Cities Transportation

The Techonomic Pleasures of Renting a Bicycle in Austin

Austin's Excellent Bike System Philip Arno Photography / Shutterstock.com

Austin’s Excellent Bike System.  Philip Arno Photography / Shutterstock.com

As the on-demand economy grows, people increasingly rent things just when they need them, with services like TaskRabbit, Uber, Airbnb, and RideShare. Urban bicycle rental services are an important part of the trend, and they’re burgeoning. When I was in Austin, Texas recently, I discovered that the one there is impressively well run.

I was in Austin taking in a conference, Freescale Semiconductor ‘s last annual shindig before it merges with NXP. By the third evening of semiconductor industry camaraderie, though, I needed a bit of a break. So I wandered down to the waterfront Austin has done amazing things with its waterfront. For years construction and detours obscured the work, but finally it’s all done. Now a network of trails on both sides of the river is hooked up by bike and pedestrian bridges, and it’s easy to enter.

So I took the scenic route along the water to Rainey Street, an “old” (for Texas) residential area near downtown that was rezoned for business and then developed into an entertainment district — a jumble of eateries, bars, and apartments. At the city end, restaurants line one side of the street as far as the eye can see, many with outdoor seating. At the lake end (they call the Colorado River a lake for some reason; and, no, not that Colorado River; Texans have their own), the street ends abruptly in some hedges. That’s where I found the bike depot.

I am a lifelong cyclist, and my feet were tired from all the walking. I’ve rented bikes from California to Cambridge, MA, and city bike programs are taking off all over. It’s a great way to travel, even, or especially, for guys in their 60s like me. I use a bike for three things: exercise, exploration, and local transport.

Like others, Austin B-Cycle’s fee system encourages short-term rental. What makes this program special is the details. It integrates just the right cyber and physical elements to deliver a glass-smooth experience. Grabbing this pedal-driven local transport, even spontaneously, is simple for anyone. And the bikes are available anytime at unattended depots all over the city. Each one has a touchscreen kiosk with a credit-card reader. A big-button choice or two (including the number of the dock holding your bike) sets the specified light to blinking, and you unrack your bike. Just like that.

The bikes are solid. No racers here. With three gears, pedal-driven lights, reflectors for safety, splash and chain guards, and an adjustable seat, they are served up with a healthy portion of Texas snark (on a sign under “Riding Tips” it reads “Texas doesn’t require helmets for adults 18 years or older, but studies show the head is an important part of the human body.”). The lights just turn on when you pedal, whether you need them or not. The powerful LED is both energy sipping and lightweight. The drag on the wheels is minimal.

The lock on the bike is a coiled cable type (with plenty of cable) embedded in a metal block, welded to the bike so you can’t walk off with it. The key stays in the lock until it’s locked, at which point you pull it out. So the key is in either the lock or your pocket. You’re motivated to not lose the key because you’re being billed $4 for every half hour for the time the bike is not re-racked.

One reason Austin B-Cycle stands out from its peers in other cities is Elliott McFadden, a frame builder who ran a company called Violet Crown Cycles until he took up the city program’s executive directorship of in 2013. Austin B-Cycle’s bikes are modeled after Dutch city bikes, which are both stylish and practical, and the technology decisions, including the Web site and kiosks, reflect this simple, elegant approach.

The software that runs the program comes from B-Cycle, a bike-share company that was spun out of Trek Bicycles, which builds them (including the ones in the Austin program). B-Cycle has programs in 27 cities, four in Texas. One of the benefits of national coverage is that someone enrolled in one program can use bikes from another. The bikes have passive GPS for tracking, and virtual kiosks allow bikes to be checked in at temporary stations set up, for example, for an event. A mobile app for both Apple and Android devices allows users to find bikes and open docks on the fly and receive text alerts (e.g., “You are about to hit the edge of your free rental period!”). The bikes themselves collect route and distance data, which program operators use for capacity planning.

McFadden is particularly proud of how he has been able to use these capabilities to position bikes for large festivals like SXSW and the Austin City Limits Music Festival. He setS up temporary depots with hundreds of bikes to accommodate one-way movement to and from a location at the beginning and end of an event.

That evening, I snagged a bike and pedaled along the darkened trail and then a few streets back to the Freescale evening event, a concert at Austin City Limits. There was a drop-off depot right beside the venue. Easy-peasy.

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