Some see them as something to celebrate – others as a nuisance, or even a threat.
But for the past two months, the shareable bikes that have exploded around Durham have generally just been a curiosity.
Critics consider them an eyesore or worry they could impede pedestrian traffic on sidewalks. One business owner thinks they could hurt his bikeshop.
But, proponents see the bikes as the latest evolution in public transport – a cheap, smartphone-activated connection between the end of a bus ride or car drive and a final destination, and a reason for Durham to invest more in the city’s cycling infrastructure.
The city isn’t paying anything to bring the private companies’ bikes to Durham. And competition between the three bike companies seems to be keeping prices low for consumers – Ofo recently extended its free-trial period through the end of February.
“To me the bike is probably the most efficient vehicle in an urban space outside of a subway,” advocate Erik Landfried said. “As downtown continues to develop ... bikes are going to become the preferred mode (of transit). To be able to offer that for free at no cost to the taxpayer – except for some staff time – that to me is hard to argue that it is not a complete win.”
The city will do a six-month review sometime in the spring, and the number of bikes on the ground isn’t expected to increase in the interim. The bikes were launched in the middle of winter, so the real test will likely come once temperatures rise.
“As with any new product we have received both positive and some negative questions about the process and the companies but we have received more positive comments,” said Terry Bellamy, director of Durham’s Transportation Department. “The biggest question centers around re-balancing and the placement of the bicycles. ... The goal is to not block driveways, sidewalks or entrances to businesses or homes.”
Bikes being left haphazardly or directly on sidewalks has been the biggest complaint.
Bellamy believes as the companies collect more data on Durham, they will find their “sweet spots” and will clump particular areas less often.
Will there be three companies on Durham streets in two years? Possibly not, Landfried said. He thinks the real winner could be the company that brings an electric bike to the city first.
“First one to bring that to Durham could have an advantage,” he said.
Which bike should you use?
For now, in which of the three services, if any, should you place your loyalty? The Herald-Sun recently tried them out.
What we found? They’re a lot alike.
Overall, LimeBike, Ofo and Spin offer customers the same thing: the ability to ride a bike wherever you want and leave it wherever you want.
The bikes themselves are nearly carbon copies of each other: a beach cruiser body, a basket with a solar panel for charging the headlights and a three-speed gear changer. The bikes all come with bells.
Ultimately, the average rider should probably pick up the closest bike to them – or whichever one has the best deal at the time. (Similarly to how people choose whether to use a Lyft or an Uber – which is closest? Which is cheapest?) But, beyond color preferences, there are some small differences.
Ofo is technically the cheapest, as it lets you rent the bike in hour-long increments rather than 30-minute ones (plus it’s free through the end of February). But if your ride is under 30 minutes, there is no difference.
LimeBike: $1 per 30 minutes
Spin: $1 per 30 minutes
Ofo: $1 per one hour
All three bikes lock the same way and have a three-gear shift. These bikes are not high-performance vehicles – and the seats aren’t the most comfortable – which might ensure that the serious everyday rider should probably still invest buy their own.
The bikes all have operating lights for nighttime use, and it’s bring-your-own for helmets on all three services. The locking and unlocking mechanism for the bikes are all similar too, with a sliding bar under the wheel unlocking when you scan the QR code on the bike. You end the ride by sliding the bar back into place.
LimeBike: These felt like the heaviest and bulkiest bikes. They were also the most abundant. Without knowing officially how many bikes each service has in Durham, it always seems like a LimeBike is within eyeshot.
Spin: Spin bikes have probably the most aggressive and athletic frame due to their paint scheme and sleek profile. The feel of the ride was good but not exceptional. Of all the bikes we rode, the Spin bikes probably had the roughest gear change. The Spin bikes also might work best for those who are taller than average. Landfriend, who is over six feet tall, said he found the Spin bikes to work best for his taller frame.
Ofo: During the trial period of the bikes, we found Ofo to have the smoothest ride of the three services. Both it and Spin have a more athletic feel than LimeBike, but we would have to give Ofo the advantage on feel. The gears of the Ofo bikes were the easiest to change and easiest to steer. Ofo probably has the fewest bikes in the city, however.
The baskets all leave something to be desired, in terms of keeping items stable. But that is probably just an issue with bikes in general, along with the bumpiness of roads. Our travel coffee mug routinely jumped out of each basket when the road wasn’t flat.
LimeBike: Probably the deepest of the baskets, its wire cage seemed to be able to hold the most items.
Spin: The basket is fairly shallow and wasn’t really effective at holding items.
Ofo: Same as the Spin bikes.
The thing that makes these bikes work – how you find them, how you pay for them, how you unlock them – is also where you find the biggest differences. All of the apps use GPS to locate the bikes, meaning they will be a drain on your phone’s battery, because they have to be constantly running while you ride.
The apps all open on a map, showing where every respective bike is in the city. They also now show you – which wasn’t available at first – recommended parking spots and no-parking zones. The no-parking zones are currently only located at Duke Medical Center and some parts of Duke’s campuses.
Some people have complained about phantom bikes (bikes that show up on the app, but aren’t actually there), but we didn’tsee that problem during our testing.
LimeBike: LimeBike’s map is aggressively marked with slices of limes (where the bikes are) as well as bags of money, which are bonus bikes that help you earn free rides. It is the only one that offers an in-app game like that. The LimeBike app is the most interactive of the three.
It also provides a great ride history feature. It keeps track of every ride you take and traces your route on the map. It also lets you know how much carbon you saved by not using a car as well as how many calories you burned. It also highlights where businesses are located on the map.
Spin: The spin app is probably the most minimalist of the three services. It is stripped of any frills. The ride history aspect is lacking compared to LimeBike – it doesn’t show you what route you took on the map or tell you how many calories you burned or the carbon you would’ve released into the atmosphere. The map on the Spin app does not highlight local businesses or locations.
Ofo: The Ofo app is more of a mix between Spin and LimeBike. It has a lot more interactive features than Spin (including a route tracker and calorie and carbon counter), but it doesn’t offer any bonus opportunities like LimeBike. Like LimeBike, the Ofo app highlights where businesses and local attractions are located.
How you pay for the rides, varies a little differently between the services as well.
LimeBike: LimeBike requires that you enter your credit card information manually and requires that you purchase credits. You can either load money in $5, $10 or $20 increments and pay as you go – or pay $29.95 a month for 100 rides a month.
Spin: Spin also makes you pre-load money on to your account (in $5 increments). It also has an unlimited ride plan for $29 a month. Spin also lets you use Apple Pay along with credit cards.
Ofo: Ofo also requires that you pre-load money via a credit card in $5, $10, $20 and $40 increments. It does not support Apple Pay. Ofo does not appear to offer a monthly plan.