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GeekWire reporter Taylor Soper tests out the new Spin bike-sharing service. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

If you’re in Seattle, you may have noticed a bunch of bikes parked randomly around the city lately, painted bright orange and green.

Those are the two new bike-sharing programs in the city: Spin and LimeBike. The competing services are rolling out in Seattle before other major U.S. cities, giving us a front-row seat for a new approach to short-term urban bike rentals — something that our city has struggled with in the past, with the ill-fated Pronto program.

Earlier this month, the Seattle Department of Transportation released regulations that paved the way for both private bike-sharing companies to launch in Seattle under a six-month pilot. The biggest difference from Pronto: these bikes don’t require you to return them to dedicated docking stations. This approach has taken off in China.

A LimeBike parked in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

So what’s it like to use these new services in Seattle? Your intrepid GeekWire cyclists have been testing Spin and LimeBike since last week, riding the bikes in neighborhoods ranging from Ballard to the University District to Pioneer Square and the downtown Seattle waterfront.

Todd rode this Spin bike from Pioneer Square to Pier 70.

Just so you know who you’re dealing with here: I like to commute on my bike, and ride for fun and exercise on the weekends. My colleague Taylor Soper is a casual cyclist, preferring to get his exercise on the basketball court these days. Neither of us will be entering next year’s Tour de France.

Our takeaways: We find these services useful and convenient. The bikes are relatively easy to ride, and they travel smoothly on flat roads. They are not great for bumpy roads or steep hills — sorry, no electric power. The price is reasonable, at $1 per half hour. The technology is cool, when it works. We’d recommend that you try these services if you get the chance — but only if you have your own helmet, because neither offers them.

Continue reading for more details on our experience.

LimeBike vs. Spin

You use an app and QR code to unlock the bikes.

The two services have many similarities:

Dockless: With both LimeBike and Spin, there’s no station where you can return the bikes. They can be left around town, on sidewalks or basically “anywhere responsible,” as Spin says. It’s similar to how car2go and ReachNow operate their car-sharing services.

Pricing: Both services cost $1 per half hour of use.

Apps: Spin and LimeBike both work via smartphone apps that use GPS to locate available bikes on a map.

Helmets: Sorry, it’s BYOH, which is a problem, as we’ll explain further below.

Bike Style: They both offer “cruiser” bikes, the kind you might see someone riding down a boardwalk. Both have baskets with solar panels in the bottom to power the on-board systems. Sorry, no electric-powered motors yet.

Locking: They lock via a simple bar mechanism on the back wheel, which opens automatically when you scan a QR code on the bike using the smartphone app — at least theoretically, as Taylor explains below. Sliding the lock shut ends the ride automatically. This worked consistently well. The rear-wheel locks are similar in concept, but Spin’s lock is more simple. LimeBike’s lock seems like a fancier version, with more beeping and flashing.

Bells: Both have bells built into the left handle grip.

Phantom Bikes: We encountered situations with both services when we were not able to find bikes in real life that were supposed to be there, according to the map. More on this below.

There are also a bunch of differences, apart from the colors:

Cycle: LimeBike’s bike seems a bit sturdier overall than Spin’s bike, but the LimeBike frame feels a bit stiff when riding. In addition, for me, at about 6-foot-3, LimeBike seemed just a bit too small. Spin’s bike seemed to be slightly bigger, or perhaps just better-designed for a larger rider.

Gears: LimeBike offers eight-gear bikes; Spin offers three-gear bikes. Both of us found that Spin’s gear-shifter can get sticky, making it difficult to shift. LimeBike’s gear shifter seems to work more smoothly.

The gears on Spin’s bikes.

Headlamp: LimeBike’s headlamp mechanism seems sturdier. I encountered two broken headlamps on Spin bikes one evening this weekend. One of them had broken off, and another just wasn’t working. Earlier last week, the light on another Spin bike worked well and was bright enough to light the road in front of me. I haven’t yet tested a LimeBike at night.

Seats: Both seats are comfortable, but LimeBike’s seat has a hydraulic mechanism that makes adjusting it to the proper height much easier and faster.

Payment: Spin’s iOS app accepts credit cards or Apple Pay, which is convenient if you use Apple Pay already, while LimeBike requires you to enter your credit card manually.

Customer Service: LimeBike’s app offers the ability to submit a customer service request. Spin’s app has a live chat functionality.

Parking: In contrast with Spin’s casual “park anywhere responsible” approach, LimeBike tells riders, “Please park only at bike racks and areas designated specifically for bike parking.” However, we were still able to park and leave LimeBike on a random sidewalk on Phinney Ridge without any issues.

Maps: Along with that admonition, LimeBike’s live map shows you good places to park your bike, such as bike racks. Spin’s live map does not. Spin’s archived ride maps show you the starting and ending points after your ride. LimeBike’s ride maps show you the squiggly route you took, which is neat and potentially helpful.

Availability: LimeBike is just getting started in Seattle, with only a few bikes scattered around the city as of this post. LimeBikes were difficult to find this past weekend, but that is expected to change quickly. Seattle is LimeBike’s first big city rollout, after UNC Greensboro, South Bend, Indiana, and South Lake Tahoe.

Spin ran a trial previously in Austin, but Seattle is also its first official city rollout. Spin has deployed hundreds of bikes in Seattle so far. They were plentiful and easy to find this weekend around the city. City rules initially allow 500 bikes from each provider, but that goes to 1,000 each next month, and 2,000 each the following month.

Ultimately, Spin says it will have 10,000 bikes spread across Seattle, with a team of 20 people in marketing and operations to support the service in the city. Spin CEO Derrick Ko was previously an engineer and product manager at Lyft. The company has raised $8 million in a funding round led by Grishin Robotics. 

LimeBike, founded by tech industry vets Brad Bao and Toby Sun, has raised $12 million from investors including Andreessen Horowitz.

Both companies are based in the Bay Area, and are planning broader national rollouts.

Helmet problem

The biggest challenge seems to be the lack of provided helmets. Riding without a helmet is not only dangerous — it’s illegal in Seattle and King County. LimeBike is giving away 1,000 helmets at promotional events, but neither company is providing helmets to riders as part of the service.

One morning last week, I saw one person in Ballard, who clearly hadn’t ridden a bike in a while, unlock a Spin bike and wobble off with only a straw hat on his head. On Sunday, there was a person riding a LimeBike without a helmet, zipping downhill quickly on the busy 8th Avenue West, headed to Fremont.

This isn’t going to end well.

It seems like it would be possible, at least theoretically, to put helmets in the baskets with some kind of lid that opens when the bike unlocks. Personally, we’d pay more for the services if they came with helmets. We’ve heard from some readers who wouldn’t want to use a shared community helmet. But offering helmets would really make using these services more convenient and spontaneous, especially for tourists.

Pronto initially provided helmets at its docking stations for free, but then began charging $2 per rental.

Technical glitches

We’ve also encountered bugs. Here is Taylor’s account of using Spin.

It took me three tries to have a successful Spin experience.

My first attempt was west of Fremont, where the app showed a bike just off the Burke-Gilman Trail. As I approached the area, no orange bikes were visible.

I spent a few minutes walking around the area, checking the app, and making sure I was in the right spot. Still no bike.

I found the “help” section in the app easily and was quickly connected to a live chat with a Spin rep — this was a nice touch — who verified that she saw the bike on her end as well.

With no other Spin bikes in the vicinity, I gave up on my first Spin try. Another Spin rep followed up an hour later and explained that the bike was not sending its GPS location and “unless it was hidden behind something or was not in plain view, we’ve found that this usually happens when the last person who used the bike decides to bring their Spin bike inside or place it in a hidden covered area.”

My second attempt came a few days later in the Greenwood neighborhood when I decided to make my 3-mile commute to GeekWire HQ via Spin.

This time, I was able to locate the bike, which was exactly where the app said it was. But after inspecting the bike and trying to move it around a bit, the lock mechanism seemed to get stuck. After “starting” my trip on the app, I could hear the lock beep every few seconds, but it wouldn’t actually unlock. I eventually got an error message and went into the live chat again. Someone responded quickly, asked for the bike number, and gave me a promo code to use later. I ended up hopping in a BMW ReachNow car to get to work, as no other bikes were nearby.

Finally, on my third try, my Spin experience was seamless. I located the bike in Fremont; it unlocked immediately after I “started my trip”; and I was able to ride up and down the Burke-Gilman Trail — finally!

My takeaway: The bikes themselves were similar to what Pronto offered, but being able to drop them off practically anywhere is a game-changer. The pricing model is also more reasonable and flexible than Pronto. But again, the helmet issue is still a problem. And being in Seattle, I really wish these bikes had some electric power — that’s what can make something like this really work in a hilly city.

Like Taylor, I also encountered instances, on both Spin and LimeBike, when the QR code was recognized and the ride started in the app, but the lock didn’t open until I jostled the bike a bit or scanned the code again.

A piece of the transportation puzzle

Overall, we’re happy to see this next evolution of bike-sharing rolling out in Seattle, and we hope they continue to make it better. In a city where traffic seems to worsen by the day, new tech-powered transportation systems — from bike-sharing to BMW ReachNow to Uber/Lyft — are providing more ways for folks to get around town.

There are lots of situations when bike-sharing is useful. For example, I jumped on a Spin to get away from the crowds leaving the Mariners game at Safeco Field on Saturday night, and the Sounders game at CenturyLink Field last Wednesday night, riding down the waterfront to a spot where it was easier to get an Uber or bus the rest of the way home.

Workers could easily use one of these bikes to quickly get to an appointment across town. The bikes could also be convenient in situations where you’d otherwise need to lock your own bike outside. Take one of these instead, and you don’t have to worry about bike theft.

Will dockless bikes and better technology make Spin and LimeBike a hit in Seattle after the Pronto bust? Or will the lack of helmets keep them seeing from the success other bike-sharing companies are experiencing in places like China? Let us know your thoughts in the comments, especially if you get a chance to try one of the services.

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