Monday, I started out at 9 am to see how the freewheel!n borrow-a-bike-free program was working.
I visited three stations, two in parks ringing downtown Minneapolis, and one down the bluff from downtown Saint Paul (and the RNC).
My hunch about less-than-ideal bike station locations was on target. Two stations I visited were quiet, and the 8-10 volunteers all wanted something to do. Highlighting the dearth of riders, as I left the first station, a Humana-hired film crew asked whether I'd ride around the park while his crew took video. He didn't want to wait for new riders to come along! I saw no one visibly RNC-related at any of the three stations. In Saint Paul, the few other cyclists I saw seemed to be leaving the protest.
The stations ran smoothly. The volunteers were well-trained, and 15 minutes after arriving, I was on a bike, borrowed lock in the bag, heading out on an errand. Easy.
It wasn't perfect, though.
The check-out equipment wasn't as slick as on the freewheel!n website - staff struggled to get the bar code readers to work (but thankfully didn't insist on giving me a pink bike.)
One of the three bikes I rode didn't have a quick-release seat, and the volunteers lacked the tool to adjust it. Nor could they tell me how to get around or even to downtown Saint Paul on the bike, given the blocked-off streets. When I asked, they suggested I ride along the Mississippi (so much for Freewheel!n's suggestion to "pedal your way the 4 or 6 blocks from your hotel to the convention center, or from the light rail stop to your office or, well, anywhere else.")
Security perimeter on Chestnut Ave., downtown Saint Paul. Photo credit: Janne K. Flisrand
I give the bikes a mixed review. On a 90 degree day, somewhere to keep a water bottle would have helped. Of the three bikes I rode, only one had a properly functioning computer. (One didn't work at all, and a second was upside down and read 40% too fast - good for Gustav relief!) Two of the bikes were nice to ride, but one was hard work to pedal. If the hope is to get people who haven't ridden in years to ride more, people who try out a bike and think, "this is hard work!" don't help the cause: they're gonna jump right back in their cars.
The problems could be easily fixed - and since some of the bikes will be left behind, I hope they will be. Relocate stations, spend a little time making sure everything works, get freewheel!n kiosks instead of volunteers, and wait for the RNC to pass.
Is this effort greening the RNC or greenwashing it? Greenwashing, as I see no evidence of RNC attendee use. But, with some luck it will green the Twin Cities.
As for my other questions, the entire excursion gave me an opportunity to roll and thread my way through standstill traffic in downtown Saint Paul, with an excellent view of two large crews of riot police, smashed plate glass windows, police officers trying to get a massive cement trash bin out of the road, and people laying down in front of a bus and being pepper-sprayed by police.