You must have noticed them already. A colorful array of new bicycles sprang up as if by magic on the curbs and street corners of downtown Washington starting Wednesday, bringing a new way to beat traffic — and shorten the trip from the Metro to the office. But with so many dockless bike-share options — three as of Thursday and the nation’s first electric dockless bike-share launching Monday — how does one choose?
We rode all four companies’ bikes Thursday to get a feel for how they compare. For a product whose killer feature is convenience, deciding which dockless bike to throw your leg over may simply be a question of which one’s closest. But to the discerning rider, there are notable differences.
Before you ask: Yes, you have to download a different app to try each kind of dockless bike-share. The going rate for most of them is $1 for a 30-minute ride. All of them ask for a credit card, phone number and access to your location — necessary to pay for your rides and to help you locate the GPS-equipped bikes on the apps’ map.
Mobike, LimeBike and Spin use a frame-mounted lock that immobilizes the bike until someone checks it out. Unlocking is as simple as opening the app and pointing your phone’s camera at a QR code mounted on the bike you want to rent. In our tests, this process went smoothly, except for with Mobike, which admitted early Thursday that it was having trouble with its app. Ending a ride is as simple as sliding the lock’s lever — but be careful where you park. In their user agreements, the companies tell you to leave the bike in an appropriate parking place — think the curb side of the sidewalk. This is where the “dockless” part comes in. Fail to park correctly on Mobike, for instance, and you could find your cost to use the system skyrocket to $100 per half hour. Avoid the Mall, the White House and Capitol complexes, parks and private property, and you should be fine.
On to first impressions:
The most common sight among the dockless bike-share entrants, China-based Mobike’s silver bikes with bright orange wheels and baskets arrived in herds Wednesday morning. Its wheels were the toughest-looking we tested, but its plastic hand grips were the cheapest-feeling — however, that may mean they’ll hold up better over time. Though early buzz promised Mobikes with a chainless drive system, all the models we saw — and there sure are a lot of them –had a plain old chain. (Snappy dressers, fear not: All the bikes we tested had chainguards to protect pant legs from grease.) We liked their solid, frame-mounted baskets with built-in cupholders, but taller riders may find that the Mobike saddle doesn’t go high enough to accommodate much more than a 30-inch inseam. Like Capital Bikeshare, Mobike’s steeds have three-speed internally geared hubs with twist shifters and a front light that runs off a generator in the front wheel. Missing is a rear light — it’s reflector-only back there. If you add $1 to your account, Mobike rides are free until Oct. 1.
The next-most ubiquitous arrival, bright green LimeBikes with their yellow fenders and chainguards, certainly stand out. Upping the safety game, LimeBikes’ airless tires feature reflective sidewalls, and they sport front and rear LEDs that run off a generator hub in the front wheel. We loved the swept-back handlebar that allowed for a relaxed, upright riding position. As with Mobike, taller riders may want to avoid LimeBike, since its nifty self-raising seat post left us wishing for more height. Also, it’s probably a good idea to avoid loading down LimeBike’s front baskets with too much stuff — they’re affixed to the front fork, so they turn with the handlebars. LimeBike rides are free with code HELLODC through the end of the month.
These were a little harder to find around town as of Thursday, with about 10 showing up on the app’s map, but the San Francisco-based company says it’s adding 100 bikes to the streets this week. The lone single-speed entrant in D.C.’s dockless bike-share trial, Spin’s all-orange bikes stood out for their luxe hand grips, loud bells and towering seat-post capabilities. But the good ends there. The lights on one Spin we tested didn’t work — not a good sign on your first day — and the kickstand, though probably light-weight, seemed flimsy and wobbly. Our two Spin rides were free when we downloaded the app.
This is the bike to grab if you’re heading clear across town, if it’s hot out, if you have hills on your route — or if you want to feel like you have superpowers. Though they won’t be launching until Monday, Jump is the standout of the group. Their bikes feature an electric motor in the front wheel and a battery concealed in the frame, and they’re a blast to ride. Pedal a little, and the bike senses your effort and supplements it with some of its own. Unlike the rest of the dockless entrants, which can be left wherever there’s sidewalk space, Jump’s bikes must be locked to a bike rack with an integrated U-lock that’s held magnetically to the frame. This, the company says, will help cut down on the clutter associated with dockless bike-share in China and elsewhere. Onboard, there’s a clean belt-drive instead of a chain, and Jump’s bikes are the only dockless entry in D.C. that use pneumatic tires, so their ride is less harsh. Jump’s team says it will swap out the bikes’ batteries when they need to be charged — a process it estimates it will need to do for each bike once every three days. At $2 for 30 minutes, it’s twice the cost of the other dockless bike-shares, but for the treat of flying by traffic without breaking a sweat, it’s worth it. Users can get a $10 ride credit for signing up.