the heads of all cyclists out there is STOPPING AT RED LIGHTS and STOP SIGNS.

      The past 2 days in a row, I’ve narrowly missed being hit crossing Comm Ave @ St Mary’s St by cyclists who don’t stop for red lights. I waited until the light turned red and the Walk signal came on, yet a streams of cyclists just kept speeding along as if the red light didn’t pertain to them. If I hadn’t looked, there was a good chance I would have been hit, AND I was walking across the street with 5-10 other people.

      None of them stopped for us. We had to stand in the middle of the crosswalk and let them all go as if THEY had the right of way…

      WTF!!! You are a vehicle on the road, just as a car, motorcycle, or scooter, and you are supposed to obey those laws. If any of those cyclists had hit me, it WOULD and COULD have hurt me, they absolutely WOULD have been at fault and I ABSOLUTELY wouldn’t have let you get away with it legally, if only to prove the point and make your life and wallet a bit miserable.

      I’m not trying to discriminate or stereotype, but the offenders on these past two days have all been very young, so maybe it’s to do with the start of the semester. Cyclists should always heed red lights and give pedestrians the right of way when they have it, but especially along Comm Ave and the BU campus, those are all busy intersections with a lot of pedestrians.

      WAKE UP and obey the rules of the road like you’re supposed to.

      • Biker Owner and Rider on 09.13.2011 at 10:27 am

        Yes, many cyclists out there do not necessarily follow the rules of the road, I give you that. And I certainly cannot stand cyclists who are too scared or nervous to ride in the street and therefore ride on the sidewalk.

        However, it is also your responsibility as a pedestrian to ALWAYS look before walking out into the street, whether you have a walk sign or not. If we’re talking about ignorant young people here, yell at the pedestrians who blatantly walk directly in front of both bikes and cars against their Walk signal. Not only is it illegal to cross without a signal (or where there aren’t even crosswalks), but it’s much, much easier for a pedestrian to pause mid-stride than it is for a bike (who usually does still have the right of way) to stop. And believe me, if a bike where to hit a pedestrian, the physical damage to the cyclist will be much greater than to the pedestrian.

        The point is, the Hubway system is a great addition to the city, but it does mean many more inexperienced cyclists on the road, which means EVERYONE has to pay even more attention (or even the tiniest bit to begin with) when traversing the city.

  • Confused on 09.13.2011 at 1:10 pm

    I’m curious if you can explain the “Two Concurrent Bikes” thing. Why couldn’t you take out a third bike at the Public Garden if you had already returned your previous 2 bikes and had a 24 hour pass?

    • Leslie on 09.13.2011 at 3:15 pm

      Good question. That’s what I thought too, and is how the system should work. You should have unlimited bike rides for a 24-hour period. The customer service rep fixed whatever wasn’t working on my account to continue renting bikes. It was an error on their end.

    • Amy on 09.14.2011 at 3:25 pm

      I’m a pedestrian who has had it with bad bicyclists, and I take issue with your telling pedestrians that THEY are responsible when crossing the street for making sure that bicyclists aren’t running red lights, as if the problem was a “shared” one that “all” must solve. Baloney. If a robber breaks into your house, are you at fault because you didn’t buy stronger locks, meaning that both the robber and you are at fault? If a doctor screws up during surgery, was it your responsibility to have checked her safety record first, meaning that both of you are to blame for your situation? When you as a driver get a green light at an intersection, do you step on the gas and drive, or do you sit there for a few seconds to make sure that another driver or bicyclist isn’t coming in the distance to run the red light? I use cross walks, wait for walk lights, look to my left and right before crossing, and fast moving bicyclists STILL come out of freaking thin air and cut me off. And what of the handicapped, the elerly, the hard of seeing and the blind? How are THEY supposed to check before crossing for idiots in their paths?

      Yes, there are many dopey pedestrians out there, but this article is about bicyclists. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve read comments from bicyclists who respond to bad bicyclist criticism with things like “But pedestrians are bad too!” have you ever been hit by a bicyclist while walking? I have, and I can assure you that I suffered more than he did.

      • Amy on 09.14.2011 at 3:36 pm

        Oh, I forgot: some bicyclists will ride between the curb and a parked bus that’s discharging passengers. Are the passengers supposed to look both ways before getting off the bus? I thankfully had a driver yank me back INTO the bus, because he saw a bicyclists coming in his mirror.

        • Em on 09.15.2011 at 12:09 am

          You can’t just target bikers and not mention pedestrians or motorists who also break rules or make mistakes. If you do that you’re not telling the whole story. Whether you like it or not, all share the same space, all endlessly break traffic laws, and all should be held responsible – not just bikers.

          I’m not justifying bad behavior or breaking laws, there is just more that contributes to making Comm Ave dangerous.

  • John on 09.14.2011 at 5:17 am

    “Bikes go on the other side”. It sounds a bit like you were heading the wrong way, which would have been very foolish. However, I think you are referring to the stretch of Comm Ave in Back Bay where the cycle lane is to the left of unrestricted lanes. I assume you were in the unrestricted lanes on the right?

    If so, the (rather rude) driver was wrong. In MA you don’t have to use the cycle lanes unless you wish to do so. In your case (going all the way downtown) it would have made sense to use them, but if you were turning right then it would not have.

    • Leslie on 09.14.2011 at 3:17 pm

      You’re right, I was entering Back Bay and the bike lane switched to the left side of the road. I’d never experienced that one before, but will keep my eyes open next time.

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