Sunday, June 16, 2013

Hell on Wheels, Sort Of

When we were in Brooklyn not too long ago, we spied some very interesting bike helmets -- with pink rubber Mohawk spikes -- which were just the impetus we needed to explore New York City's urban bicycling experiment, Citibike. (Yes, kiddies, we are that shallow. But isn't it nice that while form follows function, the Idiosyncratic Fashionistas follow style?) We had actually been looking for a beach ball that day (not telling you why yet, but it's not what you think) and when we went where the clerk directed us, we found these instead. We found out days later (when we finally looked at the tags) that they are approved for individuals age 8 and older - we're definitely older than 8! - and listed as "youth" size. Sooo not surprising. No wonder we liked them immediately!

Here we are at Cooper Union, where we began our adventure.

Jean starts the process.  We got all sorts of questions (like are you an adult or a minor) and all sorts of reminders (like don't ride on the sidewalk), dire warnings (like return your bikes within 30 minutes or face a horrific extra charge) and helpful hints (like if all the bike slots are full when you want to park, ask the kiosk for an extra 15 minutes, and your wish will be granted).

Before we even left, there was a good bit of excitement right in front of our eyes.  A bus (parked, with no passengers) had caught fire and was billowing black smoke.  You can't see it here, but there was a small flame on the underside near the left tire, leading Jean to wonder if the gas tank might be on fire.  We thought it best to leave the area and let the firemen do their job.

Citibank set up kiosks around Manhattan and Brooklyn to pilot a project for individual New Yorkers to rent bicycles by the day or the year. Sound too good to be true? It is. The catch is that daily renters (that's us) have to dock their bikes every 30 minutes and annual renters have to dock theirs every 45 minutes.  So, if you are planning to bike to a destination about 45 minutes away, you have to build in an extra half hour to accommodate the 30 minute limit, to ask for additional time when there are no open docks in which to stow your bike, to find another location to dock the bike within your additional 15 minute "grace" period before being charged extra, and to find still other locations when there are no kiosks in locations indicated on the maps and when the kiosks malfunction by failing to recognize your card so you can extend your ride for another 30 minute segment.

Although NYC recommends that all riders use helmets, it cannot monitor for usage. We were definitely in the minority of fellow Citibikers actually wearing helmets, but in the majority among regular NYC cyclists. Our "Krash!" helmets are surprisingly lightweight and have multiple vents with inner air channels to draw air through the helmet and over the brow for maximum cooling. With temperatures in the 80s, it did get quite hot in the sun, especially when pedaling to keep up with traffic, make the light and avoid pedestrians who are notorious for not looking where they are going when crossing city streets.

The photo below was taken for us by a woman (of a certain age) who came up behind us, said she loved our helmets, and asked if she could photograph them - specifically from this angle.  We said, as we often do, YES - if you'll take the same picture with one of our cameras. That was the first of many compliments we got on our helmets during our outing.

We thought these motorcyclists were kindred spirits with their mohawk and spiked helmet decorations.  (Full disclosure: we took this photo about an hour after we bought our helmets.  This post seemed like a great time and place to publish it.)

Remember the old adage "It's like riding a bicycle" to describe the easy retrievability of a skill thought long lost? Well, it is true. In no time, we were maneuvering through traffic on major East Village and SoHo thoroughfares like the Bowery, Second Avenue, West Broadway and Houston Street. The cobblestones in SoHo were a challenge even with the semi-wide tires on the modified city bike, rattling teeth and shaking up everything in and on the bike.  You could feel the vibration from your wrists up your forearms! Valerie noticed that the vibrations eventually made her arms itchy. Jean, who does far more biking than Valerie, replied that professional cyclists experience odd problems like this, and have developed responsive products. Live and learn!

Valerie also noticed at the end of the day that her right wrist was having a smidgen of difficulty manipulating the handlebar, and chalked that up to having broken the wrist a few years ago. The doctors told her it would lose a bit of its mobility, and this seems to be proof of that. Not enough to be painful, though, or to have any effect on steering or handling.

We were out and about from 11:30 AM to 3:30 PM and had to dock our bikes multiple times, with mixed results.

Valerie, doing her dare devil thing, stops for a portrait in front of an ever-changing storefront on our way to do our first 30 minute bike swap-out. Some of you will note that she is on the sidewalk, which we have already told you is a no-no. But she's posing (see the foot on the floor?), and not actually riding. By the way, doesn't the mural look like an homage to Henry Darger?

Why is this woman walking instead of biking?

She's smiling, but don't let that fool you. When we tried to return our bikes, we got the error message below. The kiosk allowed us to lock our bikes, but wouldn't allow us to start our next 30 minute jaunt.

We used the same cards we'd used to rent the bikes, as we'd been instructed, so the message didn't make any sense.  The kiosks are run on solar power.  Since that particular kiosk was shaded by a tree, we theorized that the kiosk didn't have enough energy, but maybe it's just one of the many bugs still in the system.  Jean made her first call of the day to Citibike to find out what to do.  We were instructed to go to another bike rack a few blocks away.  We did, and happily that one worked, but we were a little peeved that we had to hoof it. If we'd had an appointment to get to, we would have been late.

On our way again, we paused for a photo next to the mural-du-jour on the Bowery and Houston Streets, of cartoon character Popeye. Earlier, we'd seen a man effortlessly lift his racing bike off the ground by its handles. We would have needed Popeye to lift these bikes. They're made to stand up to a lot of punishment, and they are heavy. The tires are also inflated with nitrogen, rather than air/oxygen, for extra staying power.

On a side note, while posing in front of murals is all well and good, we wish we could have shown you a couple of pictures of us barreling down the streets of the city. This is where an intern would have come in handy. For all our readers know, we just walked the bikes around and had gullible people photograph us at opportune moments.

When we were cycling across East 3rd Street in the heart of the Hell's Angels' turf, we briefly (ever so briefly) fantasized about trading up from our pedal-powered two-wheelers to a major horse-powered motorcycle like this beautiful Harley Davidson, which was charmingly named "WAR".  We soon came to our senses (although Jean secretly yearns for a customized Vespa -- in red with black polka dots or black with red polka dots) and pedaled westward. Sigh.

Thank goodness Jean has a cell phone!  We diligently studied the map and thought we saw a dot indicating our next kiosk would be here on Grand Street in SoHo, so we could re-park and re-rent after our next 30 minutes were up.  No kiosk!  No bikes!  What to do?!  Jean called the Citibike number already in her cell phone from our previous dilemma, and discovered that the person on the other line was not terribly familiar with the streets of New York.  She named quite a few kiosks that were completely out of our way before finally finding one near us.

When we got to that kiosk, all the bikes were already docked, which meant there were no empty slots into which we could lock our bikes. That also meant that we would run very short of time to find a new kiosk.  We were able to get a 15 minute grace period by inserting our credit cards into the kiosk, but still had to find another kiosk. Happily for us, a very nice street vendor heard us complaining, and kindly told us of another nearby kiosk we could try. Who says New Yorkers aren't helpful?

Somewhat ironically, we had to park waaay out of our way to walk back to the corner shown above.  Doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose of the bikes?

Just to amuse ourselves, we stopped into several shops, the last of which was What Goes Around Comes Around.  You can guess by the name that it's a vintage shop.  We found all sorts of yummy things there, but our favorite was this amazing suit by Stephen Burrows. Imagine working for a company that requires you to wear a suit, and showing up in this!

You need a close-up, too:

It's really a more vibrant yellow than you can see here.  Butter yellow.

After about four hours, we figured we'd gotten our money's worth out of our experiment and successfully returned our bikes without further incident.  We very much like the whole idea, and give the City a lot of credit not only for initiating the bike share program but also for creating a large number of designated bike lanes.  But we found the kiosks left a lot to be desired, so right now we give Citibike a 70% - slightly more than the minimum passing grade.  Like anything else, though, the City can make improvements, and we'll give Citibike a make-up exam to raise its grade.

The most fun we had, though, truth be told, was hearing people call out to us "Great helmets!" and even "Nice hat!" (yes, hat, in one case).  When we got the third compliment, it became fun keeping track.  Last count, at the end of our adventure: TWENTY-TWO!  More than either of us has ever gotten for any of our other -um - hats!

Oh - ask us in a day or two how our thighs and calves responded to all of this frivolity!


  1. 23! I totally LOVE those helmets and I am still chuckling over your day's adventures. Don't know that I would have the patience to keep checking in at the kiosks, though.
    jill in Ontario

  2. I'm still puzzled over why you have to dock so often.

  3. Hi, Pattyskypants! Our reply button doesn't seem to work, but here's our reply. We figure they're trying to prevent people from, say, taking a bike to work in the morning, parking it in their office, then riding it home at night. Nice for that one person, but it takes the bike out of commission for the rest of the day. So the constant annoying docking is probably designed to maximize the bike's useful life. And its profitability!

  4. Hell on Wheels indeed! Those are the funkiest bike helmets I've ever seen, and are perfect for the two of you! The constant docking does sound like a pain, although I can see the rationale behind it. Hopefully a better way will be discovered to make it work, as it's a great idea to have bikes available to the public for short term use.

  5. Hi, just red about you ladies in a swedish newspaper - I would love to be as brave as you but living in a tiny town - that would be suicide. I try from time to time.
    Just love you style - wishing you the best for the future