Going for a Spin—A Review of Providence’s Second Bikeshare Attempt
Table of Contents
Providence’s first experience with bikeshare was less than ideal.
The full history of that first bikeshare is too long and complicated to cover here, but it lasted 11 months from September 2018 to August 2019 and was operated by JUMP, then a subsidiary of Uber. JUMP’s bikes were great for a quick trip to pick up some groceries, to zip across town to a meeting, or just to go for a joy ride. The motor was helpful for getting from point A to point B quickly and for climbing hills, but it was also fun. The whole experience of being able to walk up to a bike, rent it, ride it, lock it, and forget about it was liberating and delightful. Fun and practical for me as a transit and bike nerd, but also fun and practical for my friends who weren’t, and fun for my mom, who hadn’t ridden a bike in city traffic in years.
But less than a year after they first appeared, the bikes were pulled. JUMP’s original prices ($2 for 30 minutes plus 7¢ for every additional minute) had been set so low that they weren’t sustainable, and in an effort to be profitable they had jacked the prices up significantly. Around the same time, JUMP replaced their original bikes with a new version, which had a more flexible but theoretically less robust locking mechanism.1 Vandalism (breaking the locks and disabling the GPS locators) increased to levels the company hadn’t seen in its other markets.
Crime and nuisance were also linked to JUMP’s bikes. There were surely some minor infractions (blocking a sidewalk, riding too close to a pedestrian, that sort of thing), but a handful (out of hundreds of thousands of bike trips) of particularly bad incidents were magnified, and these events quickly snowballed into some rather sensationalized local news coverage that implied a slight but definite link between the bikes and breakdown of social order. Some of the incidents warranted outrage and concern (for example, a JUMP technician was threatened by a man with a gun while on the job), but the tone taken by politicians and local news outlets in responding to those issues implied a causal relationship between bikes and crime that has never existed.2 It was lazy and pandering, and I hope our leaders and media will not repeat that particular mistake when issues inevitably arise with Spin’s bikeshare.
Facing backlash over the misuse of its bikes and unexpected pricing change, JUMP pulled its bikes in August 2019. In February 2020, The Providence Journal reported JUMP was planning to return that spring, but the pandemic appears to have cancelled that. Uber sold JUMP to Lime and was then caught destroying tens of thousands of the bikes it was left with. JUMP, as a brand and product, is dead.
But there’s a new bikeshare in town: Spin. I spent a week trying out their offering, and then significantly longer than a week writing this post. I’ve evaluated both the new S-300 electric bike itself and the app and experience around using that bike, and also have some thoughts on Spin as a company and the future of bikeshare in small cities like Providence.
The Bike #
One’s experience using a bike is very much dependent upon their body. I am one person with one body to test the S-300 with, so here are some of my physical statistics that may be helpful in putting my experiences in context. I’m male, 21 years old, about 6 feet tall, weigh about 155 pounds, have normalish proportions, no notable medical conditions, and ride a 2014 Trek 7.3 FX almost every day as a primary form of transportation.
I have limited experience with electric bikes (mostly my experience with JUMP), and this is not going to be super technical review of the motors and battery tech. I’m sure there are plenty of websites that review those things, but this is not one of them.
Step-Through Frame #
Like every bikeshare bike I’ve ever seen, the S-300 uses a step-through frame. I’ve never had a problem swinging my leg over a crossbar, but these are shared bikes and step-through frames are accessible to the greatest number of people. It’s the right choice, and I certainly didn’t have any problems with being able to mount and dismount the bike. I only tested the S-300 while wearing my everyday cargo shorts or jeans, so I can’t speak to how difficult riding might be when wearing a skirt or dress, but nothing jumped out to me as problematic in this regard.
The “downtube” is very thick, as it contains the battery, other electronics, and internal wiring. Fortunately, the joints connecting this component to the rest of the frame neat and well made. The rest of the frame is sturdy and mostly unremarkable, which is a good thing. I will note, however, that because the downtube is so thick and contains such a large battery, the S-300 has a weight distribution that feels very uneven if you’re used to a regular bike. I barely noticed this when riding (the motor does a good job of compensating) but did feel that unexpected weight when making tight turns or sharply avoiding potholes. When standing still, the weight is much more noticeable. The bike is big and trying to maneuver it into or out of a bike rack with all that awkward weight can be annoying, if not physically challenging. I found the most physically difficult part of using the S-300 wasn’t riding but trying to tuck it neatly into bike racks and getting the locking mechanism lined up. Additionally, when coming to a stop at a red light and standing to stretch my legs, I had to be careful about how I rested the bike. When riding my own bike, I’ll often tilt to one side and let the bike rest on my leg, but the weight of the S-300 (and lack of crossbar) meant I had to remember to hold the bike. This weight (and weight distribution) is certainly less pleasant than that of any other bike (electric or otherwise) that I’ve ever ridden, but it isn’t a huge deal.
There are a number of deeply recessed screws (presumably used in servicing the motor, gears, and battery) in the frame. These screws appear to use a variety of different sizes, presumably to reduce the chance that a vandal or thief has the tools needed to access those internals. In the same vein, it’s worth noting that all cabling is internally routed through the frame. Many bikeshares (including JUMP) have made this design decision as well; it keeps the appearance clean, the components somewhat isolated from bad weather, and mischievous vandals (who may take sadistic pleasure in cutting brake cables) out.
Locking and Unlocking #
As I mentioned earlier, there’s been a lot of talk about bikeshare locking mechanisms in Providence. On the S-300, the lock consists of a long, rubberized cable that is secured to the rear fender assembly just behind the saddle post. The cable ends in a long pin that is inserted into a lock hole on the right side of the rear fender assembly. The pin is long enough that it can be pushed all the way through the bike to activate a sensor on the left of the assembly, which presumably tells the bike’s computer the lock’s status. When unlocked, the rider routes the cable into a groove along the top of the rear fender and inserts the pin into another hole towards the back of the fender. This hole also has a sensor, and the bike can beep and chirp to indicate whether you’ve properly inserted the pin.
At the press conference, this lock design was touted as making the bike much more secure, and much was said about how bad JUMP’s design had been. But, as I remarked on Twitter at the time, those statements were somewhat misleading:
Pretty misleading statement on the design of JUMP’s lock design. The *first* version had a removable bracket, but the second version (the one that caused all the “problems”) had the *same* basic design as Spin.— Chris Sarli (@chris_sarli) June 14, 2021
(Photos, in order, JUMP v1, JUMP v2, Spin) https://t.co/lV2j03Ducg pic.twitter.com/NNiXVfGRQZ
The S-300’s lock is, on the conceptual level, the same as the lock on the second JUMP design (the one that seemed to cause so much trouble). But I do think there are some differences which probably do make it more secure. The cable feels a bit tougher than JUMP’s did. I wouldn’t trust it over a sturdy U-Lock for my own personal bike, but it isn’t terrible. The pin is also much longer than I remember the locking pin on JUMP’s design being. My guess is that this makes the lock more resilient to the blunt force attacks that JUMP’s bikes were vulnerable to.
But that added security comes with some tradeoffs. Routing the cable along the fender is clever, but it’s still a big floppy cable that you have to route into place. JUMP’s second bike had a more flexible braided cable that retracted into the bike. This was much more pleasant than the big floppy cable on the S-300, which can feel somewhat unwieldy. Another disadvantage of this is that you have to insert the lock on the right side of the bike. The bike is heavy and can be hard to get lined up next to a rack, so turning it around and shifting things to get the hole and pin aligned can be somewhat irritating. The original JUMP bike had U-Lock-style mechanism that could be inserted from either the left or right, which is a convenience I wish the S-300 had.
I also found (once, out of the six trips I took on the S-300) that the lock can get stuck. In this case, I had parked the bike and inserted the lock as far as it would go. Noticing that the bike hadn’t chirped its confirmation that my ride had ended (confirmed by a glance at the Spin app), I realized that there was still a bit of the metal pin visible. I tried rotating the rear wheel to ensure that I hadn’t hit a spoke and tried backing the pin out so I could push it in again, but it was stuck. Too far in to take it out, but not far enough in to convince the bike that I had ended my ride. I spent a few minutes trying to dislodge the lock, scoured the app to see if there was a way to send a force unlock command to the bike (there wasn’t), and ultimately decided to give up. I had stuff to do and ended up walking home. I submitted a support ticket, an experience you can read about more below.
I’m also worried that others might be having difficulties with the lock. In the past several weeks walking around Providence, I’ve seen at least two strangers (out of the maybe 15-20 total people I’ve seen riding an S-300) clearly struggling with the mechanism. This is anecdotal evidence of course, and it’s reasonable to assume that these people had never unlocked an S-300 before. And though I wish the lock was a bit more intuitive, it’s not like other docked solutions (CitiBike comes to mind) are super easy to use.
Obviously, I didn’t try to break into the S-300, so I can’t really evaluate how secure the lock is, but generally I think Spin succeeded in creating a more secure dockless bikeshare bike. It definitely isn’t close to unbreakable, but nothing is.
The saddle is rider-adjustable and secured with a fairly standard clamping mechanism, which felt sturdy enough such that I wasn’t worried about the S-300 being able to support my weight. The FCC compliance label on the side of the bike claims it has a maximum payload of 264 pounds, so I assume that the clamp is rated to hold that much weight. Because the S-300 is intended to be a shared bike, the saddle height will need to be adjusted frequently, so I wish that it was a bit easier to (de)tension the clamp. Of course, I’d rather have the security of a strong clamp that’s hard to open than a weak clamp that is easy to open, but even modifying the clamp arm (currently a somewhat sharp-edged metal strip) to be a bit more grippable would be a welcome change.
I’m very glad to see that the saddle posts have different height adjustments marked with numbers. Because it’s expected that riders will frequently want to adjust the saddle height when they start a ride, this feature respects the fact that repeat riders will learn over time which height works best for them by allowing them to consistently dial in that height. The saddle post has its rotation fixed by a small metal ridge that keeps the saddle directly facing forward (which is fine), but I’m worried that this makes it a bit difficult to adjust the height (the post can get slightly stuck, meaning sometimes I had to use a lot of force to get the saddle to the precise height I wanted).
As for the saddle itself, I do wish there was a drainage hole or two (or at least that the saddle had a slightly less concave shape), because water can easily pool. But, when the saddle was dry, I found it to be serviceable for short rides. It’s softer than the rather hard saddle I’m used to on my own bike, but I wouldn’t call it “soft.” I got a little sore after about 30 minutes of continuous riding, but everyone will have different preferences on this.
On a longer ride, I noticed that the saddle is much wider than the saddle I’m used to, especially towards the rear. I didn’t think much of this at first, but after a while I found that it was so wide it was interfering with my thighs while pedaling. Again, this will vary for each individual, but I started to feel my inner thighs not just rubbing but hitting the saddle with every pedal stroke and found this to be very distracting and unpleasant. I hadn’t noticed this in shorter, faster-paced rides I had taken, so maybe it had to do with my posture, but I’ve never run into that on any other saddle I’ve ever used.
The S-300’s handlebar-mounted basket is a disappointment. Certainly it’s better than no basket, but it’s almost frustratingly small. Spin, in a press release, says they want us to use it to carry the stuff of everyday life:
It’s robust front storage compartment handles groceries and deliveries with ease
Providence is a city of many hills, potholes, and terrible drivers. I’m not sure where the S-300 was designed and tested, but I find it very hard to imagine anyone would feel good about transporting groceries through Providence in this basket. I’ve carried precarious loads (several watermelons, pizzas, water jugs, glassware) on bikes before, and have always felt reasonably comfortable doing so because I’ve had a deep enough container (a milk crate in the case of the watermelon), bungees and straps, or both. The S-300 has a relatively shallow basket with no built-in mechanism to strap down the basket’s contents. I’m sure the basket can support up to its 17.6-pound capacity when stationary, but once in motion I have very little confidence that the contents would stay inside.
The basket is mounted on the handlebars and reminds me of a pinball flipper when the front wheel gets a jolt (again, Providence has many potholes). I tried riding for about 5 minutes with a tote bag containing about 4 pounds of groceries in the basket, and while everything stayed in the basket, there were a few close calls even though I was riding more slowly than I otherwise would have. If I felt that uneasy about carrying $7 of vegetables, there’s no way in hell I’m trusting that basket with something valuable like my bookbag.
I really think Spin needs to go back to the drawing board on this one. Every other bikeshare I’ve used has had a better basket than the S-300. JUMP had nice, deep baskets that I always felt confident using for groceries. Heck, CitiBike has some models with baskets even smaller and shallower than the S-300, but because they include bungee cords, I’ve always felt at least somewhat comfortable using them.
Drivetrain and Motors #
The S-300 uses chain drives, and all gearing is handled internally. Most of the chain is covered, with only the bottom of the chain exposed. I tested the bikes when they were brand new, so it wasn’t surprising that the chains were quiet and clean. I’m hopeful Spin will be able to maintain this level of quality as the bikes are used and abused in all four seasons of Providence weather.
Because the bottom of the chain loop is exposed, I was initially worried about pants legs getting caught or greasy. After testing, I don’t think this is a huge concern. The pedals are positioned decently far from the chain and front cog, and the upper part of the cog is separated from the world (and the rider’s legs) by the external shell of the bike. When I’m riding my regular bike in jeans, I usually roll up my right pants leg just so that if the pants do get grease on them, I can easily hide it. I didn’t feel like this precaution was needed on the S-300, but other clothing types may warrant different considerations. In the future, Spin could go above and beyond by equipping its bikes either with full chain guards or belt drive systems, but the lack of either doesn’t detract from the S-300.
All gear changes are handled by the bike itself, meaning there is no gear shifter that could cause problems. I’ve been shifting my own gears for most of my life, so it feels a bit weird not to be able to control the power-to-rotation ratio (especially when purposefully riding slowly, like when creeping up to a red light), but for the most part the shifting handled itself as advertised. You can still feel the shifting when the motor changes power level, but it’s much smoother than shifting on JUMP’s bike was.
The S-300 uses a Segway system for the battery and motors. I don’t know much of anything about how good Segway is at these things, but the handling of the S-300 leads me to believe that the company lives up at least somewhat to its brand image. There are hub motors in both the front and rear wheels, and the timing is good enough that it feels as though the two motors are one. They respond as I naturally expect when I change my pedaling cadence, and at top speeds the motors seem to output steady, continuous power. I regularly find myself at red lights with impatient motorists right behind me, so I welcome the near-instant acceleration the S-300 can provide. It’s wonderful and I wish I could add it to my bike as a “turbo button” for those situations.
Wheels and Tires #
The S-300 has reasonably thick 26-inch tires, which seem fairly standard for bikeshare bikes. There are also white reflectors ringing each side of each tire. I’ve been seeing these reflectors more and more on bike tires, and I very much approve. They signal a bike’s presence very distinctively when illuminated at night, and also look cool.
The wheels are interesting. Spin is using wheels with 12 “spokes,” paired to give the impression of 6 “spokes.” I’m almost certain that these were selected over standard wheels because it makes it easier to lock the bike. The locking mechanism (discussed later) relies on putting a long metal pin through the rear wheel. Leaving more large, empty spaces in the wheel means that users are much less likely to hit the spoke when locking the bike, probably reducing maintenance costs of broken spokes and lessening user frustration.
Riders are shielded from both the front and rear wheels by fenders. Given Providence’s often less than ideal weather, these are a must. In my testing, they did a better job than I expected, but the bottoms of my legs still got a bit wet when riding after a storm. I’m sure that if Providence had fewer potholes and more permeable surface area then this would be much less of a problem, but if you’re riding a bike in Providence when it’s raining, you’re probably getting at least a little wet.
Lights and Reflectors #
The S-300 is equipped with two LED lights. As is standard, the white headlight is mounted in front of the handlebars and the red taillight is incorporated into the rear fender. These lights are sufficient, if unremarkable. Spin says both are visible from 500 feet away. I have no way of testing this, but it doesn’t sound unreasonable. I did notice that for its brightness the beam of the headlight was wider than I expected it to be, illuminating both some of the roadway and street signs.
In terms of reflectors, I’ve mentioned my fondness for the tire wall reflector rings. Complementing those are standard retroreflectors on the pedals and near the headlight and taillight.
Like JUMP, Spin has branded with a reddish color. Neither JUMP or Spin use a reflective or neon paint, but both are vibrant (JUMP more so than Spin) and likely to be more quickly identified than a bike painted only in grays would.
The handlebars are unremarkable (again, not in a bad way). Like saddle height, the configuration of handlebars has a big impact on the experience of the rider. Spin hasn’t included a way for riders to adjust this, likely because that would significantly increase the overall complexity of the bike. The sizing and position of the handlebars, however, is a setting that I think most will find usable.
There are no gear shifters on the handlebars, but there is a bell that can be rung by twisting a ring in either direction, very similar to most bikeshare bell mechanisms I used. The bell itself is sufficient and distinctive, but I wish it were a bit louder (traffic can be loud, and cars are increasingly well insulated).
In the center of the handlebars is what I’ll call the “control cluster.” The top portion is a phone holder, and the top lip of the assembly can be pulled forwards to adjust to most phone sizes. The mechanism is forced backwards by an internal spring, securing the rider’s phone in place as a sort of dashboard… in theory. The spring isn’t strong enough for me to feel comfortable trusting it with my phone, especially given the jolts a Providence pothole can send through the bike.
Even if the spring was stronger, I don’t think I’d want my phone to be mounted. Despite the City’s efforts, Providence is still a fairly dangerous place to bike, in part because we have so many terrible drivers who themselves are distracted by their phones when they shouldn’t be. I get that it might be helpful if you’re trying to use your phone to navigate, but in general I like not looking at my phone while riding. In the event you do want to clamp your phone in, the bike can wirelessly charge it (if the phone is compatible), which is a nice touch.
Also on the control cluster is some unoffensive Spin branding and a QR code used for unlocking the bike. Because the code is under a shiny layer of plastic, rainwater or glaring sun can make it difficult to get a clear read. However, there is an additional QR code on the down tube that is easier to get a read from in these conditions.
Below the control cluster’s QR code there are three icons, presumably a crossed circle to indicate “no,” a snail to indicate “slow,” and a parking symbol. The purpose of these symbols is not entirely clear to me. Below the symbols is a speed display, using standard 8-segment digit displays, which were clear and easy to read, even in direct sunlight.
At the bottom of the cluster there’s a multicolor glowing light—a nice, fun touch. When locked and available it glows green, which seems like a natural choice for “available.” But when the bike is in a ride, it glows pinkish purple.
Attached to the handlebars are two brake levers. As is standard on most bikes, the left lever corresponds to the front wheel and the right the rear. While sufficient, I felt that the brakes were a bit soft for my taste. If I need to brake right now then I want to feel that feedback in the levers, and the brakes on the S-300 feel a bit mushy. For example, I was testing the bike on Westminster Street in light rain when the car in front of me abruptly stopped. I jammed on the S-300’s brakes but still gently collided with the car’s rear bumper. I was fine, the car was fine, no massive lawsuit ensued, so no big deal. But still, I felt that if I had been on my own bike, I would have stopped a little sooner and not collided at all. It may have been a combination of operator (my) error or the slick roadway, but this isn’t an unrealistic scenario. I would like it if the brakes gave me 10-15% more confidence than they currently do.
I was able to lock up the rear wheel a few times, but I only know that because I heard the rubber scraping and felt slight fishtailing, not because of the tactile feedback through the levers. I should note that I’ve found the brakes on every bikeshare I’ve ever tried to be similarly mushy, so this isn’t an S-300-specific complaint.
Overall Aesthetic #
Maybe it’s just that bikeshares (even electric bikeshares) aren’t brand new anymore, but Spin’s bikes have a generic sort of look. Thecolor and slanted logo they’ve branded their company (and by extension, the S-300) with is passable and unoffensive. The they’ve used as the base color seems like it could be sold in a paint store as “default dark gray.” Normally I don’t think I’d mention this, but between the huge battery and the rear fender (which doubles as a deterrent for would-be vandals), the S-300 has a big visual presence. We’re accustomed to seeing bikes as rather nimble and lightweight-looking things, so most electric bikes look at least a little bulky. The S-300 has a big battery and shielding, so it looks very bulky. I think Spin should try to do a better job of hiding that bulk or at least making it look a bit more interesting.
JUMP, for example, had picked a very uniquecolor and covered its somewhat bulky bikes with it. That color stood out on city streets, but it also looked strangely natural. JUMP’s bike wasn’t as bulky as the S-300, so Spin probably has a harder challenge here, but I think they should spend some time and attention on this. Right now I’d describe the S-300 as looking utilitarian, but not a particularly pleasing shade of utilitarian.
The functionality of the S-300 and Spin’s software are obviously paramount, but while looks aren’t everything, they also aren’t nothing. For one, if bikeshare bikes are (hopefully) going to be frequent sights on our streets, then I’d like them to look as charming or as invisible as is pragmatic.
The Service #
Single Rides #
It’s an unavoidable fact that for single rides (meaning you purchase a single trip, not a membership or pass), Spin’s offering is expensive.
Spin’s pricing for its bikes is the same as its scooters,3 $1 to unlock plus 29¢ per every minute the trip lasts. Relative to other North American4 bikeshares (even other electric bikeshares), the cost of a single trip is fairly high. You can compare the costs for a single ride on a number of bikeshares here:
Single Ride Cost Comparison
- JUMP (Original) offered 30 minutes for $2, plus 7¢ per additional minute.
- JUMP (“Free to Unlock”) was free to unlock, and cost 30¢ per minute.
- JUMP (Compromise) offered 20 minutes for $3, plus 15¢ per additional minute.
- Spin is free to unlock, and costs 29¢ per minute.
- Blue Bikes in Greater Boston charges $2.95 for an initial 30 minutes of ride time, plus an additional $2.95 for every additional 30 minutes.
- CitiBike in New York City charges $3.50 for an initial 30 minutes of ride time, plus an additional 18¢ for every additional minute.
- CitiBike (Electric) in New York City is free to unlock and charges 18¢ per minute.
- Capital Bikeshare in the District of Columbia offers 30 minutes of ride time for $2. If the ride last between 30 minutes and an hour, the price increases to $4. For a ride between an hour and an hour and a half, the total ride cost is $8. For every 30 minutes of ride time beyond an hour and a half, an additional $8 is added to the total cost.
- Capital Bikeshare (Electric) in the District of Columbia uses the same pricing as regular Capital Bikeshare trips, but a flat $1 fee is added.
- Bike Chattanooga does not offer comparable single ride prices; their day pass costs a flat fee of $8.
- Bay Wheels in San Francisco charges $3 for the first 30 minutes of a ride, and $3 for every additional 15 minutes.
- Bay Wheels (Electric) in San Francisco charges $3 to unlock plus 20¢ per minute for the first 30 minutes, plus an additional $3 for every additional 15 minutes of ride time.
- Divvy in Chicago charges $3.30 for an initial 30 minutes, plus an additional 15¢ for every additional minute of ride time.
- Divvy (Electric) in Chicago has a zoned system. All electric bike trips have a $3.30 unlock fee and a 20¢ per minute fee. In the central zone, this per minute fee is charged immediately, while in the outer zone the first 30 minutes of the ride do not incur this fee. The central zone is depicted on the chart above.
JUMP’s original pricing was a great deal, at $2 for 30 minutes of ride time, and then 7¢ per each additional minute. As mentioned, this pricing was too good and was not sustainable for the company. When JUMP did raise its prices, it made the bikes “free to unlock” (rather patronizing marketing, in my opinion) and 30¢ per minute. In effect, the cost of the average trip skyrocketed. Because of this bait-and-switch tactic, lots of existing JUMP users (myself included) were rather upset. (JUMP did revise its pricing model to lower the average ride cost, but this model didn’t last long before the bikes were pulled.) In comparison, Spin’s pricing model makes all trips under an hour more expensive than they would be under even JUMP’s most controversial model, so at least Spin seems to be more responsible in setting customer expectations.
My expectation is that I’ll only use Spin sparingly. I might use it if I have limited alternatives (meaning the bus isn’t running, it’s too far to walk, or I have very limited time), but in general I can’t see myself planning on renting an S-300 with a single ride at the current prices. I think this is a big problem for Spin, because I’m predisposed to like and pay for bikeshare and I think it’s too expensive.
The pricing reminds me of the rare times I’ve taken a taxi or rideshare when transit has failed me. The high cost is painful in the short term, but acceptable because I rarely have to pay it. Taxis, like Spin, use a pricing model that doesn’t scale for most people. A standard use case for a Spin rider might be to use an S-300 for two 15-minute trips a day, five days a week. At Spin’s prices, this works out to $53.50 a week. If you do this 50 weeks a year, the total comes to $2,675. Less than a taxi, but still outrageous.
Spin Pass #
When I started testing the S-300 for this review in early June, Spin offered 1-hour, 2-hour, 24-hour, and 1-week unlimited passes, where the customer could pay up-front for unlimited rides of unlimited duration while the pass was active. Because I was planning on doing lots of test riding, I purchased a 1-week pass for $30. I had been planning on writing that if you planned on riding even somewhat frequently, buying passes was obviously the way to go, because 50 weeks of weekly passes worked out to $1,500, more than $1,000 in savings compared to purchasing single rides. That pass made the single-ride prices look ridiculous: you would save money if you rode for more than an hour and 45 minutes in the week.
However, in the month since, Spin appears to have eliminated the daily and weekly passes, and now offer only a $10 1-hour pass and a $15 2-hour pass. These are cheaper than single rides of the same durations, but are still pricey and don’t seem to be aimed at people who want to use bikeshare every day. From this sudden change in pass offerings, I draw two conclusions:
- Spin is not an affordable mode of transportation for regular riders. The $30/week pass wasn’t completely outrageous, but it wasn’t exactly a bargain, either. Without it, I can’t see many people choosing to integrate bikeshare into their everyday lives. Unless you qualify for Spin Access, it’s just too expensive.
- Spin is not a reliable provider of transportation. Unlike other bikeshare operators, Spin doesn’t offer yearlong memberships. These memberships are contracts which allow riders to proactively budget for their transportation needs and which provide them time to find alternatives if the annual cost increases. People need some assurances that their transportation costs aren’t going to fluctuate wildly without warning, and Spin has not earned my trust in this area. When JUMP raised its prices, my real frustration wasn’t just that I would have to pay more for the same service, it was that I felt deceived by a company that provided no transparency in decisions that directly impacted how I would live my life. Spin never promised to keep offering weekly passes, but after being burned by JUMP I have to view the decision to discontinue them in a negative light. I know Spin is trying to be nimble and figure out a path towards sustainable and profitable operations, and I don’t fault them for that. Being noncommittal on pricing plans may be a good decision for the business, but I think it signals that committing to Spin would be a very bad decision for riders.
But even if the weekly pass was still available, I still think the service would be too expensive for many. At roughly $1,500 per year, you could buy an e-bike of your own (maybe not a high-end model, but certainly something sturdy and reliable). But, some might say, part of the appeal of bikeshare is that you don’t need to own a bike and deal with maintaining it, storing it, or worrying about it getting stolen. These are certainly factors to weigh and they’ll vary by individual, but I think it’s worth noting that Spin’s unlimited passes are still notably more expensive than other bikeshares.
CitiBike, for instance, offers an annual membership for $179 which includes unlimited 45-minute rides on regular bikes (e-bike usage is an additional 12¢ per minute). Divvy has a similar model, $108 for a year of unlimited 45-minute rides (e-bikes are an additional 15¢ per minute). In Boston, an annual BlueBikes membership costs $109 up-front and provides the same unlimited 45-minute rides.
Spin Access #
Finally, there’s Spin Access. Access is marketed as a suite of benefits, including methods that let individuals without smartphones, location access, or credit cards access the service and the pledge to issue steep discounts to financially constrained individuals. One of the key promises of bikeshare is that it promotes equity in transportation, so it is absolutely vital that Spin offers this, especially given the otherwise very high costs of the service.
That said, even if Access is a great deal for people with demonstrable need, it doesn’t do much good if not many qualifying individuals take advantage of it. At the end of the day, Spin is a business. Spin may derive financial benefits by promoting equity and offering steep discounts (it could, for example, receive good contracts and valuable municipal support as a result), but I think it would be irresponsible not to be at least a little skeptical of the profit motive. Ultimately, the City will need to be vigilant in ensuring that Spin is fulfilling its advertised aspirations.
User Interface and User Experience #
Software is hard, so I’m not expecting the experience of opening an app, tapping a button, having my credit card charged, and an e-bike unlocking itself to happen flawlessly every time. But that said, I’ve noticed a number of bugs and inconsistencies in Spin’s app that give me concern. Spin has been around since 2017 and been owned by Ford since 2018. Most of the issues I’ve experienced don’t totally impair usability of the service, but there are a lot of rough edges that I would expect from a startup, not from a company with partnerships in many cities and access to Ford’s deep pockets.
I tested Spin’s iOS app on an iPhone 12 Mini running the latest version of the operating system. It works most of the time, but the design and interaction are less than pleasant. The primary interface element, a map showing available vehicles, is particularly bad given its prominence.
The Map #
Spin uses Google Maps as the provider for its map information and tiles. On iOS, I’ve never liked the Google Maps API offering. Personal preference here, but I think the Google Maps cartography has gotten uglier over the years, and with Spin’s modifications there’s a weird blueish tint on most map elements that just feels a bit off. Additionally, the maps Google’s API produces are generally much less smooth to interact with than those produced by Apple’s MapKit, and that seems to hold true in this case too. Panning and zooming around the map is noticeably jittery. I’ve also had the app crash several times while panning.
On top of that, Spin draws custom pins for each of its vehicles that are available to rent. I think it’s nice to show vehicle type and battery level, but they’ve made each pin rather large, with an opaque background and a drop shadow. As a result, it’s really hard to parse differences when lots of vehicles are clumped together. If you’re just looking for a map of current scooter and bike locations, you can get a much more legible map from the excellent Transit app or the GBFS Viewer I built a few years ago.
There are also some green pins indicating areas where you can park to earn free credits towards future rides (this helps Spin balance the distribution of bikes and scooters throughout the city), but again, these pins are too large and obscure too much of the map when zoomed out. Spin should really just shamelessly copy what Transit does, which is shrink these types of pins to little dots when the map view is sufficiently zoomed out.
Also on the map are a number of polygons. The largest, only visible when zoomed out, is green and demarcates the system’s service area, which is the border of the municipality. Inside, a number of smaller, red-tinted polygons mark areas where riders are not allowed to park and/or ride. I cover the implications of these polygons later, but visually they don’t look very good. The styling uses fairly unnatural-looking colors, and when the red overlays the green, the map looks to be tinted in brown. The shapes themselves look sloppy as well. Even if Spin had some technical boundary rules “under the hood,” I assume that they are passing the Google Maps API standard GeoJSON. At the very least, Spin could generate better-looking and more accurate GeoJSON from the files provided by the City and State.
Ok, enough of me getting angry about maps.
Everything Else #
The main interface of the app has four floating icons, one in each corner, one for the “hamburger button,” one to earn free rides (by generating and sharing personal promo codes), one to center the map on your current location, and one (displayed as an exclamation mark) to report an issue. Each of these icons are unintuitive and frustrating to me. Visually, it isn’t clear in what each button does without tapping on it, and because they hang out on the corners of the map, they add visual clutter to the map view, which is already cluttered by all those pins.
When you do tap one of these buttons and try to navigate through the app, all of the controls are custom, so they don’t look and work like I expect controls in an iOS app to (presumably the same is true in the Android app as well). For example, I can’t swipe from the left edge of a screen to go back in a menu of options, which I can do almost everywhere else on my phone. Because of this, the app itself feels broken, or at the very least it feels buggy and half-baked. Yes, it’s a little thing that most people won’t think about, but I always try to take time to get these types of things right when I write software, and I like it when companies do as well. Missing these little details can make users think that the app itself is “wrong” or “bad,” even if it “works.”
Fortunately, the most important interaction with the app is solid. At the bottom of the main map view, there is a big orange RIDE button. Tapping it brings up a QR code scanner right away, which will quickly unlock an S-300 once it gets a clear read. The app presents some messages about riding safely that most people will never read and a thumbs-up thumbs-down survey of whether the bike had been parked neatly.
When done riding, you must end the ride from the bike itself by reinserting the locking mechanism until the bike beeps. Unfortunately, Spin really wants you take a picture of your parking job after you end the ride. They do this because there are lots of selfish people who left to their own devices will park the bikes (and scooters) wherever they feel like, even if that means blocking a sidewalk, door, or ramp. Taking a picture serves as a nudge to riders to be slightly less selfish and can be used by Spin to establish a pattern of irresponsible behavior that may get a rider banned from their service.
I get why they do this, but as someone who already takes efforts to park responsibly, it can be a tad irritating. Taking a photo isn’t some huge inconvenience, but it adds a little papercut to each ride, especially if you lock the bike and start to walk away without taking your phone out. You can choose not to submit a photo, but this could “count against you” (it’s probably nothing, but I’m a sucker and I want to make the app happy.) If I was a frequent rider who never accrued complaints, I’d hope Spin could keep track of that and reward my loyalty by trusting me to respect others and not ask me to take that confirmation photo every ride.
The App Should Be Optional #
Of all the bikeshare bikes I’ve ridden, my favorite was the first JUMP design that graced the streets of Providence. It was my favorite for exactly one reason: the keypad. That design included a 10-digit keypad and small, low-tech display on the rear wheel. Through JUMP’s app, you could enter your phone number and enter a passcode, and then walk up to any locked and available JUMP bike and without taking your phone out punch in your number and code and the bike would unlock and start a trip.
Maybe I’m the only one who finds this exciting, but it’s a truly stellar feature. Is it pouring rain, and you don’t want to take your phone out? No problem. The keypad buttons suck, but they work in the rain. Is it the dead of winter and the last thing you want to do is take off your mittens so you can work your phone? It’s possible (if not pleasant) to punch those digits in with those mittens on. Maybe it’s late, the bus has stopped running, and your phone is dead? Well, as long as you can remember those numbers, you’ve got a ride.
Smartphones are great, but counting on them as an absolute dependency is dangerous. JUMP did and Spin does (in the form of Spin Access) offer an option for these people, but I’d argue that they should make a phone-less experience available to all users. Even if you have a smartphone, you can’t guarantee that it will always be charged and never be lost or stolen. Give us a key fob, let us punch in numbers, whatever, just don’t always make me pull out my phone just to ride a bike.
Customer Service #
Earlier, when I mentioned my experience with the jammed lock, I said I had contacted support. In the app, I had found the “I have a problem” page, and I tried to start a live chat (which was listed as one of the options). Despite being listed, it seems that this feature had not rolled out yet, because instead of bringing up a chat interface the app redirected me to a generic-looking help page saying they would be “launching a new and improved FAQ page shortly,” and inviting me to send me an email or submit a support ticket through the app. I chose the latter option, and a few hours later got a very nice email apologizing for the issue and offering to refund me for most of the trip (during which time the bike was immobile). I responded the next day, saying that I didn’t care about the refund (I had been using an unlimited ride pass so wasn’t charged extra in the first place), but I did offer to send photos and video of the jammed lock I had taken in the event that it would be helpful to the design or maintenance teams. Unfortunately, I never got a follow-up reply to this offer.
Overall, in this experience the customer service was as quick and courteous as I would expect, though I do think it would have been nice if my offer to share photos of the mechanical issue had been at the least politely declined. My biggest complaint again goes back to the app feeling half-baked. Rolling out new features is hard, but Spin has deep pockets backing it. Plus, they’ve been running a micromobility service in Providence for over a year now, so it’s surprising that the support experience is still so rough around the edges.
The Company and The City #
Beyond the S-300 itself and the service that supports it, I’m including this section as a collection of thoughts on city regulations and on the company itself.
Breaking the Rules #
Naturally, bikeshares have rules that wouldn’t apply to a personal bike. Some of them are inherent to the fact that the none of the S-300s I rode were my property: I’m free to destroy my own bike (though I can’t imagine why I’d do that), but of course I can’t vandalize an S-300. Within the parameters of the user agreement (and common decency) I also can’t paint it, keep it in my apartment, or disable the GPS tracker on it. These rules are intuitive and make sense, and of course I respected them while testing.
There are some other rules in renting an S-300 that arise not strictly because I don’t own the bike, but because the bike is part of a system. Rules like when I can rent the bike and where I can ride it. Some of these make sense, but some don’t. In the course, I inadvertently “broke” some of these rules.
Time Restrictions #
Let’s handle the when first. Per City Regulations, Spin can only operate between 5AM and 10PM. I’m not sure what the reasoning behind this is, but I’d like to see it expanded to 24/7 service. Bikeshare needs to compete with rideshare and personal car ownership, and it needs to be able to do so at all hours.
As part of my testing, I took the S-300 on a Providence Bike Jam ride which ended around 10:30 PM. Because PBJ is such a ridiculously fun time, I completely lost track of time and was still pedaling when the clock struck ten. Fortunately, the bike didn’t cut off power and it allowed me to finish the ride, but once I stopped it started chirping at me. The ride had been going for more than three hours at this point, so I figured it had reached some sort of limit and just wanted me to stop the ride and restart it. When I tried to restart the ride, I found I couldn’t because it was too late in the evening. I was immediately frustrated with myself for forgetting that bikes couldn’t be unlocked after 10, but then had the sinking thought: how am I going to get home? (PBJ customarily ends its rides at a bar or restaurant, and usually I hang around to chat with people for a few minutes before heading home.)
RIPTA doesn’t run very good late-night service (in my case, there were no buses coming until the following morning), and Spin’s scooters also lock up at 10 PM. I ended up walking home, which took slightly less than an hour. I regularly take solo nighttime walks all over the city and didn’t have to get home by and specific time, so this was more a frustration and inconvenience than anything, but I could see how for others or in other situations, this seemingly arbitrary 10 PM cutoff could result in someone being “stranded” or forced to make a walk in which they felt unsafe.
During the seven hours between 10 and 5 (when they mainly just sit where they were locked) the bikes and scooters are not earning Spin any revenue, so I have to imagine that the company would be willing to expend service hours at least somewhat.
Place Restrictions #
Shown in Spin’s app are a number of no-park zones and no-ride zones, which are (in my understanding) defined by the City. Some of these, mainly the parking restrictions, make sense. You can’t park (or in some cases, ride) along stretches of the Providence River, probably because Spin is worried about bikes and scooters falling in, a problem not unique to Providence. Fine. You can’t park within the footprint of the Providence Place Mall, probably because they don’t want people riding through the mall or garage. Also fine. And, you can’t park on State House Grounds or in Kennedy Plaza or skating rink area. Could be annoying, but you can park around the perimeter, so not a big deal.
Most no-ride zones seem to be parking lots and highway on-ramps, for obvious reasons. The only other no-ride zone of note is the one that covers the Michael Van Leesten Pedestrian Bridge. I know why they do this from experience: the bridge is very popular for both oblivious pedestrians and inconsiderate daredevils. The City and Spin probably want to minimize their respective liabilities should a daring rider accidentally knock someone over or catapult themselves into the river.
While I can understand the reasoning behind this, I’ve got to say that as a responsible rider (the vast majority of riders are responsible), trying to ride over one of the few bridges in the city where you don’t have to worry about getting run down by an SUV, having the bike’s motors cut out halfway across is a terrible and frustrating experience.5 The only real solution is for the City to immediately begin building more car-free infrastructure so that everyone doesn’t have to crowd onto that one bridge.
“Backed by Ford Motor Company” #
Spin has been a subsidiary of Ford since it acquired the company in 2018, a relationship which Spin displays prominently on its website. If I had to guess, Ford’s ownership of the company appeals to cities that are eager to offer micromobility options, but do not have the resources to develop a system themselves and which are wary of less mature companies (like Uber, owner of JUMP).
However, I see the fact that Spin is owned by Ford to be more of a cause for caution, if not an outright liability. A successful bikeshare, in my mind, is one that enables significant mode shift (people replacing trips they would normally make by private car with another mode of transportation). It’s great if a bikeshare encourages people to make new trips they otherwise wouldn’t (especially pleasure trips), but we as a society really need to get people out of cars and onto bikes and transit for the boring and unexciting trips they make every day, many of which are short enough that they should be easy enough to accomplish by bike. It isn’t hard to think up a few reasons to question Ford’s commitment.
Simple Conflict of Interest #
It won’t happen overnight, but Providence should be aiming to have a mode share of private car trips at least as low as Utrecht, where less than 20% of trips are taken by private car and where almost half of all trips are taken by bike. Of course, a mode shift of this scale would mean a drastically reduced demand for automobiles, which is the core of Ford’s business. Because they are physically bigger and more technically complex, cars and trucks are always going to be more expensive than everyday bicycles. It makes sense that Ford may want a piece of micromobility profits (it’s good PR that reads as vaguely environmental), but it just wouldn’t make sense that Ford would want micromobility to begin to seriously compete with its primary business.
The high prices and elimination of weekly passes which I mentioned earlier is consistent with this skepticism. The current pricing model seems geared towards occasional rides, and I’ve observed lots of riders who seem to be tourists over the past several weeks. These types of rides do not threaten automotive superiority and are more entertainment than transportation. (Again, getting tourists on bikes is a good thing, but tourists shouldn’t be a primary market for the S-300.)
Rumblings of Doubt #
In May, Bloomberg reported that Ford was considering dropping Spin:
New CEO Jim Farley is eliminating extraneous operations as he works to accelerate the automaker’s bet on electric vehicles, which he recently doubled to $22 billion. Argo AI, a self-driving startup backed by Ford and Volkswagen AG, is considering going public as soon as this year, Bloomberg News has reported.
Farley has honed Ford’s focus to electric and autonomous vehicles. The automaker on Wednesday introduced an electric version of its top-selling F-150 pickup, which President Joe Biden drove the day before, after touring the Michigan plant where it will be built.
This isn’t shocking, given the conflict of interest I’ve outlined above. While the Biden Administration has taken a few pro-transit and pro-bike actions, and has even hinted at funding urban highway removals, unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly) it has not significantly challenged the dominant role of the auto industry or automobile in American life. It is similarly unfortunate and unsurprising that Ford and its peers would use the opportunity to focus on electrification (not trivial, but not really challenging or risky at this point) instead of mode shift.
Have We Been Here Before? #
Micromobility is a rather turbulent business at the moment. Aaron Gordon wrote an excellent piece on JUMP which covers challenges posed to JUMP both by “Uber’s bro culture and no-holds-barred approach to business” and by the frequent disruptive changes in the micromobility space itself. I think Ford definitely provides a different corporate environment for Spin than Uber did for JUMP, but as I’ve mentioned, I’m not convinced that it’s necessarily more conducive for a sustainable micromobility service.
But how about the industry as a whole? The City of Providence, amongst many other cities, has opted to operate under a permit-based approach rather than a partner-based one (see Gordon’s article for more on this). I think for Providence, this is the right decision. In larger cities (New York, London, even Boston), having a single designated bikeshare makes some degree of sense, partially because density is high enough to support a fully docked system. In smaller cities looking to offer dockless bikeshare, the investment is a greater risk. It makes sense that they are (at least temporarily) adopting a regulatory role and letting the many competing startups come and go and be acquired, because it’s still not clear where micromobility is heading. While I would personally love more of a commitment from the City, the hesitation after the bad experience with JUMP (which originally began as a partnership arrangement) is understandable.
I don’t think Ford’s presence via Spin has changed this dynamic. Certainly, Spin does feel like at least a slightly more stable company than JUMP ever did, but even if there weren’t the above-outlined conflicts of interest and rumblings of doubt, I don’t know if much would be different. Micromobility is just still too turbulent of an industry, and its future is too dependent on local, state, and national policy to really feel like a sure thing.
Though I have doubts about how long Spin will really operate in Providence, it’s here today, and you should give the S-300 a try. It’s intriguing and fun, and cheap enough to try at least once (even if it’s too pricy to use regularly).
I say “theoretically” because this seemed to be the prevailing narrative at the time. It does seem plausible that the cable loop in the second version was more vulnerable to attack (say, by cable cutters) than the original mechanism (which was just a U-Lock-style piece of metal), but personally I think this was rather overblown, and puts too much blame in a technology while obscuring policy failure. ↩︎
The Providence Journal covers this in what is perhaps the only “good” piece of local journalism published on the issue. ↩︎
The bikes definitely offer more bang for the buck. They’re faster (and thus can go further in a given period of time), can carry stuff in the basket (at least sort of), have motors better able to cope with steep inclines, have better acceleration, and are much more resilient to potholes. I’ve ridden the scooters a number of times, and each time I found myself wishing that I was instead on a bike.
The Mayor has said that “having the choice of an e-bike or an e-scooter gives riders the opportunity to pick a vehicle that best fits their journey,” but excluding a mobility challenge that would prevent someone from riding a bike but not a scooter, I can’t imagine a single situation in which a scooter is the better (or more enjoyable) vehicle for a trip. They feel like toys, not in the fun sense, but in the inferior sense. ↩︎
I’m evaluating Spin’s offering in a decidedly North American mindset. This is both because I have never traveled abroad and because there are externalities (like authoritarianism in China or excellent planning philosophy in the Netherlands) which make direct comparisons difficult. ↩︎
For the same reason, when the bridge opened, the City had stationed a police officer on the bridge who, amongst other duties, had been instructed to ask bicyclists to dismount and walk their bikes across the bridge, even when it was easily possible to give all pedestrians a wide berth. Given that the bridge was designed for pedestrians and cyclists and because I thought myself a relatively coordinated rider, I found this to be absolutely infuriating as well. ↩︎