Around Thanksgiving last year, a new ‘bikeshare’ program was launched at the new Princeton rail station. The bikeshare is an initiative of Princeton University, and was added as part of its ‘Arts and Transit’ project. Bikeshare programs now exist in dozens of US towns and cities, perhaps most famously with the ‘Citibike‘ blue bike program in New York. These systems differ from traditional bike rental, in that the bikes are usually rented on an hourly basis. These programs allow occasional users to hop on a bike quickly, providing an extra non-car transportation option. We were excited to see the new bikeshare program launch, so we went down in the depths of winter to see how well it works.
To find the bikeshare, go to the new Princeton Rail Station on Alexander Street. The bikeshare rack is across the tracks, next to a University multi-level parking structure:
The bikes are locked to the station with U-locks. The key to each U-lock is in a lockbox, on the rear of the bike.
To open the lock box, you need to have a membership with the bikeshare company, which is called Zagster. You can start a membership by following directions either online at www.zagster.com or by downloading the app for Android or iOS smartphones or smart devices. Membership costs $20 per year. That is pretty cheap for this type of service. For example, a one-year membership of Citibike costs $162.22. You need a credit card to join, so that if you steal or lose the bike, the company will know who to charge. Membership allows you to borrow a bike for a two-hour period for free. After that, you have to pay $2 per hour. This rate is also pretty cheap, compared to a regular bike rental place. Overnight rentals incur a higher fee. The system is aimed at people who want short rentals. If you want to rent a bike for a week or something, try Jay’s on Nassau Street.
Once you set up a membership, you get the code for the lockbox by entering the bike ID number into the app. The bike ID number is on the frame. Note: there is nobody at the bike rental station to help you. If you run into trouble, you have to either look for help at the FAQ on the Zagster website, or call Zagster customer support, who will try to give you spoken assistance.
Open the app and enter the bike number in the box (you can also rent using text messages if you don’t have a smartphone, or if your phone doesn’t support iOS or Android. Click the ‘start ride’ button to get a code:
After you enter the bike ID number, the app communicates with Zagster HQ and sends you a code. The code is only good for one rental, and each rental requires a different code. At this point, your rental begins, with the duration shown. Remember, you only get 2 hours for free, and then you have to pay by the hour:
When you have the code, you need to punch it into the keypad on the lockbox and then hit ‘ent’. The numbers should light up yellow as you enter them. If they don’t, re-enter the code.
If you did it right, then the lockbox should show a green light, at which point you can pull it open to get your key:
Open up the box to get the key:
Use the key to open the U-lock and release the bike:
If you got this far, you will be able to take out a snazzy bikeshare bike and go for a ride!
Whenever you are done riding, lock the bike at the dock at Princeton station, then ‘end’ the session by clicking a button on the app. Doing this lets the company know that the bike is available for another rider. Make sure you click the button to end the rental session! It’s easy to forget, and you risk having to pay for a really long session.
Princeton University deserves a lot of credit for installing a bikeshare platform and making it available to people in the local community. You don’t have to be a student at Princeton U. to use it, it is open to everybody. The municipality of Princeton has so far passed on the option of launching a bikeshare program, so we can thank the University for making our town one of only three in New Jersey with by-the-hour bikeshare (the others are Hoboken-Weehawken and Jersey City).
The Zagster platform clearly has advantages and disadvantages. I really like the bike. The bikes used in Capital Bikeshare and Citibike are really heavy and have gear ratios that seem designed to prevent you from ever riding faster than about 10 mph. The Zagster bike handles well and has seven gears. It’s a fun ride. Time will tell if the bikes are durable enough.
The system for unlocking the Zagster bikes is a bit cumbersome. Members of, for example, Capital Bikeshare, get a physical ‘key’ to unlock bikes. That means renting is a case of showing up, putting in the key, and riding the bike away. No app required, no fiddling around with the lockbox. On the other hand, it may be easier to expand a Zagster bikeshare system, because the ‘dock’ doesn’t require electronics and solar panels, as is the case with Capital Bikeshare or Citibike. And the price is really very reasonable.
The other question is how much people will use the new bikeshare system. With just one station, users have to start and end their rental session at the same place. That is very unusual for a bikeshare system. Perhaps the people who will use it most are visitors who come into town for the day and want to tour around by bike. But then, will they want to get a Zagster membership for just one day? Other bikeshare systems have several and sometimes hundreds of different places to rent or lock up the bikes. Hoboken, for example, is looking at having something like 23 docks in an approximately one square-mile area. The success of the Princeton bikeshare program may depend on increasing the network of docks, so let’s hope that happens soon. In the meantime, we can celebrate this latest opportunity for people to skip the car and get on two wheels in Princeton!
What do you think about the new Princeton bikeshare system? Leave your thoughts using the comments box below.