LeBlanc: Pam hits the road to test Austin’s new B-cycle bike share system

By the time I finish a daylong test ride of Austin’s new bike-share system, I’ve chased a swarm of Segways around the Capitol, slogged up hills, coasted down them and fielded questions from more than a dozen curious onlookers.

I’m a seasoned commuter who rides a bike to work most days, but riding a B-cycle feels different. The sturdy, bright red bikes with big metal baskets attract attention. Riding one takes some getting used to — they’re heavy, weighing in at 40 pounds, and feel a little wobbly at first. Most folks settle in after pedaling a block or two, though.

I walked two blocks from my office to the nearest B-cycle station on Riverside Drive and Barton Springs Road, where I swiped a credit card and checked out a bike from a docking station.

To use the system, you must either buy an annual membership for $80 or use a credit card to pay for an $8 day pass. Once you’ve done that, you can take as many trips as you want for no additional cost — as long as you check the bike in at one of the stations every 30 minutes. If you keep a bike out longer, you’re charged $4 for each 30 minutes.

The system is set up that way to keep the focus on short trips and transportation. If you want to take a long, leisurely ride to check out wildflowers, for example, a traditional rental from a bike shop still makes more sense.

Helmets aren’t provided, but I’ve brought mine along. My first stop? Whole Foods Market.

It’s a smooth cruise across the Pfluger pedestrian bridge, followed by a slow chug up Lamar Boulevard. Cyclists not used to riding in traffic might get a little frazzled. Once I’m at the grocery store, I wander around for five minutes before I find the station, which is tucked half a block away on Bowie Street. I click the bike into the dock, hang out for a while hoping to see someone else using a bike (I don’t), then swipe my card again to check out another bike.

I head south this time, aiming for Jo’s Coffee shop on South Congress Avenue. “How is that?” someone hollers as I pedal past. It’s swell! It takes me 10 minutes to get to the coffee shop, where a cluster of onlookers gathers as I check the bike in.

“Let’s do that tomorrow,” someone says as I dismount.

Lots of folks are confused about how the system works. Nolan Cassidy, 24, of Austin, says he’d rather go for a longer ride than have to check a bike in every half hour. “We thought it would be an hourly thing, where you swipe a card, then ride for six hours,” he tells me. “But it’s definitely worth trying one of these days.”

Carol Villa, 53, who is visiting Austin from Chicago, says she and her friends would like to use B-cycle bikes to ride to the University of Texas, but the stations planned for that area haven’t yet opened.

“It’s really promoting the idea of using bikes instead of cars to get around the city,” says her friend Amy McNicholas, 44. “It makes it so convenient. I think it’s great.”

I mount up again and decide to see how the bikes handle on the steep hill just west of Jo’s. My heart rate spikes like I’ve just been chased by a bear as I plug up James Street, moving as fast as a drunken snail. That, I think, would be tough in August. It’s winter, though, and the riding’s glorious.

Austin launched its B-cycle system, operated by the nonprofit Bike Share Austin, on Dec. 21 with 11 stations and about 100 bikes. The stations are clustered between the Capitol and the South Congress Avenue shopping area. Thirty more stations and at least 200 more bikes are scheduled to hit the streets by March 1, in time for South by Southwest. That will extend the system’s reach to the University of Texas, East Austin near Plaza Saltillo and Zilker Park.

Elliott McFadden, executive director of Austin B-cycle, reported no major problems during the first week of operation, although power got knocked out for a few hours at the station by the Austin Convention Center one day. About 100 customers a day are using bikes — ahead of expectations.

“It shows that people are interested and want to try the system,” McFadden says.

So far, the busiest stations are the ones outside City Hall and across the street from the Capitol. The station in front of Jo’s Coffee ranks third.

Despite all the interest, I haven’t seen anyone else out riding a B-cycle. I know someone is, though, because I see a different number of bikes each time I return to a station. B-cycle workers rotate among the stations during the day, moving bikes to where they are needed and doing any necessary maintenance work.

Austin’s system was funded through $1.5 million in federal funding plus $500,000 in private donations. The stations, depending on size, cost between $25,000 to $35,000 each; the bikes cost about $1,200 each. “The bikes are made to stand up to abuse,” McFadden says.

Prices to use the system in Austin are similar to other cities. In San Antonio, which launched with 14 stations in March 2011 and will expand to 68 stations in 2014, an annual membership costs $60, and a day pass costs $10.

When I return to the station near the Austin American-Statesman, I slide my credit card back in the kiosk, but it takes a couple of tries before the dock releases a bike. I climb aboard and point north again, toward the Capitol. I’m up out of the saddle, panting a little as I push northward, and I feel extra geeky as a guy on a road bike swooshes past. I get caught by a couple of traffic lights, and stuck behind a bus breathing out hot exhaust, but I’m gazing up at the granite dome in exactly 12 minutes. I couldn’t get here any faster by car in this traffic.

I spot a swarm of tourists on Segways making the loop around the Capitol. I fall in behind them, and it’s hard to say who’s more curious about whom. I’ve almost hit my 30-minute limit, though, so I check in my bike, re-swipe my card and withdraw another. From here it’s a downhill cruise back to the Statesman.

Before I get there, a guy sitting on a bench waves at me.

“Hey, you definitely look real cute on that bike,” he yells, pretending to snap a picture with an imaginary camera.

It makes me feel happy, just like riding one of these bikes.

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