Jen's Personal Blog


Writings that don't fit anywhere else

Ford GoBike: First Impressions

Ford GoBike launched in San Francisco this morning. It’s operated by the same company as Bay Area Bike Share, Motivate. The relaunch includes new bikes, new mobile apps, and a new title sponsor.

I’m a long time fan of bike share programs. I’ve ridden bikes on more than 10 different systems across the world. I was also a heavy user of Bay Area Bike Share, until I had an unfortunate incident involving a bike that failed to dock completely (read the postmortem here).

Here’s a run down on my observations from my first day riding on a Ford GoBike.

The Good

Ford GoBike is a big improvement over Bay Area Bike Share. Here are my favorite improvements.

Faster bikes

The new bikes are geared a bit differently, have narrower tires, and seem quite a bit lighter. This makes them faster. My unscientific gut feeling analysis indicates that I am able to ride 20% to 30% faster on the new bikes.

They’re not road-bike fast, but they’re fast enough that I need to watch out for the doors of careless drivers. The old bikes were so slow that I was able to break to a stop on every dooring-close-call.

No more sticky bike handles

The new bikes have handles made from a harder plastic. Hopefully this will resolve the most disgusting issue with the old bikes: their spongy, sticky handles would often leave your hands covered in mystery slime.

Clipper card check outs

Another annoying part of Bay Area Bike Share was the odd shaped key card required to check out a bike. It wasn’t flat enough to fit in your wallet, and it wasn’t small enough to fit well on your keychain.

With Ford GoBike, you can tap your clipper card to check out a bike. Here are the steps:

  1. Add your clipper card number to your profile on fordgobike.com
  2. Tap on the clipper card reader on the right side of the bike you’d like to borrow

Mobile app check outs

In addition to clipper card checkouts, you can also borrow a bike with the mobile app. Here are the steps:

  1. Log into the app on your mobile device
  2. Tap on the in-app icon for the dock you’d like to borrow a bike from
  3. Punch the number displayed on the app into the 3 digit keypad next to the bike you’d like to borrow

Check in notifications

The previous generation docks showed only one indicator of a successful check in: a brief green light. As I found out the hard way, this was insufficient.

The new docks bear the same LEDs, but they’re backed up by check in notifications. These are awesome. Be sure to check for them after each ride to make sure your bike was safely docked, and to ensure that you’re no longer liable for the $1200 bike loss fee.

The Bad

As great as my ride was this morning, not everything about Ford GoBike is perfect. Here are some things I’d like to see improved.

Auto-renewal settings were changed

On the previous system I did not have auto-renew enabled, but when I logged in to Ford GoBike today I discovered that I was opted in to auto-renewal. It seems like they defaulted imported accounts into automatic renewal.

If I hadn’t accidentally clicked the auto-renew settings link while looking for something else, I would never have noticed it. I would have received a surprise-charge to my credit card in early 2018.

I encourage you to log into your profile, go to Membership Settings, and ensure that auto-renewal is set up correctly.

Only 35 stations

I installed the app a couple weeks ago, way ahead of time. I was greeted by over a hundred grey dots that represent the full planned network for SF and Oakland. I was delighted by the increased coverage.

Then launch day rolled around, and there was a bit of a bait and switch. I fired up the app and saw that only 35 of the stations were active. This is fewer than Bay Area Bike Share. In fact, the two stations closest to my workplace were inactive.

Riding around I saw that some of the inactive stations are already mostly set up, so I’m optimistic that the rollout will continue at a steady pace, including the increased coverage down into the mission district.

Rider liability is still very high

Despite paying an annual fee, the membership terms state that you are liable for $1200 from the time you check out a bike, until it is safely re-docked. That’s the cost of a pretty fancy road bike.

This is especially concerning because a lost clipper card, a stolen phone, or a hacked fordgobike.com account can all be used to check out a bike on your account.

For example, you get mugged. Your wallet is stolen with your Clipper card inside it. You’re scrambling to deal with the trauma of the mugging, and the loss of all of the credit cards and identity documents in your wallet. Before you know it, the mugger uses your clipper card to go on a Ford GoBike joy ride. When they’re done with their ride, they ditch the bike in the bay. Then a few days later Motivate charges $1200 to your credit card. Sad face.

Account password rules

Accounts on fordgobike.com have stupid password rules requiring the use of numbers, mixed case, and special characters. Rules like these are an outdated custom that hurts security. To make matters worse, there’s a maximum password length of 15 characters! Why on earth would a modern website have a maximum password length? I will be unable to use correct horse battery staple as my password :(

Account email cannot be changed

If the password issues weren’t alarming enough, here’s where it gets wacky. You can change your account email, but changing it does NOT change your account’s login. That is apparently stuck as whatever you used to sign up. This is alarmingly puzzling.

Pricing increase

The price of an annual membership for Ford GoBike has gone up by over 40%, from $88 per year to $124. This is a pretty jarring increase. But, the system will be much larger and the trip duration was raised from 30 to 45 minutes, so it’s still an OK deal.

The neutral

Some changes are neither good, nor bad, but still notable.

Bike seat height difference

The seat post height numbers are a little different on the new bikes. I used to ride with my seat height set to about 5. On the new bikes, this seems to map to a 4 1/2.

The Conclusion

All in all, I’m pretty happy with Ford GoBike. Some issues remain, but they addressed most of the concerns I voiced about Bay Area Bike Share, and the planned coverage area is much bigger. I hope the new bikes hold up better than the previous batch :)


Failed attempts to explain Developer Advocacy

About 7 years ago I discovered an awesome twist on the traditional Software Engineering career: Developer Relations. Over the years and across organizations the titles have varied – from Developer Evangelist, to Developer Advocate, and even to Senior Staff Developer Programs Engineer. But, all the while, one thing has remained the same: it’s really hard to explain what the heck we do.

Today my teammates and I, inspired by #BadlyExplainingYourJob, discovered that failed attempts are actually a great way to explain our jobs. Here is a list of those failed attempts.

I go places and talk to people about products, but don’t care if you buy them.

~~ Terrence Ryan

Explain how a Developer Advocate is not the same thing as a Technical Evangelist, over and over.

~~ Paul Newson

I’m a professional translator. I translate between Real World Engineer and Google Engineer.

~~ Aja Hammerly

I help people cause trouble with code.

~~ Jen Tong

I travel the world, excited to learn about how our products are broken.

~~ Brian Dorsey

I read Hacker News and Reddit, and pretend I’m an expert on stage.

~~ Sandeep Dinesh

I collect t-shirts from conferences, and tech companies while travelling the world.

~~ Mark Mandel

I’m the one Developers yell at when the platform isn’t working how they want; And I’m the one the engineers yell at when the developers aren’t using it right

~~ Colt McAnlis

I practice abstract driven development.

~~ Myles Borins

I look for places I want to travel to, and then see if there are conferences there I can speak at

~~ Mark Mandel

I make explosion noises at my computer when demos fail and get paid for it.

~~ Aja Hammerly

And, of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without…

I’m a people person. I take the code from the engineers and I bring it to the developers.

~~ Myles Borins

So yeah, hopefully that worked. You have a better idea of what it is we do, right? And it sounds great? Maybe you should come join us!


Bay Area Bike Share and Rider Liability

I was a big fan of Bay Area Bike Share from the start. As long as everything goes right, it’s awesome. You can ride to work, and take a bus home when it starts raining. I used it for years without incident, but then I discovered its darker side yesterday.

In software we do postmortems when things go wrong. They help us learn from our mistakes, and improve systems so we can do better next time. They usually include a few sections: what happened, what went right, what could have gone better, and lessons learned. I find this format useful, so I’m using it here so you can learn from my experience.

What happened

Here’s the story of what happened, written up as a sequence of steps.

  1. Like any morning, check out a bike and start your morning commute.
  2. Have a wonderful ride to work. Note that there are only 2 docks left at work.
  3. Attempt to dock your bike, but for some reason it bounces out this time. The bolt that locks the bike to the rack makes some noise. You think the dock shows an green LED, but there’s direct sunlight so you’re not sure.
  4. Attempt to re-dock your bike, but note that it won’t go in cleanly. Maybe the lock is still secured on the rack.
  5. No problem, there’s one more free dock. Move to the other free dock. Apparently, you didn’t use enough force last time so you give the bike an even more firm shove this time. You hear locking noises, and you think you see a 3 second flash from the green LED, but it’s hard to make out due to direct sunlight.
  6. To double check your bike, you give the bike a good tug to make sure it’s secure. It won’t budge.
  7. You have a workday. Worky things happen.
  8. Like any evening, check out a bike for your evening commute. A bike checks out fine. Your ride home is fun. The bike checks in without issue at your home station. You see a green light, and you verify that the bike is secure with a firm tug.
  9. You have a weekend (Yay! Weekend!).
  10. It’s Monday, Like any morning, check out a bike to start your morning commute. It shows a red LED and won’t give you a bike. You try another bike. Same deal.
  11. You check the website. It says your account is active. You wonder if it’s just the station…
  12. You walk to the next station, and try a few bikes. Red LEDs all around. No bike. You walk to work.
  13. You email support right away. They reply promptly. It turns out a bike you used is missing and your account is locked. You call to get more details. You learn that you’re liable for a $1200 fee. You panic a little.
  14. Support instructs you to file a police report for the missing bike. This seems incredibly inefficient, and feels kind of like a trick to make you admit fault. You do it anyway, because your alignment is lawful good.
  15. You search stations all day. You recruit your partner to help. At least the weather is nice.
  16. You finally realize that it was your 2nd to last ride that may have been the problem, not the last one. You update your search pattern.
  17. You find the bike at your work station. It seems to be secure in the rack.
  18. You pull really hard, no dice.
  19. You pull really, really hard. People look at you wondering if you’re trying to steal the bike. It comes free. Luckily you’re a caucasian woman, so no one calls the police or anything.
  20. You shove the bike back into the same dock. You hear locking noises, and see a green LED.
  21. You wait 5 minutes, and try to remove the bike again. It stays secure.
  22. You email customerservice@bayareabikeshare.com to confirm that your bike has been successfully returned.
  23. Bay Area Bike Share quickly replies confirming the bike return, and forgives you for the fees incurred by a 100 hour ride (Thanks!).
  24. You now understand the true liability of being a bike share user: $1200

What went well

It’s always important to note what went well, so you don’t un-do those things while you try to prevent the bad things from happening again. Here’s a list of things that went right.

  • Bay Area Bike Share support was very responsive. They replied to every email in under an hour, and most of them within minutes. When I called in, I didn’t spend any time on hold.
  • Bay Area Bike Share forgave the nearly $1400 in overage fees from the 100 hour ‘ride’ associated with the failed check in.
  • My bike was so stuck in the dock that no one moved it.

What could have gone better

And here’s the core of the postmortem: what needs to be fixed. Here’s a list, along with some recommendations for improvements.

  • The bad news came out of left field. I was notified with an unclear red LED when I tried to check out a bike almost 4 days later. I had to email support to find out why my account was disabled. That’s a long time to let the problem fester.
  • Searching for my lost bike was really hard. The only marker is a tiny bar code on the back of the frame. You have to crouch down and stick your back side into a traffic lane to read the label. Additionally, many of the labels are quite worn and difficult to read.
  • Bay Area Bike Share had no way of locating their bikes, even one that was literally touching a dock. Maybe we should buy them some Bluetooth beacons :)
  • When I ran into issues with a dock, I had no alternative way to verify that the last ride was completed. I guess I could have emailed Bay Area Bike Share support, but a mobile app notification or an SMS would have been great. (Update: The folks at Bay Area Bike Share indicate that this is coming in the next few months. Yay!)
  • When there was a problem, the burden of proof was all on me per their terms of use. No friendly support team can make up for that. I’d pay a higher fee if included insurance against incidents.
  • The website showed my account as ‘active’ the whole time, even when it was disabled due to the failed bike return. A false sense of security is worse than no information at all.

A 3 second flash of this green LED is the only indicator of a successful return. Missing it can be quite costly.

Lessons learned

  • You, the rider, are liable for mechanical issues to related returning a bike, even if they’re non-obvious.
  • You can have concurrent rides. Just because you can check out a bike, does not mean your previous ride was successfully returned.
  • The 3 second green LED flash is the only source of truth. Even if the bike is secure in the rack, it may not be successfully checked-in. This is a bummer because it’s really hard to see the LED in direct sunlight.

Conclusion

In the end I didn’t owe Bay Area Bike Share anything, but I did waste most of a day searching. The experience left a bad taste in my mouth. I still believe in bike share as a concept, but I’m done with Bay Area Bike Share. The liability is just too high. After 2 years of use, and hundreds of successful rides, it only took one problem to ruin my experience.

Perhaps once they have more than a 3 second window to confirm a bike is returned, I’ll give them another shot.

Other notes

Oh, and about the other provider: Bluegogo. They have an even scarier policy. The responsibility period is the same (until the next rider checks the bike out), but they don’t use docks. So, say you park your bike and it goes unused for 3 days, but then some mean person throws it in a pickup truck at 2am. In that case you’re liable for an undisclosed replacement cost, and losses due to loss of use. Pretty scary!

Photo credit: Bay Area Bike Share