By Kerlern Rae Tuitt
Wayne Shih, a Taiwan-native, had always wanted to try YouBike — a bike share program in Taipei used as a bus alternative. But since he lived in a rural town outside the city, he never had the opportunity.
So when Shih started his first semester at Stony Brook University in August, he was thrilled to find the campus offered its very own bike rental system called Wolf Ride Bike Share.
For days, Shih had attempted to rent a bicycle from one of the stations, but each time, the system was either inaccessible or the screen was broken.
“The instructions are too complicate, and the system is unstable,” said applied math and statistics major, Shih, 28, “so at beginning, I was not sure what the reason why I could not use it is — the steps are wrong or the system does not work.”
The afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 18 was no different — Shih stood trying for a bike at a station near the bus loop across from the Student Activities Center (SAC), only to be defeated by a prompt requesting a password. Tablet in hand, Shih searched the school’s website for a key to his code. He hadn’t even noticed the tall sign, attached to each bicycle station that lists step-by-step instructions for how to check-out a bicycle and return it.
But Shih is one of many students on the SBU campus who have been having difficulty with the bike share. The biggest problem was students not knowing their password, but that concern has lessened since the addition of the instruction panel. Now, the biggest issues are related to bikes in need of repair, riders being unaware of certain functions and an intermittent system.
Wolf Ride operates on a solar-powered, computerized system. Users swipe their SBU ID (or debit card if they’re not a student) at a kiosk, enter their password and are issued a five-digit code. They then key in the code at one of the small, black number pads next to each bike to unlock it.
Students have two minutes to enter in the code before it expires, and they will have to go through the check-out process again. If done correctly, the number pad will flash a green light indicating the bike is ready to be taken out.
Shih was finally able to get a code after a lengthy 10-minute back and forth with the lingering station terminal.
But the two-minute window allowing Shih to unlock a bike expired while he searched the bicycles for buttons to be pressed. The number pads could easily be confused for maintenance panels — they have a prominent repair button on top, and the flat numbers blend into the small black boxes.
The number pad flashed yellow when Shih finally found and entered the code, meaning he would have to get another set of numbers and wait a few more minutes.
“I usually spend 10 minutes trying to unlock the bike, but it only takes me about seven to eight minutes to walk back to Schomburg [apartments] from SAC,” said Shih. “But the point I want to stress is, I spent 10 minutes attempting to unlock it, but it still could not work.”
The YouBike system in Taipei has users register their personal information online. They’re then able to use their public transit cards to simply swipe and go without having to access the system each time.
“That’s all,” said Shih. “You can finish it in one minute.”
But Shih isn’t the only student who has lost time waiting for the system to process.
“It was just loading for a really long time,” said Billy Mei, 20, a health science major, about his first time using Wolf Ride, “and then we tried again and it worked.”
James O’Connor, director of Sustainability and Transportation Operations, said the system is definitely faster since they switched cell coverage from AT&T to Verizon. He said that while the system “is what it is,” the cell coverage can vary depending on the weather, which can sometimes result in a slower system.
Students have also had issues where they were unable to ride a bike because it was in need of repair.
“Well there are some that aren’t in good condition and you could see,” said Mei. “There was one over there that didn’t have a pedal.”
Of the three bikes available at the station Shih had attempted to use, two of them were missing pedals.
O’Connor said he’s seen a few flat tires, damaged screens and broken pedals. He said some things, like pedals and a diamond shaped panel in the front of the bikes that allows it to lock in place properly, need to be adjusted on a regular schedule.
“We’re learning as we go that pedals need to be tightened in order to make sure that they stay on the crank set,” said O’Connor.
But broken screens and other parts have to be sent out for repair before being fixed and returned to the program’s inventory.
“When you perform damage on one of our bike screens or kiosks, it does take time and money for us to fix them,” said O’Connor.
If something is wrong with a bike, users can press a red repair button located on the bike’s number pad that will send a notification to the system within seconds of it being pressed. The amount of time it takes before the bike is repaired depends on the day, the time and the rate at which the staff checks the system. If someone reports a faulty bicycle on a Friday evening, the bike won’t be attended to until Monday, during the staff’s working hours.
Several students have also inquired about Wolf Ride’s time allowance — it’s free to ride for the first hour, but the average class length is 120 minutes. There’s also a 15-minute wait time in between uses.
Citi Bike, New York City’s bike share, uses the same system as the university but only allows 30-minute rides. O’Connor said he wanted to give Wolf Ride riders more time, but he also wanted to make sure other bikes are available to other students.
“The whole program is you’re not supposed to use that same bike in order to get from A to B and then B back to A,” said O’Connor. “Really, you should use another bike, which may be there or may be elsewhere. It’s more of a share service.”
The 15-minute wait after returning a bike prevents users from returning a bike and immediately taking out the same one, “basically averting the hour rule.”
The fees for a late return are steep — $2 past an hour, $16 past four hours and $64 if it’s out longer than a day. Once it goes past the three-day mark, riders will be charged a $1,150 replacement fee. So far, none of the riders have been charged for the price of the bike.
“It’s a financial incentive to return the bike within the hour,” said O’Connor, “because if they end up taking the bike for two hours, or three hours, or five hours, it’s not a sharing system anymore, it’s a bike rental.”
O’Connor said they get lots of emails from students who are running late or having difficulty, and he’s more than willing to work with them in regards to the fees.
“We also did not necessarily and unnecessarily want to charge students for overuse fees, that’s not really what were primarily trying to do,” said O’Connor. “But we are trying to get the bikes back to a station so that another student can then use that share bike to go somewhere else with it.”
There’s also a small mention in the terms and conditions about a 15-minute ride extension — if there are no available spaces at a dock, or a user is having trouble returning a bike, they can use the extension option and find a different station without being charged.
Shih ended up checking out a bike from a different station directly in front of the SAC after a pair of students returned theirs. The entire process took him a little over 20 minutes.
“Eventually, I was so happy that I could use the bike, because, you know, I had been trying it for several days,” said Shih. “Also, I shared the good news with my friends.”
But Shih’s joyous moment was fleeting, as he has not been able to unlock another bike since his first ride.
“My friends also had difficulty unlocking the bike,” said Shih. “So, I do not think only me encountering this problem.”
O’Connor said there are still some quirks being worked out with student information being recognized in the system. He encourages anyone who is having difficulty to contact him or Greg Monaco, sustainability coordinator, so they can address the problem and get people biking.