biking in boston: my first week using hubway

This is the second year of Boston's point-to-point bike share program, Hubway, and while Hanna and I were merely bystanders as it got up and running last year, this season I decided to take the program out for a spin. Happily, just as I was weighing the cost/benefit of Hubway's $85 annual membership*, they rolled out a new monthly plan for $20 -- so I thought, what the hell! and signed up.

Here's how it works. You sign up via the website and are sent a key that allows you to unlock bicycles at dozens of locations in the Boston metropolitan area. Then you can ride the bike to any of the other locations and lock it back up (no need to return to the original check-out station). Any ride under 30 minutes is included in the subscription plan, and additional time is charged in increasing increments to discourage long-term rentals.

I got my key last Saturday (after signing up on Thursday -- quick work, Hubway!) and activated it online. I bought myself a bike helmet on Sunday (at REI for $35 ... did you know you can get helmets now that cost $180?! are they made of titanium?) and was ready to go!

My initial observations are as follows...

  • Super-easy to access, if the stations are near where you live/work/travel. The Hubway folks re-distribute bikes throughout the day, so you can be fairly confident that bicycles will be available to unlock and/or spaces will be available for you to dock a borrowed bike (though more on that below). All you have to do is insert your key to unlock the bike, adjust the seat, and you're off!
  • I like the handlebar carry rack, which comes equipped with an elastic band to hold one's shoulder bag or shopping in place. I've used it to carry my messenger bag, a cloth tote full of groceries, and bag of potting soil. 
  • Door-to-door, biking is as fast as taking the subway from home to work. With a much lower chance of motion-sickness (although you lose the reading time). I usually plan 35-50 minutes door-to-door on the T, and by bike it takes me roughly half and hour from unlock to docking.
  • Exercise! I love forms of exercise that double up as "getting shit done," which is what walking and biking can do when combined with running errands or the morning/evening commute. So the fact that I can replace the (faster than walking) subway rides with equally-speedy biking is a nifty solution.
  • We have a really tiny apartment, with absolutely no place to store a bike except maybe in the bathtub (which would mean no more showers, which would suck). So being able to access communal bikes is a wonderful space-saver. Like Zipcar, which we've participated in since 2007, Hubway offers the convenience of transportation without the maintenance or storage. 
  • Relatively affordable at the annual membership fee ... I took 13 trips in the past week, for a total of 3 hours, 23 minutes; that extrapolates into less than a penny per minute and an average of $0.16/trip.
  • The half-hour limit is going to determine whether Hubway works for you, particularly if you live further from your workplace than Hanna and I do (about three miles) -- unless you can station hop your way to work, cycling to one station (say) halfway to work, swapping bikes, and riding the rest of the way. Obviously, you can keep the bike for longer, but this adds to the monthly and/or annual cost. I had one commute to work this week where I dropped something from my bag and had to circle back for it, ultimately putting me forty-three seconds above the 30 minute ride and adding $1.50 to my bill. 
  • Occasionally I've come across full stands which means I cannot dock my bike in that location. Luckily, this hasn't been a deal-breaker so far -- but I can see how it might be frustrating if it happens a lot in locations where I want/need to be. It could also put you over your 30 minute window if you had to search for another location to lock up. Completely empty racks are also an inconvenience since they mean walking to another stand (some are 1/2-1 mile apart). I'll be tracking this full/empty phenomenon to see how often it happens, and how it alters my use patterns.
  • The bike design is clunky. They're making an all-purpose utility bike, not a touring or long-distance bike, I get that. And it has to fit as many bodies as possible. But I still find them kind of awkward and heavy to handle. 
  • They only have three gears, and the three gears they have are about a notch too easy for my taste. The first gear is so low (high?) that it isn't really usable except on extreme uphills; the third gear is still easy enough that if you're on even the slightest downward slope it's not worth pedaling. A bit more power would be nice to have.
  • Adjusting the seat every time is kind of a pain, although I'm sure I'll get used to what notch I need them at. I feel like I've spent the week getting them just a little too high or a little too low. And sometimes they seem to tilt forward a bit, so my ass is always sliding off the seat.
  • City traffic! Gosh-oh-golly, I grew up learning to bike along spacious town boulevards and rural roads. This whole dedicated bike lane business and high volume bike/car traffic during the morning commute is a whole different world. I'm glad I can (mostly) get from point A to point B on side streets, avoiding the main thoroughfares -- and Hanna breathes a sigh of relief as well.
In sum, I'm glad I signed up and will probably roll the trial month into an annual deal this year to see how it goes. Stay tuned for further adventures.

*I was pleased to see that the City of Boston is subsidizing memberships for eligible low-income riders.


  1. I moved away from Boston and I miss Hubway so much! One note - if you try to return a bike to a full station, you can get extra 'free' time to get to one with spots available. You use your keyfob at the little station to get the extra time onto your account.

  2. Enjoyed your observations on Hubway. I can see the seat adjusting each time would be a pain. I wonder about measuring the distance between frame and seat bottom when you get it adjusted right then cutting a dowel (or some other easy to carry item) to that length. From then on you can use the dowel to quickly change the seat height.

    Ride on!