Little fanfare preceded the arrival of bike-share kiosks in many San Francisco neighborhoods last year. The bright blue bicycle stations seemed to appear overnight, quickly drawing the ire of some residents in areas like the Mission District. The concept of an app-based bike-share program seemed to skeptics like yet another sign of gentrification, another sign of tech taking over.
In angry response to this new bike-share presence, some of the shiny new Ford-branded bikes were set on fire and kiosks were splashed with paint. But despite the vandalism and backlash, the Ford GoBikes appear to have settled into town for good.
The bicycles are operated by a Brooklyn-based company called Motivate, but Ford Motor Co. paid a reported $49 million for the bikes’ Bay Area branding rights in an effort to associate its brand with emerging forms of mobility and environmental advocacy. The region is now home to more than 7,000 bright blue Ford GoBikes.
To check out this new form of transportation, I spent a few days getting around San Francisco on GoBikes. This is my diary.
Adopting the bike-share lifestyle isn’t as easy as I imagined. Signing up for a GoBike account is fast and intuitive, but getting an actual bicycle moving is another story altogether. I fumbled with the sign-in system, and it took me 15 minutes and a panic attack to even get the pedals moving.
More technical problems: The first bike I tried was broken. Each pedal stroke forward emanated an embarrassing metal-on-metal screech. I ditched that bike at a kiosk three blocks away and pressed the “broken bike” button on the app. An email arrived instantaneously, asking for more details on the bum bike. The next two-wheeler I selected worked fine, and after a rather lovely ride, I docked it at a kiosk about a mile away.
Not so fast, rookie. A half hour later, I requested another ride. But the GoBike app thought I was still on my initial bike. This snafu was due to either a broken bike dock or human error. (I’m choosing the former.) A quick phone call to the customer service number posted on every bike resolved the problem.
The bikes have become quite popular. According to Motivate, more than 40,000 people have taken the bikes on more than half a million rides in the Bay Area since last summer. Motivate has bike-sharing programs in eight cities in the U.S., including New York, Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C. In the Bay Area, it operates bike-shares in San Francisco, Emeryville, Oakland, Berkeley and San Jose, and it is adding electric bikes to its program in San Francisco. Other bike-share programs are taking off, with varying degrees of success, all over the state. And Uber has launched an electric bike-share program in San Francisco.
Some cities are considering dockless bike-share programs, in which users can simply leave bikes anywhere instead of returning them to a designated dock. Imperial Beach and National City both allow dockless bike-shares, and San Francisco is considering legislation to allow dockless bikes.
“I think bikes are gonna have a huge role to play as cities shift to the next generation of transportation,” says Dane Holewinski, a 38-year-old Mission resident who says he uses GoBikes almost exclusively to get around San Francisco. Holewinski says his two-wheel commute from the Mission District to his office in the South of Market area is just as quick, if not quicker, than public transit or ride-sharing options such as Lyft or Uber.
In addition, Holewinski doesn’t need to worry about his own bike being stolen — a major problem for San Francisco cyclists. Once he docks his GoBike in a kiosk, the bike is no longer his problem. Riders don’t have to lug bikes up flights of stairs or wrestle with them on BART trains. And they don’t have to sit around waiting for a bus or ride-share driver.
Holewinski was so passionate about his GoBike experience that he took to social media to sing the program’s praises. His post triggered a lively conversation among his Facebook friends, some of whom expressed concern for issues like basic safety (the bikes don’t come with helmets), while others saw his recommendation as an impetus to give the bikes a try.
A breeze! I grabbed a GoBike for a quick jaunt to the grocery store. The bicycles are equipped with a small handlebar-and-bungee-cord contraption that can hold a single package. You can’t stock up on kitty litter and watermelons and expect to bike it all home.
Riders on regular bikes, ones without American automotive branding plastered all over them, look like gritty insiders. I worry that everyone thinks I just fell off a turnip truck — and onto this bright blue bike. My husband took a detour just to snap a few photos of me struggling to navigate a side street.
As for other cyclists, they breezed past me without a word. If they were judging my slow pace or wobbly legs, they did so in silence. I was not an instant member of the two-wheeled community. My bike was too blue, too branded.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many Ford GoBike users are tourists already familiar with the bike-sharing concept, which long has been popular abroad and has been spreading around cities in the United States in the past few years.
Thirty-two-year-old Dubliner Neil Young used GoBikes to get around San Francisco while in town on business. “It’s cheap as chips,” Young says.
Holewinski had the same experience in France. “The first time I ever came across bike-sharing was in Paris five years ago,” he says. “Being on a bike is a great way to explore a city and to see it in a much more rich and interactive way.”
GoBikes cost $3 per half-hour and $10 a day, or $149 for an annual membership, and smartphones and credit cards are requirements. Discounted $5 memberships are available to low-income riders. The service is a lot cheaper than signing up for a tourist bike rental like Blazing Saddles, a chain that rents bikes (along with maps and helmets) for around $8 an hour or $32 a day.
Of course, it’s helpful to know where one is going, understand which roads have bike lanes and which areas, especially in a city like San Francisco, are home to hills. It’s also important to understand that
some San Francisco neighborhoods, namely the Mission’s Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, ever-sensitive to signs of gentrification, have resisted Motivate’s requests to place bike kiosks there.
My GoBikes keep falling apart. One seat kept sliding down to the lowest position, resulting in my looking like a circus clown on a tricycle. Broken chain, I can handle. But body shame from an inanimate object is beyond the pale. I’ve learned to test every bike for seat strength before selecting it from the kiosk. The return trip found me trapped in an embarrassing struggle to remove a bike from its docking station. Humiliation abounds.
Here’s something surprising: I wasn’t nearly as terrified of cars as I imagined I would be. I felt empowered on the bike. Perhaps I was lucky. Drivers never honked or yelled at me, and I never had to swerve to avoid a car door swinging open or pedestrian running into traffic. At worst, I felt rushed, especially as I pedaled up even the gentlest hills, knowing that a patient Prius was behind me, too cautious to pass.
At my most confident, I breezed through a stop sign, suddenly understanding why many cyclists are loath to come to a full, complete and legal stop. It’s a lot of work to get going again.
As bicycles go, the Ford GoBikes are massive, with a hefty structure and easily adjustable seats — the Fisher-Price of bikes. They are decidedly unattractive, and the big Ford logo on the side doesn’t help. “I’m very comfortable not looking cool,” Holewinski admits.
It’s possible that the better GoBikes — the ones with seats that stay in the appropriate position and easily unlock from docks — are snagged by savvy commuters first thing in the morning. At times, I was forced to visit up to three docking stations just to find one with an available bike.
I’m getting used to this! My thighs feel less sore, I’m less afraid of cars, I take along my sturdiest backpack and leave my purse at home. My learning curve is flattening out, and I now mention my Ford GoBike usage in casual conversations. I’ve become a bike-share person, folks. Heck, I’m practically European.