Rockaway keeps getting new toys (a video arcade in a bathhouse? Yisssss) and the latest is two dockless bike share networks. Users of the Lime and/or Pace apps can now grab a bike and pay $1 for every 30 minutes to zip around from Tilden to the new barbecue joint, or most anywhere else on the peninsula east of Breezy Point. Unlike Citi Bikes, these 200+ rides don’t have to be docked at a station, so you won’t experience that familiar Dock Rage of being unable to return a bike to your preferred location because a station is full. And Lime even offers pedal-assist e-bikes– the ultimate beach cruiser.
This all sounded swell (surf pun intended) until I tried out the brand-new services on a recent Thursday afternoon (so, not even on a peak beach day) and felt like I was playing a masochistic version of Pokemon Go. Functional bikes were as elusive as kabutops, and I basically blew a would-be beach day searching for wheels. (At one point some little kid who saw me puzzling over my iPhone facetiously tried to sell me free wifi. He’s lucky he’s still alive.) This is the story of that day, but I must warn you: this is not a twee, endearing account of two-wheeled travel a la David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries. This is the stultifyingly mundane tale of a man pushed to the brink by failures of technology. I do not expect you to read every word of this 21st century lament; feel free to skim the highlights and (mostly) lowlights in bold.
Signing up was the quick and easy part: download the Pace or Lime app, pop in your phone number and credit card info, and you’re ready to ride. If you’ve ever experienced the quasi-erotic rush of, say, setting up a Sonos speaker system, this is similar. Keep in mind you’ll have to buy $10 in credit to start using the Lime app. Pace offers your first 30-minute ride free.
I decided to start out at Riis Beach, where the map on the Pace app told me there was a bike near the Beach Bazaar. The Pace bikes have a short, built-in wire that you can unlock from the bike, wrap around any pole or bike rack when you’re done with your ride, and lock back into the bike. To unlock the bike I found on a boardwalk rack, all I had to do was turn my phone’s bluetooth on and press a button (you can also just type in the bike number). I did this, the lock was released with a satisfying click, and I hopped on the bike– only to discover that the tire was flat. It seemed someone had removed the inner tube. My Wesley Willis-esque fit-throwing hell ride had begun.
After a brief struggle to get the tiny wire back around the bike rack, I locked the bike back up but the app continued to charge me for the ride. When I tried to get it to end the ride, the app repeatedly froze on the “preparing to lock” screen. After multiple attempts, I called the help line and, after waiting several minutes for customer service, finally got someone on the line. I could barely hear her with the Beach Bazaar’s karaoke going on in the background (“This is the place where we share ourselves with each other,” said a man in a nautical hat) but she was able to end the ride from her end.
Okay, now what? All three bikes at Riis Beach had flat tires and were about as useable as driftwood sculptures, so my plan to gleefully pedal over to Rippers was foiled. Instead I decided to drive over to 116th Street, Rockaway’s main business strip, where I figured it would be easy to find usable bikes. Not so. The Pace map said there was one at the corner of Rockaway Beach Boulevard, but the bike on the map was nowhere to be found. I walked over to the boardwalk, where another one was supposed to be. There was a bike there, but it wasn’t the number shown on the map and was unavailable. The map indicated another bike over on 118th Street, but there was nothing there.
Pace has been having problems with ghost bikes in other markets, in part because a bike’s location on the map indicates where it was last locked up, not necessarily its current, actual location. In Rochester, 250 bikes went missing. “The problem is that the bikes can be locked and marked as returned without actually being fixed to a bike rack,” the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle wrote earlier this month. “Apparently people have been ‘locking’ them then taking them away to tamper with the Bluetooth function.”
Add to this, some Rockaway residents are annoyed that the Lime bikes, in particular, can be left anywhere. Some have been found hanging on fences. Others have been found in trees, a local told Gothamist.
As I wondered whether it was worth walking another three blocks to what might be another ghost bike, this couple breezed by me on a tandem:
I was about to make an indecent proposal: “Sir, I’ll give you a million dollars if you let me ride this bike to Rippers with your wife. Or without your wife. I just need the #&$@U$) bike.”
It was nearing 7:30pm, so I figured I better just drive over to Rippers before they closed and this bike share fiasco cost me a burger. Paul Major of Endless Boogie was DJing at Rippers, which was cool, but I wasn’t about to sit there listening to Donovan without having completed my mission. I scarfed the burger (good thing the Lime app tells you how many calories you’ve burned) and strolled a block to where the Pace app said there was a rack, but the app’s bluetooth function didn’t pick up the one bike that was there and when I typed its serial number into my phone I got a message saying “This bike is not available to Pace riders.” Of course not! Why would it be?
I ended up having to walk 10 blocks before I found another pair of wheels on the boardwalk. By this point, I was seriously thinking of just stealing the cargo bike from Uma’s restaurant, which was sitting there gloriously unlocked. If caught, I could just describe the nightmare I was living and they’d probably just feel sorry for me and give me a free bichaki.
The bike mapped at 98th Street was, of course, also unavailable, and the bike mapped at 101st Street was nowhere to be found. Just a figment of the Pace app’s imagination. There, all I could find were these massive vintage rides:
Normally I would think, “Who would drive such gas-guzzling beasts when you could just zip around on an environmentally-friendly bike like Pee-wee Herman,” but I swear I was on the verge of hot-wiring one of these sharks and driving it straight into the ocean.
Finally, I called Pace’s customer service again to ask if the bike share program had even launched. Maybe I was catching it during some weird pilot phase where all of the bikes were off-line? The rep told me that, yes, it was fully up and running. When I asked why the bikes consistently weren’t working or weren’t where they were supposed to be, she explained that the map only identifies bike racks, it doesn’t necessarily tell you if a bike is at them. “It kind of defeats the purpose,” she acknowledged– at which point my head almost exploded. Not only was the information absurd, but it didn’t seem accurate: In addition to public bike racks (marked with a P), the map clearly did identify the location of specific bikes (marked with a line drawing of a bike), even showing their serial numbers. The app’s FAQ said as much. It seemed like the customer service rep knew even less about the system than I did.
Eventually, I found a usable bike attached to a pole across the street from Connolly’s. Lo and behold, it actually unlocked seamlessly and I was finally, finally on my way. The Pace bikes are a little smaller and lighter than Citi Bikes; compared to those big blue clunkers, riding them feels almost like riding a folding bicycle. So, yeah, it would’ve been perfectly nice if not for the fact that when I tried to lock up the bike to a pole near the new bar on 88th Street, Epstein’s Beach, the app froze on the “Get Ready to Lock” screen. When I finally got customer service on the line, the rep told me to move the wheels, turn my bluetooth off and on, and press the lock button on the bike’s keypad before trying again. It didn’t work. I ended up having to start a new ride and end it in order to stop being charged.
NOW, FOR LIME’S E-BIKES
By this time it was dark out and I was ready to call it a (very bad) day, but I realized I hadn’t tried out Lime. That’s because Lime’s bike map had stalled out hours ago, the first time I tried to use it. There was no way I was leaving without trying out Lime’s pedal-assist bikes, so I rebooted the app and found one a block away from the YMCA. Lime bikes don’t need to be locked to anything, and this one had been abandoned right in the middle of the sidewalk. I could see how this could be annoying to some Rockaway residents, but I was feeling nothing but unbridled joy and relief when the e-bike ACTUALLY ACTIVATED as soon as I hovered my phone over the QR code on the battery pack. As the u-lock automatically withdrew from the spokes, the bike even issued a cheerful musical chime like you hear on the Tokyo subway. Could this one day compete with the Mister Softee jingle as the sound of summer in Rockaway? (Probably not.)
Riding the pedal-assist bike was literally a breeze. The moment I started pedaling, the bike kicked up to a speed that put some wind in my face– and, on this bumpy stretch of Rockaway Beach Boulevard, threatened to put some lumps in my butt. But don’t expect to zip around like one of those delivery guys that almost mowed you down in the crosswalk the other day. According to my speedometer app, I maxed out at 13 MPH. The bike glides along nicely despite its weight, but it quickly decelerates when you stop pedaling, so you can’t just kick your feet up and let the thing do the work for you.
I would compare this experience to one of the regular bikes that Lime also offers, but I was never able to activate one. When I tried using one that had been left near the e-bike, I got a message saying it “cannot be unlocked at the moment. Please try again.” Needless to say, trying again proved useless. The next bike I tried was “under maintenance,” even though nothing appeared to be wrong with it. I made one last attempt, but the next bike on the map was nowhere to be found. Its location on the Lime map put it in someone’s garage, and I wasn’t about to knock on their door and ask to look around. Who knows, though, maybe some people will make friends this way. There’s a rich history of bungalow culture in Rockaway.
Would I use Lime or Pace again? Probably, because I am a masochist. And even though I’m a regular Citi Bike user and have had experience with dockless bike shares like Portland’s Biketown, I’m willing to attribute some of the locking and unlocking issues to beginner’s clumsiness. Hopefully the ghost-bike kinks will get worked out some day and I’ll be loading up one of those unwieldy metal bike baskets with a round of frozens from Connolly’s.