As an avid bicyclist (as some of you may know), I have to admit I was unsure about the bike share system known as B-Cycle. A lot of questions immediately popped into my mind: Who needs to rent a bike? How often would they get returned? Won't these things get destroyed? How can one bike accommodate all body types? I just wasn't so sure about the whole system. But today I had a chance to give it a spin while they gave a demonstration at Discovery World. I have to admit my mind changed pretty quickly. With new forms of alternative transportation growing in Milwaukee (bus, trolley, rickshaw, streetcar, bicycle), the B-Cycle system would be a perfect addition.
B-Cycle is a bike share program that was created by Wisconsin-based Trek, Humana Health Care and ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky and was based around other successful programs in Europe and Canada. The system has already worked quite well all over the country from Denver to Des Moines, Minneapolis to Madison. Patrons can buy a membership (daily, monthly or yearly), swipe their card and just like that, they're off. The first half hour is free to members, but in order to guarantee there are plenty of B-Cycles available to the public, if the bike is borrowed beyond the set limit increasing fees are charged.
While vandalism is unavoidable, it has been surprisingly minimal. Some neat features to keep vandalism down are the adjustable seatpost, which cannot be removed from the frame, and the wheels, which are locked in by a proprietary nut encased in a sleeve that prevents even locking pliers from being able to twist it off. The bikes are locked into the kiosk using a three-point system, so if one lock were to fail the bicycle still can't be removed.
Additional features include a built-in lock (which innovatively doubles as a coffee cup holder when not in use), full fenders, a chain guard to prevent dresses and pant legs from getting chewed up or oily, a bell and a front basket.
The hubs of the wheels are packed full of goodies. Inside there are dynamos that power a front and rear light, which automatically turn on when you start pedaling. They also contain drum brakes, which stop the bike just as well in dry as they do in wet conditions. The Shimano Nexus hub in the rear could allow users to shift between up to seven speeds. On top of all that, they've even crammed in another dynamo to power an internal GPS which is tied to your membership. When you're done riding you can download your stats and your maps and see how far you've gone and how many calories you burned. This data can also help the city to understand where the bikes are being used and where more accommodations need to be made.
When I took the bike for a test ride it took little effort to get started and rolled quite smoothly once it got going. As I rode by the highly reflective windows of Discovery World I took an opportunity for a vanity check. Not bad. I took it down some of the docks to simulate a moderate hill climb, which the bicycle handled mostly well. The front end is a little squirrelly, particularly if you start loading down the basket with a gallon of milk or a six-pack for the office party. I asked why the basket wasn't on the back, but consensus seems to say that users want to be able to keep an eye on their stuff. And while the drum brakes did a fine job stopping they did lack bite, but again, the consensus said that consistent, graduated stopping was more important for a casual rider.
A system such as this could go a long way toward energizing the downtown area. No longer would workers be trapped in a four-block radius for their lunch hour and they'd return rejuvenated. Small chores could be run more efficiently. The learning curve for tourists would be easier than trying to figure out a bus map. Apartment and condo owners could run errands without the need of having to equip their race bike with a clumsy basket. And plus, it's just fun.
A comprehensive system around the downtown area would cost little more than the price of a couple of buses and the maintenance beyond that would drop sharply. Most of these costs would be covered through membership and rental fees. Additional revenue could be generated through advertising (on the fenders, the basket and the kiosk). B-Cycle isn't coming to Milwaukee just yet, but the idea has strong legs and it can ride a bike.
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