Brisbane’s bike share program, CityCycle, is not a success – and the law requiring that users wear helmets is just part of the problem. Based on my experience of the system, Brisbane’s bike share system is failing mainly because of epic unfriendliness.
Maggie (Mrs. Average Joe Cyclist) and I are great fans of bike share systems, and actually choose our travel destinations based on whether cities offer them. We went to Brisbane specifically to try out the bike share system, and found out that the city has cleverly set up a system that excludes tourists (!) We looked forward to a day spent exploring the city on bikes, interspersed with stops for breakfast and lunch. Instead, we had a day of maddening frustration.
We have experienced the wonderful Bixi bike share system in Montreal, and so we assumed that all bike share systems are really easy to use. (Read all about the marvelous Montreal bike share system here.)
That was our first mistake.
Our Long, Long Search for a CityCycle Bike Share Station
We took a train to Brisbane, and got off at South Bank Station, which is right next to one of the most popular tourist areas. This area includes the whimsical Streets Beach, a small but appealing man-made beach, situated right next to the Brisbane River. We figured there MUST be a bike share station at such a popular tourist site.
That was our second mistake.
Of course, we had made that mistake based on our (entirely erroneous) assumption that Brisbane would actually WANT tourists to use their bikes. Revenue, convenience for tourists – what’s not to want?
As we couldn’t find a bike share station, we went to Tourist Info, but they weren’t open yet. So we decided to get our bearings by touring the city via the City Cat ferry system. We thought we might be able to spot a bike share station from the ferry.
That was our third mistake.
The City Cat is a brilliant way to get around Brisbane. We bought a two-hour chunk of time for nine Aussie dollars. We looked out eagerly for bike share stations at every port of call. We saw one at West End. However, at that point we had used up very little of our two hours, so we decided to use up more of it, and THEN disembark at a bike share station. Bad choice.
Finally Finding a CityCycle Bike Share Station!
We enjoyed a pleasant tour of Brisbane from the water, but did not see another bike share station until almost all of our two hours was used up. We looked out eagerly at every stop, but could not seem to find one.
Once we found a CityCycle station, we quickly disembarked, eager to get on the bikes after two hours of sitting on the ferry. We figured we were just minute’s away now. Wrong!
We noted that some of the bikes had helmets locked to them, which we thought was pretty clever. One can either bring one’s own helmet or just rent a bike that has one. However, we had bought our own. They also come with locks attached, which is a good idea because you could park somewhere other than at a bike share station.
Another good thing about the system is that it costs only $2 a day, providing one does not keep the bike for longer than 30 minutes at a time. Wow, we thought, it looks like we will both be able to ride all day for just $4.
We spent a long time trying to make sense of the CityCycle system. (We had previously used a bike share in Montreal. There, you simply step up to the station, swipe a credit card, get a secret code, and select a bike.) So I started pushing buttons optimistically on the machine. It promptly offered me two useless choices: either input our registration numbers (which apparently were printed on the tax invoices we did not have), or swipe our Go Cards (which as tourists we obviously did not have. These are transit passes issued to locals for the transit systems).
Frustrated, we read the sign again. Apparently we could get the magical registration number either by logging onto the CityCyle website, OR by phoning a toll free number. As I had not purchased international roaming data for my iPhone, logging in was not an option. And we couldn’t go back home to log in, as “home” was either 100 km away (my sister’s house) or 11,859 km away (our home in Vancouver). Still, the sign clearly stated that we could also register by phoning the toll-free number. So we thought that would solve our problem.
Death by Phone Message
I phoned the number reluctantly, because I had only purchased 15 international phone minutes, and they were supposed to be reserved for emergencies. However I was about to have a stroke from sheer fury at the user unfriendliness of the CityCycle system, and I decided that imminent stroke counted as an emergency. I dialed the number and listened to an endless phone message, giving me every possible detail except how to get a bike. This included this kind of thing:
“For 1 hour you will be charged $2.20” all the way through to “For 24 hours you will be charged $165.” By this point I was pretty much apoplectic with rage, as I watched my precious phone minutes ticking away. At the end of all this (for me) utterly useless information, as my last minute was about to disappear, the message happily told me that registering was simple – just go to the web site!!!! At that point I kind of wished I had a regular phone so that I could SLAM it down. I contented myself with shoving my cell phone savagely back into its holster.
Ever optimistic and still trusting in the power of human intelligence to set up an intelligent system, we set off to catch another ferry to the Tourist Info Office. We were certain they would be able to sort it out. After all, the city of Brisbane has excellent cycling infrastructure – why wouldn’t they have an excellent bike share system?
Fun Times at the Brisbane Tourist Info Office
We finally got back to the Info Office on Southbank, which was now open – and staffed by the first unfriendly person we had met in Australia. (Strange that one of the very few thoroughly unfriendly and unpleasant people in Australia should choose to work in a Tourist Info office.)
She snapped at us that: “We have NOTHING to do with the CityCycle system. That’s the Brisbane City Council.” She explained that in order to use a CityCycle bike, we would have to:
- Go online to log in and register
- Be issued with a number
- Bring it back to the Info office
- Be issued with another number
- Go to a bike share station and use that number to get a bike.
“But that makes it pretty much impossible for tourists to use the system,” I protested.
“Yes, it is impossible for tourists, but that’s not MY fault – we have NOTHING to do with them,” she snapped back at me.
I was glad there was a counter between us.
She then gave us a flyer for a bike hire company, situated about a mile’s walk away. We had been informed by our copy of Lonely Planet’s Guide to the Gold Coast and Brisbane that the Tourist Info centers would be able to give us Cycling Maps of Brisbane. So I asked for one. The woman told me that they did not exist, because “they” expect you to download them. However, the generic map of Brisbane had the bike lanes indicated with little red dashes, so she gave us one of those.
Settling for Bike Hire
So off we trudged to the Bike Hire. It was during this walk that we finally saw our first (moving) CityCycle bike of the day, at the foot of the Goodwill Bridge. It was ridden by a woman. This is worth remarking on – we had seen a lot of cyclists since we arrived, largely of the steel-muscled, greyhound-lean, Lycra-clad, racing-bike-riding kind – and all male. This was the first woman we had seen on a bike. If it is true that the percentage of women cyclists is a barometer of cycling’s health in a city, then Brisbane cycling is in trouble.
Gil Penalosa, who runs Toronto-based consultancy 8-80 Cities, describes women cyclists as the “indicator species” for how bike-friendly a city is. “If there aren’t at least as many women as men, then usually it’s because cycling is not safe enough. It’s an indicator that you do not have good enough cycling infrastructure.” In London, for example, where cycling is still very dangerous, only 26% of cyclists are female. Yet of the eight cyclists killed so far this year in London, six were women – and all of those six women were crushed by lorries. (Source: The Guardian)
So too is the CityCycle system in Brisbane – we had arrived in the city at 8.00 a.m., and did not see a CityCycle bike actually moving till 11.25 a.m.
By contrast, Bixi’s are ubiquitous in Montreal. You cannot walk a block without seeing them.
Our walk took us through the beautiful Brisbane Botanic Gardens, where we inhaled jacaranda, hibiscus, and jasmine, and tried very hard to look on the bright side. After all, it was a pleasant enough walk, and soon we would actually be on bikes, albeit not CityCycle bike share bikes. Also, wherever we walked we noticed a truly excellent infrastructure of bike pathways, largely shared with pedestrians. We crossed the Goodwill Bridge, which is reserved for cyclists and pedestrians only. In true Australian fashion, pedestrians and cyclists share the road in a very good-natured way.
We finally found the bike hire company, Cycle Hire, which turned out to be a van parked in the Botanic Gardens, manned by a very pleasant, laid-back guy (very much the norm among the people we met in Australia). He looked up curiously as we approached, because I was photographing him and his van (much as one might photograph the Holy Grail if one ever found it).
To explain, I said, “We FINALLY found you!” He asked where we had come from on our quest for bikes, and I replied “Canada!” This caused much all-round merriment, and I started to get over the foul temper the utterly unfriendly CityCycle system had put me in. Soon we were the best of friends.
We were offered a wide choice of pretty basic bikes – not exciting, but certainly good enough to get around the mostly flat cycle paths. They came with flimsy locks, all of which had the same combination. We noticed that all bikes were locked up in this trusting way (unlike in Vancouver, where I lock my bike with three Kryptonite locks, which together seem to weigh about a hundred pounds).
We spent the rest of the day on our rented bikes, and had a pretty good time. But I was severely disappointed by the CityCycle system. It doesn’t need a helmet law to bring it down – the sheer cumbersome user-unfriendliness of the system should do it.
I understand that the Brisbane City Council wants security for their bikes, but how about a combination of registration for locals and credit cards for visitors? The credit card system takes a large, temporary deposit from your credit card, and refunds it when you return the bike. Simple, easy, safe. If it’s good enough for Montreal (recently voted the top cycling city in North America), surely it is good enough for Brisbane?
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