Fort Collins opened its first bike share program in 2008. It was called the “Bike Library” and it provided bike rentals at low cost. Bikes were located in one central area, though there were some after-hours drop off locations if you ended up keeping the bike out later than the bike library stayed open. So while it was a really great system, it did have limitations – namely hours of operation and the number of locations from which you could pick up a bike.
This past spring, the City rolled out a bigger and better bike share program that still keeps some of the features of the original Bike Library (You can get personalized assistance at the Hub in the Downtown Transit Center.), but that now includes multiple bike pick up/drop off stations throughout town. And bikes can be checked out at any time of the day or night.
The City was able to bring this enhanced level of bike share to Fort Collins thanks to a partnership with a Massachusetts based company called Zagster. According to Zagster’s website, they provide planning, hardware, technology, and operations. I wasn’t involved in any of the planning, so I can’t speak to how helpful they were there. But I did get to experience the other three in a recent ride that was hosted by Bike Fort Collins (one of the partners in the bike share program).
The goal of our ride was to check out the four new bike share stations that were added this month. Two are located on the CSU campus and two are in mid-town.
Zagster provides bicycles, stations, and signage. Or, to be more accurate, station sponsors pay a set amount per year to host a station with some bikes and signage which is then provided by Zagster. The sponsors get to put their logo on the front of the bike basket, and because the bicycles are pedaled around town, that advertisement will be seen throughout the city… wherever the bicycles go. Sponsors also receive a small dividend out of the profits generated by the program.
Each bike comes with a basket, front and back lights, and an 8-gear system. The seats are adjustable, so you can customize the bike a bit to your size. The pedaling was smooth and the result was a pretty comfortable ride.
Each station also has a tire pump. Once we got our bikes off the racks, several of us found that our tires were low. Unfortunately, someone had cut off the end of the bike pump. So I just returned that bike to the rack and pulled out another. (You have to stop the trip on the app and start a new one, which is also good because it resets the beginning of your first half hour of usage, which is noteworthy because that first half hour is at no additional cost.)
Since we were starting off at New Belgium, our next nearest rack was at the intersection of Walnut and Linden, which wasn’t too bad. So we could have pedaled down there and pumped up the low tires. But as luck would have it, Recycled Cycles not only maintains the bikes, but they also redistribute them so that there are always some bikes at each rack. And as we were standing around, getting ready to ride, the guy that was redistributing bikes rode up. He had some additional bikes to add to the racks, but he also had a tire pump on him. So we ended up using that.
In order to unlock a bike, you have to use Zagster’s online app, which gives you a code that you enter into the lock box on the back of the bike. What wasn’t clear was that you have to hit enter, then the code, then the enter key again. I’m not sure if I would have figured that out without someone in our group who explained how it works. That information should be included on the sign at the station or on the app. (Or Zagster should just get rid of the need to hit enter before you’ve added the code.) There are instructions. But there’s no mention of the need to hit enter BEFORE you enter the code. It felt very much like a secret handshake meant to deter some people from using the system. (Of course, by that point you’ve already paid. I’m guessing folks who can’t figure it out have to call the help line.)
I also had trouble getting into the lock box, and when the ride was done, we had a hard time getting it to shut again. I tried multiple times to shut the box and another rider tried several times. It finally locked. But given that the app makes clear that the bike is my responsibility until it is locked, it’s incredibly frustrating not to be able to secure it. (The lock was in place. But without being able to shut the lockbox all the way, anyone could have come along, pulled the key out and unlocked the bike again.)
Which brings me to the technology piece of what Zagster provides. Although the sign has some introductory information on how the program works, it’s the app where most of the information is stored. So if you’re considering using a bike share bike, but you’re not sure if it will get you to where you want to go, the only way to look up the station map is to download the app. (There is a map on the Zagster site, but I could only get it to show one station. … which is pretty much pointless.)
Of course, this brings up the fact that you can only use bike share bikes if you have a smart phone… with the one exception of checking a bike out of the Hub at the Downtown Transit Center… but then you have to return it to the same location.
It would be nice if, in addition to the app, there were a way for non-smart-phone users to still check out a bike. A swipe card system might work. If we want bike share to be available to a wide spectrum of possible users, then there needs to be a way for folks to access the system even without smart phone technology (or a credit card, for that matter).
The other problem with having an app is that it doesn’t always work as advertised. With the Bike Fort Collins group that I was with, everyone had preloaded the app before they came and had set up an account. So all we really had to do was add a code that would allow us to be members for a day for free (Thank you, BFC!), unlock our bikes, and we’d be on our way. … Except that we weren’t.
Several people had problems getting the app to accept their code. Eventually they’d be told that it was already entered, even though there’d never been a window that stated as much. Two people had so much trouble that we had to contact tech support. Our group was all pretty much first timers and we were off to an inauspicious beginning.
The way the program works is that you first pay for a membership. You can be a member for a day ($7), a week ($15), or a year ($60). Students can get a yearly membership for $30 is their university is within the bike share network — which I would assume CSU is since they just added two stations, but I don’t see any way through the website to check and see if that’s the case.
Once you’ve gotten a membership, you then get 30 minutes free per trip. Your trip starts as soon as you ask the app for a code to unlock your bike. So if you have trouble opening the lockbox (as I did), or trouble unlocking your bike (as some other folks did), then that time eats into the 30 minutes “free” time. Ideally, you could still get to your destination within that 30 minute window. But if you can’t, then you’ll be charged $2 a hour with an upper limit of $18 a day (on top of the membership fee that you’ve already paid). So at most you’ll pay $25 for the use of the bike for a 24 hour period.
An additional issue I found with the app is that when you click on a membership level, there’s no pop up that says something like “are you sure?” You’re just auto-charged for that membership level. So if you have that page open and inadvertently hit the yearly membership level by mistake, then you’re either a member for the year or you need to call tech support to ask them to refund the amount and let you start over. That seems like an oopsie to me. There should be a layer added there to prevent mistakes.
Another problem I found with the app is that it’s really hard to see on a bright sunshiny day. I had no idea there was a map function on there until someone pointed it out to me. Perhaps youngsters would immediately know to look at the bottom of the page, but given that all the content I was seeing was at the top of the screen, I just didn’t think to look down that far. And the glare on the screen certainly didn’t help.
It seems like it would be helpful to also include a map on the signs by each station. That way if it’s so sunny out that you’re having a hard time viewing your app, at least you’ll have a sense from looking at the map about which way to head to get to the station closest to your destination.
It would also be nice if the signs included information about pricing. As it stands now, you either have to get to the Zagster website or download the app to find that information.
And when you go to the website, you’ll note that the layout of the information is somewhat misleading. In the large boxes, so that you’re sure not to miss them, is information about the first half hour being free and every following hour only costing $2. What’s a bit less noticeable (because it’s in a much smaller font with no background coloring, is the membership price. It’s a little clearer as you’re selecting a membership term on the app. But by that point people have already invested time and energy into downloading the app, becoming a member, etc.
As far as operations go, they do have technical support only a phone call away. And when I called in, I only had to wait a minute before I was connected to a representative.
The website also mentions “comprehensive promotion” (not at all sure what that refers to) and regular maintenance (which as I mentioned earlier, is provided locally by Recycled Cycles).
Zagster is 9 years old and I have to admit that I’m a little surprised by the hiccups we experienced on our ride. I would have guessed it was a much younger company given that we had difficulties just getting started. (We were all pretty impatient after the 35 minute check in fiasco.) There are some improvements coming next March. And I’m sure the system will continue to be tweaked and improved over time.
Without Zagster, Fort Collins would still have a bike library… one that was often struggling to bring in enough money to keep it going. With Zagster, Fort Collins now has a bike rental system that covers a much wider area and is open 24/7. It will also hopefully keep expanding throughout the city, making it an ever more useful system for folks looking to run errands, get some exercise, or just plain travel around town. What we have right now… is a beginning.