A Year With Blue Bikes

27 May 2019

For the 2018-2019 academic year, I used Blue Bikes, Boston's bike sharing system, as my primary mode of transportation.

During my undergraduate years, I lived on campus and never owned a bike. During my one-year master's program, I lived off-campus, about a 25-minute walk from my lab. Boston has a solid bus and subway system, but it doesn't connect where I lived with where I worked very well. MIT offers a shuttle that goes where I lived, but it only runs late at night. However, I was fortunate enough to be located right next to a Trader Joes which has a Blue Bikes station in its parking lot. I decided I would give bike sharing a shot.

The Bikes

There are three kinds of bikes that one can find in the Blue Bikes system.

Model 1. It has three speeds and metal with an elastic band for carrying things.

Model 2. It has a similar design to Model 1, but it shifts noticeably better.

Model 2-B. It is the same as Model 2 but with a basket.

The bikes are designed for road usage, but the tires are wide enough that going off-road is doable if need be. Each bike is equipped with a bell and a light that activates automatically at night. The seat is easily adjustable, and consistency is assisted by numbered markings.

The bikes are a bit heaver than what might be desired for a road bike, and they have limited speed options. Avid cyclists will likely want to look elsewhere, but they work well for short commutes or as a cheaper, healthier, or faster alternative to the bus or subway for one-off trips.

The App

Like many sharing systems, Blue Bikes has a mobile app. Annual subscribers can also obtain a key to unlock bikes without the app.

The Blue Bikes station map.

You can see bike and dock counts per station.

You can unlock a bike with the app.

Alternatively, you can unlock a bike with the key.

The Cost

At the time of writing, an annual membership is $99 and provides unlimited 45-minute rides. As an MIT student, I was eligible for a discount and paid only $30.

Was it worth it? I probably would have spent much more than that on a bike. Assuming nothing happened to it, I could have resold the bike, but I still suspect my net loss would have been more expensive than my Blue Bikes membership.

However, there were a couple of times when I ended up taking or Uber or Lyft because there were no bikes available (I discuss this below) and walking would have made me late. This probably brings the cost closer to $50.

In the long run, buying a bike might be a better deal (but not necessarily a better experience, as I discuss below), especially without a discount. I knew I would probably be leaving at the end of the year, so this was not a consideration for me.

The Evil Duo: IDB and IDD

My first few days of using Blue Bikes involved me zipping around the city in bliss; then, I was IDB: Involuntarily Denied a Bike. I came to realize that when I want to leave, other people tend to have left already, and this can lead to stations running out of bikes.

No matter! As a computer science master's student, I nearly always had my computer with me and nearly always had work to do on it. So I decided I would just always leave early enough that I could walk to wherever I need to go. If I got a bike, I would arrive early and do a bit of work on my computer while I waited for events to start.

However, this did not prepare me for being IDD: Involuntarily Denied a Dock. I came to realize that where I want to go, other people tend to already be, and this can lead to stations filling up, preventing me from docking my bike.

I am firmly of the opinion that being IDD is worse than being IDB. If you are IDB, you can walk if you have enough time or get a cab if you don't. Either way, you probably aren't late, and you don't waste any time per se. However, if you are IDD, you end up wasting time by biking away from where you want to go after you have already arrived. And if you were cutting it close, now you're going to be late.

The only way to avoid being IDD is to check the app and see how many docks are open at the station you are targeting. However, I find this inconvenient. As a computer science major, I stare at screens all day; the last thing I want to do before a bike ride is pull out my phone. Additionally, if you see only one or two open docks, you are forced to evaluate how likely this number is to drop to zero and whether or not the risk is worth it.

As frustrating as being IDB and IDD are, on the average case, the system works well. People use Blue Bikes fairly consistently, so I was able to develop intuition about when the stations I frequent empty and fill up. I created an interactive data visualization for exploring how people use Blue Bikes and an app that alerts you when a bike or dock is available at a station of your choosing. Many cases of being IDB or IDD are only minor inconveniences. And Blue Bikes does actively redistribute bikes throughout the day with a truck, especially during peak hours at key stations. On weekdays, the station in front of my lab usually has a Blue Bikes worker continuously making sure there are available bikes and docks.

The work of the Blue Bikes "valet" in front of the MIT Stata center.

The Grid, Unlocked

Blue Bikes has its cost advantages. For students, $30 per year is a great deal. Even at $100 per year, it still may be worth it given the price of bikes, the cost and hassle of repairs, and the risk of bike theft.

However, the most glorious thing about Blue Bikes is that you don't own a bike. If you bike to work and decide to go out with your coworkers in the evening, you can bike home from wherever you end up without worrying about bringing your bike with you or going back for it.

You do have to bring a helmet with you. Technically, it is legal to ride without one (assuming you are an adult), but it is not advisable. A funny thing I found about carrying a helmet is that people will constantly ask you "where's your bike?" No amount of being vocal about Blue Bikes usage seems to help people wrap their heads around the fact that you can be a cyclist without owning a bike.

Blue Bikes adds missing links to the Boston public transportation grid. The first few hours of my day once consisted of the following feat of public transportation.

  1. Blue Bike from Trader Joes to Central Station
  2. Red Line (subway) from Central to Park Street
  3. Walk from Park Street Station to the AMC Theater
  4. See Avengers: Endgame
  5. Blue Bike from a station near the AMC to one near the Boston Public Market
  6. Buy Union Square Donuts to serve during a lab meeting later that day
  7. Walk to Haymarket Station
  8. Green Line from Haymarket to Park Street
  9. Red Line from Park Street to Kendall
  10. Walk from Kendall Station to the MIT Stata Center for class and lab meeting

The Verdict

Overall, I have enjoyed being a Blue Bikes member and believe it was the right transportation solution for me this year. It comes in handy when you need to travel between points not well-connected by bus or subway. Not needing to worry about where your bike is parked, what shape it is in, and whether or not it is safe from theft is quite freeing. And it can be a cost-efficient alternative to owning a bike, especially for students.

That said, you may want to buy a bike if you

  • are an avid cyclist
  • want to commute a long distance by bike
  • plan to live in Boston long-term
  • don't live and / or work near a Blue Bikes station

Empty and full stations are also inconvenient and can be disruptive if you aren't prepared. If you don't like the idea of needing to leave early in case you can't get a bike or dock, you may prefer having your own bike.

But if you are a transient like me with a within-city commute and a knack for killing time, consider becoming a Blue Bikes member! If you don't live in Boston but visit for a day, consider getting a Blue Bikes "adventure pass" as a supplement or alternative to a bus and subway pass (don't even consider renting a car for getting around the city).