Sunday, 14 October 2018

How to spend a lot of money renting a bicycle

These days, it is typical to find two or three competing bicycle rental systems in major cities. Frankfurt was no exception, and I chose one called, fashionably and all lower-case, "nextbike" since there were some of their bikes outside the hotel where I was staying. I found myself caught up in a nightmare.

The system for using nextbike is complicated. First you download an app - this is fine, and collects your details. Then you enter the number of the bicycle into the app. The system gives you a four-digit pin number, which you enter on the bike to unlock it. Off you go, to your destination. What could go wrong? Well, in around five bike hires, I made at least three errors, and I was charged over 60 Euros. First, I rented a bike but I didn't understand that the bike was now available. Because of a flaky wifi connection in the street, I wasn't sure that I had successfully rented a bike. I tried repeating the process but I was told the bike was no longer available. I didn't realise it was because I had already hired it. I used another bike, only to discover two days later I was still paying for the first bike I had never taken.

Next, I discovered that bikes could only be left in a designated docking station. These are not like those in London or other cities; there is no physical mechanism to dock the bike. The only indication of an official docking station seems to be the presence of other nextbike bicycles. However, it seems that users leave their bikes all over the city, and I inadvertently returned a bike at a place that was not an official docking station - this costs an additional 20 Euros "handling charge".

More confusing still, if a bicycle is left outside a docking station, it is shown on the official online map of bike locations. This map is not very detailed and so it is easy to spend several minutes trying to find exactly where a bike has been left (or where there is an official docking station). The photo above shows where one bike had been left. I walked past it three times without noticing.

Another problem is that the bikes have both a "return" and a "park" capability. I thought, wrongly, that the latter meant you could park the bicycle temporarily while you are using it. So when one night I cycled to a restaurant by the river. It was dark and I didn't fancy trying to find a docking station along the riverside where there were no streetlights. So I used the "park" function of the bicycle, to park it while you are renting. When I returned to the bicycle, I had been charged a further 20 Euros for returning the bike in the wrong location (although I had not returned the bicycle).

All in all, the Frankfurt bicycles cost me more than using taxis. The maps are poor, it is difficult to find the docking stations, and the rules are confusing. It's  pretty much the worst bicycle system I have ever used (and I've used bike hire in many cities). My recommendations to nextbike are:

  1. Review the signage and the UI. For example, keying the pin number you are given doesn't work. It wasn't clear that you first press any key on the keypad to wake it up, and the system only starts recording your pin number with the next key you press. I had to phone customer support for three of the eight rentals, and each time I don't think it was my mistake. 
  2. Make the maps clearer. If you can't find the docking station, it's not surprising you will leave the bike in the wrong place.Don't show bike locations that are not official on the map. Users cannot easily find the bikes at these locations. 
  3. Maintain the bikes. Of the eight bikes I rented, three of them had tyres that were almost flat. 
  4. Answer your emails. When I phoned customer service about fees after emailing them, they stated "we get a lot of emails and it takes us days to get through them. Why not just phone us?" Well, if the company gives an email address, you kind of expect them to read the emails ...