Bike Share or Rental Bike?

Throughout our travels, I’ve had the opportunity to bring my own bike (folding and full sized), I've rented bikes once I arrived, and I've used bike shares. For most people traveling somewhere far away, the decision usually boils down to one of the last two: renting a bike there, or using that city's bike share program. This week we will offer our thoughts on the goods and the bads of both scenarios, and why making the decision isn’t really as simple as it sounds.

THE MISCONCEPTION

When you imagine yourself flying to a new city and biking around, you probably only picture this part: 

 Happy cyclists (and a roller blader, presumably also happy) in Vancouver BC

Happy cyclists (and a roller blader, presumably also happy) in Vancouver BC

You only picture the riding part. And of course you’d probably rather be riding a lighter rental bike instead of a heavier, slower, bike share bike. The rental bikes tend to be slimmer, and come in different styles and sizes, and the rental staff usually helps size the seat post and handle bars to fit you well. But back up a moment and consider the bigger picture… on a “biking around a new city” style vacation, you’re really only ON that bike for little bits and pieces of the day, rarely longer than an hour at a time, and usually broken up by longer stops for food, museums, beer, shopping, or sight seeing. Do you want to be responsible for your locked up rental bike all those times you're not riding?

 A typical Bikabout vacation day's schedule.

A typical Bikabout vacation day's schedule.

THE BIG PICTURE

When you take the whole experience into account, the bike share model suddenly has some compelling aspects going for it. It's got some specific hangups, too. The Goods and the Bads...

 Hubway bike share in Harvard Square, Cambridge MA

Hubway bike share in Harvard Square, Cambridge MA

BIKE SHARE GOODS:

  • Every time you reach your new destination, you just click it into a return station, whistle, and walk away. It’s now someone else’s problem. You can hop on the subway, or take a long walk somewhere without coming back for “your” bike, and just pick up another one wherever you wind up. Or not. It's totally up to you. Rental bikes mean you have to come back to wherever you locked it up to retrieve it.
  • If you're staying somewhere that you can't bring a bike inside, you'll sleep like a baby all night knowing no one’s out there on the sidewalk maybe stealing your rental bike, because your bike share bike is turned back in! Now if someone's stealing your real bike back at home, then maybe that's something you could stay up obsessing about, but you won't find that out til you get home from vacation anyway, so get to sleep, tiger!
  • You ain’t riding fast on these things, period, so you have no choice but to sit back and relax. That's liberating, in a way.
  • If you can play the "half hour" game and check the bike back in every half hour as you go to avoid extra charges, it almost always comes out cheaper to use bike shares than to rent a bike for the full day. Even if you go over a few times, it's usually a very small charge.
 Citibike bike share, New York City

Citibike bike share, New York City

BIKE SHARE BADS:

  • Watching the clock to return each one inside 30 minutes to avoid extra (small) charges might be pretty easy, but it’s still a thing you have to pay attention to. And if the station is full, you might need to hustle to find the next one.
  • Depending on what you normally ride, it can feel somewhere between “a little heavier than I’m used to” and “an M-1 Abrams Tank with a basket on the front.” It’s not a real problem for most people - just look at all the happy, normal people riding them - but if you’re used to something skinny and carbon fibery, these things will make you giggle. Adjust your expectations and you'll be fine... This isn't your lightweight commuter back home, which may or may not be getting stolen while you're out of town. Just go to sleep already!
  • It’s difficult to attach a pannier to them. Neither of the two dominant designs use a rear rack, ostensibly to prevent us from doing something to/on/with the bikes, one must assume. So you’re stuck laying your bag in front baskets or cradle-like things with bungees. Rental bikes often have rear racks, though not always. And rental places often have trailers you can rent if you really wanna haul some stuff, or a kid... speaking of kids...
  • There's no way to carry a kid on a bike share, by design. I assume they don’t want the liability – and hey, who likes liability? Except... some people have the gall to bring their kids with them on vacation. At any rate, they’ve made sure the design will resist any and all attempts to get a kid onto it, so if you've got kids and they're too little to ride one themselves, Bike Share is out.

CONCLUSION

If you’re making short hops in a city with a bike share program, and you’re not biking a kid or any big bags around, and especially if you’re staying somewhere you can’t bring your bike inside each night, then the bike share is incredibly compelling. Remember all the times you’ll be off the bike, and think about what scenario you’d rather be in… your rental bike locked up somewhere out of your sight, or a bike share turned back in and forgotten about. Bike share isn't the right choice for everyone, but it actually works very well as a city-seeing device for folks not carrying a kid.

 Your bike back home is probably fine. You worry too much.

Your bike back home is probably fine. You worry too much.