On a three-speed bicycle that reminds me of my father’s old Schwinn, heavy and responsive to even the lightest push, I lunge forward and climb a gentle slope. Red steel beams surround me as I rise above the brick tenements of Brooklyn. On the biking and pedestrian corridor of the Williamsburg Bridge, I pass a couple walking and holding hands while a man on an electric scooter passes me. From the bridge’s lower levels, the rumble of an M train joins the constant echoes of car traffic. I can see glimpses between the bars of the East River and of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building against a cool grey sky.
This is my favorite way to visit a city, and I’m thrilled by how easy it’s become to find public bicycles while traveling. Bicycle-sharing stations have been popping up all over with an estimated 900 bike-share systems in operation worldwide. Taking advantage of this convenient form of transportation is a fun and inexpensive way to discover a new city.
The stations are often located within a few blocks of each other, and they’re easy to find after downloading each city’s bike-sharing app. Tickets can usually be purchased at a bike station with a credit or debit card at a price that’s better than any alternative way to get around. A 24-hour pass in New York City costs just under 10 dollars. In Boston the same pass is six dollars. In Paris, a seven-day ticket can be purchased online for eight euros.
I discovered bicycle sharing in 2012 when visiting Paris. I found I could check out a bike at any time of the day or night, and it became my way to explore the city.
Bicycle-sharing programs are designed for quick trips, and checking out a bike for longer than 30 minutes can become expensive. A 24-hour Divvy pass in Chicago costs $9.95, but on any single trip riders are charged an additional two dollars for the second half-hour, six dollars for the following half-hour, and eight dollars for each half-hour after that. The best way to manage longer journeys is to return a bike within the first 30 minutes and reuse the same bicycle for the next leg of the trip.
It’s necessary, of course, to be comfortable riding on city streets. Protected bike lanes are becoming much more common, but it’s impossible to avoid sharing roads with car traffic. I use hand signals whenever turning or moving around obstructions (a quick wave will get drivers’ attention) and I always look over my left shoulder even if I’m sure the street is empty. Helmets are almost never available although perhaps this will change over time. It’s more work to bike, of course, than it is to jump in a cab or an Uber car, and sometimes when it’s cold or raining, I might choose the subway instead.
I’m just as likely, however, to bike regardless of the weather. It’s often easier for me to ride 20 minutes with a cold wind at my face than it is to bother with other means of returning to my hostel or hotel. And in decent weather, nothing beats the pleasant feeling of bicycling outdoors and the exhilaration of navigating by bike in a foreign city.
The bike-share boom is changing how locals commute and visit friends. It will change urban tourism too as more travelers discover this convenient and inexpensive mode of transit. This is an exciting time for those of us who like to explore by bike in the city.