I had a day in Melbourne and a few things I wanted to do around town, so I tried out their much-maligned city Bike Share system.
I’d heard all the complaints and the reasons it would never work. ‘The bikes are too heavy.’ ‘If you want to ride you’ll have your own bike.’ ‘Visitors won’t know how to work the system’. And the perennial biggie: ‘It will never take off while helmets are compulsory.’ Well, we’ll see…
Step one for me was to check the website before I left Sydney. My first question, ‘Where can I pick up a bike and a helmet?’
The website told me:
‘We have listened to your feedback and a downloadable map is now available. The map is easy on the eye and lists all of the stations, helmet outlets, along with formal and informal bike paths. Print it out and keep it with you, we reckon this map will become an invaluable companion for all Melbourne Bike Sharers.’
Then came a glitch. To download the easy-on-the-eye map I was invited to ‘click here’. I clicked there and got ‘The requested page could not be found.’
Undeterred, I clicked on some of the exciting-sounding bike tour suggestions (Culture Craving tour, Feed Me tour, Retail Rejuvenation tour, Spiritual Guide tour, Park Your Bike tour) and found they all had the map I wanted. I printed it off and found I could almost read it without my glasses in outdoor light on a cloudy day.
Armed with map, I flew to Melbourne, took the shuttle bus from Tullamarine to Southern Cross Station in the city, and found a rack of smart blue bikes outside it.
The helmet issue surfaced. I know you can get them from Seven-Eleven stores and a vending machine at the station but finding them was tricky for an out-of-towner.
Fortunately I found an abandoned helmet hanging on one of the blue bikes. (They only cost $5 and you get a $3 refund when you return them. No surprise that many people don’t bother.)
I bravely stuck my credit card in the machine by the rack and bought a day pass for $2.50. For this modest outlay I got a code to punch into the rack by my chosen bike.
There were plenty to choose from. The bikes all looked in good condition, but some had cobwebs on them. The poor bikes apparently don’t get out much.
I picked my steed, punched in the number and pulled it out. Pleasant surprise. It had 3 gears and handbrakes. I’ve used the city bikes in Copenhagen and they weren’t nearly as good as this one.
For the rest of the day I rode around town, to Queen Victoria Market, up to the Melbourne Museum, down town to Federation Square, round the Yarra to the MCG. I even slipped in there for free to watch the end of a Sheffield Shield cricket match.
Then round the Botanic Gardens and up St Kilda Rd to Southbank.
It took a little while before I realised there was an extra trip charge if you kept the bike for more than half an hour. I think I only got caught on this once, however.
If you slot your bike into any of the racks around town within the half hour, it’s free to pull another bike out during the day. All the bikes I had were in perfect order.
If the rack is full (as it often was in Copenhagen – a bore) you insert the credit card again and you get another 15 minutes to ride to another one. This was not too bad on a fine day – no station was more than 15 minutes from any other.
In short – I found it an excellent system and hope it prospers. I saw a few others using it, mostly tourists.
The helmet thing is a most unfortunate disincentive. I felt extremely unlikely to have a brain-threatening fall at slow speed on my upright bike on a cycle path. And how much would a $5 helmet protect me anyway?
But understandably no politician would dare repeal the compulsory helmet law now. The first head injury would be splattered all over the front pages.
My recommendation – just quietly and informally tell the police to stop enforcing the law and let cyclists decide for themselves how they’d like to ride. If they come to grief, it will be on their own heads.
Meanwhile, if you’re visiting Melbourne, get one of those bikes and try it. I’m pretty sure you’ll like it.