Generally speaking, bike sharing systems are set-up to be part of a greater mass transport system. Daily commuters travel into the city by train, bus or car, then use the bike share system for quick trips around the city center.
But this isn’t bike sharing’s only useful app. In September, Boulder B-cycle PR guy Jason Sumner discovered that with a little research and strategic planning, bike sharing is a perfect way to explore some of Europe’s most famous cities. Jason utilized bike share systems in Nice, Paris and Antwerp. Here’s some insight, thoughts and advice gleaned from the experience. [See the full photo gallery here.]Number 1: Riding bikes in foreign cities is the best way to explore. It gives you the freedom to cover a lot of distance (unlike endless walking). It frees you from the hassle and confusion of driving in an unfamiliar city and/or finding a parking place. And you’re not trapped inside a car, taxi or tour bus, craning your neck for a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.
Plus, unlike many North American cities, these European metropolises are well equipped to accommodate cycling traffic. Bike lanes and paths are plentiful and well marked (especially in Paris), and automobile drivers are more accustomed to sharing the road. If you pay attention to street signs, road markings, the nuances of traffic flow — and follow the locals – you should be fine.The other key is figuring out the bike share system itself. Unlike their B-cycle brethren, the Euro’ systems encountered were not especially user-friendly when it came to buying a day pass at a station kiosk. For whatever reason, the kiosks in Paris would not accept U.S. credit cards; instead we had to buy day passes on-line.
The take-away here is to start any foreign-land bike share excursion by gleaning as much info as possible on-line. You’ll likely save yourself a lot of hassle and confusion, as sites for all three of these systems had serviceable English language sections complete with station maps, pricing and purchase options.
(The one exception was the Brussels system, which had no on-line pass-purchasing functionality, and wouldn’t accept any of our credit cards at its kiosks.)Aside from the need to plan ahead, the Paris system worked seamlessly, save for a few beat-up bikes in need of some TLC. The good news is that the City of Light has over 20,000 bike share bikes spread across 1,800 stations, or roughly one station every 300 meters, meaning it was easy to swap bad bikes for good – and avoid time overage chargers. My better half and I spent a full day cruising the streets, taking in the major tourist sites: Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Sacré-Cœur, Musee d’Orsay, and lots of cute Parisian cafés. And at the end of the day, we pedaled back to our hotel, which had a bike share station just a block away.
The system in Antwerp (Belgium’s second largest city after Brussels) worked great as well. And it’s essentially brand new, so all the bikes were in great shape. The only knock is that you have to wait 10 minutes between check in and check out. The good news is that the Belgians make great beer, so it wasn’t hard to kill time between check-outs.While Paris and Antwerp both utilized membership number-based check-out systems, day passes in Nice were tied to your cell phone. To get a day pass you first called an automated numbed and entered in your credit card details. After that, when you wanted to check a bike out, you simply called the number on the kiosk check-out screen. In turn the system recognized your incoming call (and phone number) and released a bike. The bummer here is that if you’re using your U.S. cell phone (which I was) you get dinged for each call. The Nice kiosks were also pretty slow at times (think spinning beach ball on your computer screens). But once you got going, it was the perfect way to cruise the wide bike path along the beachside Promenade des Anglais checking out the beautiful people soaking up the Mediterranean sun, or venture onto the narrow, winding streets of the Vieille Ville (aka old town) in search of souvenirs or a tasty meal.
Bottom line: If you’re headed overseas — or anywhere that has bike sharing — do a little research and incorporate it into your trip. It was among the highlights of our time in Europe.