May 31 2009
A. and I tried out Bixi today. I used my own bike but for A. we wanted to get a Bixi.
We went to “our” Bixi station and I tapped the solar powered touch screen. Two icons were visible, one of it disabled. After I tapped the big icon I was presented with the screen shown above. There appear to be 50 pages of this legalese text, with Article 1 to x, in either English or French. Rather overwhelming, and maybe at the page 10 there are instructions, but I never clicked through so far.
Instead I just put my credit card in the credit card slot.
After a short while two other icons appeared, but before I could figure out what they meant (there is plenty of room to add a text next to it, and after 50 pages of text one or two words would be really helpful here) the printer printed a ticket. It had a 5 digit code on it, and a pictogram how to enter it. After a moment of confusion I found out that next to each bike there was a small keypad where one would punch in the code. The code contains only the numbers 1, 2 and 3 only, so it’s not to hard to do. I entered the code and a red light started flashing. Not good. After three more tries we entered the code in another bike’s keypad and finally it worked: a green light lit up, the lock released and the Bixi bike was ours to use.
We adjusted the saddle and off we went. It was A.’s first ride in the city in decades, so we started on a quiet residential street. The steering of the bike is a bit “nervous” but after a while she got used to it. She liked that the centre of gravity was very low.
Our destination was the Jean-Talon Market about 1.5 km away. I had a iPhone map that linked to the map on the Bixi website that supposedly shows realtime information about the amount of Bixi’s available at every station. More importantly, it shows how many free spots there are at each stand. Because the Bixi has no lock, and after 30 minutes of “free” use it gets really expensive. If you’d use the Bixi for three consecutive hours a whopping $16.50, on top of your $5 daily fee, would have been charged to you credit card.
In order to not break the bank you have to bring back the Bixi bike to a station within 30 minutes. Fortunately you then can immediately get another bike, and use it for free for the next half hour. But this means there should be stations, with free spots, at regular intervals, otherwise you are more or less stuck.
According to the map that I checked when we left home there were 7 free spots at the Henri-Julien/Jean Talon stand. There was none. I checked the map again on my iPhone, and it still said 7 free spots. Next stand, 300 metres further away on Chateaubriand/Bélanger. According to the map, 5 free spots. In reality, none.
Finally we found one free spot on the Bréboeuf/Jean-Talon stand, 800 metres from our destination, but in another direction. Again, the map said there should have been many free spots, and there were only two. Since this bike station was almost nearer to our house than to the Jean-Talon Market we felt kind of cheated.
We decided to cancel our visit to the market and instead to go back home. In order to do that we needed to unlock another bike. I typed in the code from my ticket but got a red light. We tried all bikes but none of them would unlock. The code-ticket had a phone number on it that I called for assistance. After a short wait a man answered me in very poor English and told me to swipe my card again and I would get a new number.
Of course! The old code was only valid for that station, and had expired after I unlocked the bike. But swiping your credit card repeatedly feels quite dangerous, especially because there is absolutely no feedback on the amount actually charged. (I still don’t know, since my online credit card record shows no charge at all.)
Again, some printed instructions, either on the pay kiosk or on the ticket would have been immensely helpful. They might have been there, but buried in a 50 page puddle of legalese, it’s unlikely that anybody would find them.
After I swiped my card again, I got a new code (I now figured out the two icons meant print code and show code on screen), unlocked a bike and rode back home.
So our first experience with Bixi wasn’t that positive. The bikes are great, but the information how to use it isn’t great,worse, it’s almost non-existent.
Also, if the information on the Bixi website is not correct and up-to-date, you can’t plan a trip. Without my iPhone, I wouldn’t even have known the locations of the “nearby” stations. A printed map on all the stations showing the nearest stations would be a really obvious solution here.
Bixi is nice, but you shouldn’t want to use it to go to a destination, like the Jean-Talon market, or a cinema downtown or things like that. Chances are that you can’t drop off your bike and either you pay a lot of money or have to walk quite a bit. Or both. I later learned there is an icon that becomes active when the station has no free spots left that will extend your half hour with 15 minutes so you have time to find a station that does have room to drop off your Bixi. But since the icons have no text there is no way you would know. When there is no room for your bike you don’t go to the touch screen to find a solution. At least I didn’t.
The ratio between bikes and stations is not good. On the Bixi website they talk about 3000 bikes and 300 station. Most stations don’t even have 10 places, so when nobody uses a Bixi, like at night, all bikes should be parked and everybody should have put them perfectly very spread out over the network. That isn’t going to happen. Realistically there should be two or three times more parking spaces than bikes.
And then there are those instructions: 50 pages of legalese interspersed with instructions is just ridiculous. Quebec user interface designers are either terrible, or those things are designed by the son of the director who is studying graphic design at a Cegep. I have no idea. The same applies to the interface design of the STM Opus terminals, but that is another rant.
I know Bixi is still in its infancy and not completely rolled out yet, but many of the above points are basic design flaws that could have been easily avoided.
For know, I don’t think A. will get a Bixi pass for her birthday, and not only also because she told me she would never use it to go to work downtown. She has more reasons than the ones pointed out above but still.