Bay Area Bike Share and Rider Liability

Posted by Jen Tong on January 31, 2017

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 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.


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