On a cloudy Sunday evening before the sun set, I took a test ride of the bicycle “SmartBike”. While I unlocked the cycle a passerby asked me, “How much is the rental for the cycle?” I expressed my inability to tell the exact charges as it was my first experience with SmartBike

SmartBike in Chennai has been set up by Smartbike Mobility Pvt Ltd under the Smart Cities project of the government. Apart from Chennai, this bike sharing system is also available in Delhi and Hyderabad. The bike sharing system has come to India in the backdrop of increased motorisation of India’s roads, growing congestion, and declining air quality standards. Also, cycling provides tangible health benefits to people and prevents lifestyle diseases such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. 

In Chennai, as a pilot project, cycles are now available at six locations on Marina Beach and Kilpauk, three locations in T Nagar (near Panagal Park), and around 15 locations in Anna Nagar. SmartBike service is also available at several metro stations. 

 Smart Cycle Station Locations

 

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 A Smart Cycle Station - 18th Main Road, Anna Nagar

                                                        

Getting to the Smart Cycle

The smart cycle can be driven through the SmartBike app. Following are the steps in brief to rent the cycle.

  1. Download the smart cycle app

  2. Enter your personal details, including debit / credit card details;

  3. Once the information is entered, an OTP is sent to the registered mobile;

  4. On entering the OTP, a token transaction of Rs. 1 is made. After the transaction is successful the login is complete;

  5. Now using the QR code scanner in the app you can unlock the cycle of your choice.

Each cycle has a unique number that gets displayed on the mobile once the scan is complete. The cycle lock automatically opens and can be used to ride. When the cycle is parked at different locations during the travel, it should be manually locked after selecting the park option in app. After the trip is completed, the bike should be parked and locked at any of the SmartBike parking stations, otherwise a levy of Rs. 200 is applied as towing charges.    

The cool, blue SmartBike

The German-made cycle costs around Rs. 1 lakh. It is a three-speed gear cycle with puncture proof tyres and height adjustable seat. It has a broad sturdy frame. With the SmartBike blue logo on a white frame, the cycle is visually appealing. The handle bar of the cycle has a bell on the left and gear shift knobs on the right.

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The SmartBike

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The SmartBike while riding

 

Choose your rental plan

There are two ways to ride the smart cycle - a subscription model and the other for ad-hoc use. Under the subscription plan, there are three options namely three-month pass for Rs 699, one-month pass for Rs. 249 and 1-day pass for Rs. 49. For ad-hoc use, a non member can use the bike at Rs. 5 for the first hour and then Rs. 9 is charged for every 30 minutes after.

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Rental options displayed at the parking stations

 

The Ride: fun but a bit scary

After logging in successfully, I unlocked a cycle and started my ride from 18th Main Road Anna Nagar. Anna Nagar is a prime residential area of Chennai. It is known for its wide roads and shady trees providing an ideal location for riding bicycles. I wanted to get the experience of riding the cycle along residential roads and on the busy highway. To start off, I began my ride along the residential streets. It was an enjoyable experience where I could appreciate the area and surroundings better. Riding in an automobile, one tends to miss many activities on the road such as new shops that have come up, any civic issues that need to be addressed or even saying hello to friends and acquaintances, not to mention the many health benefits to mind and body one gets by cycling. Coming back to the cycling experience, I noticed that it was a geared cycle. Riding a geared cycle for the first time, the experience was even more exciting. Riding on gear 2 on a flat road felt like riding a normal cycle. On turning the gear knob clockwise the cycle changed to gear 3. Now I could feel that pedaling required little more effort but with one push I could go farther. 

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Testing SmartBike on a National Highway

 Highway ride

After cycling along the residential areas, I joined the National Highway 716 running along the boundary of Anna Nagar. It is a busy road with vehicles of different kinds jostling for space. While I rode on the side of the road, I hoped to not get hit by a vehicle. Wearing a bright blue T-shirt, I was glad I made myself visible to the motorists. During a near miss, I felt the need for wearing a helmet as motor vehicles drove by at high speeds. I  also wished for a rear view mirror that this cycle lacks, as I had to watch out for vehicles behind me as I negotiated the traffic. While cycling on the flyover at Thirumangalam was when I realised what a comfort it was to ride a geared cycle. Riding on first gear, pedaling was a lot easier. I managed to cross the gradient with ease. This feature can help the rider ride for a greater distance without getting exhausted. 

Good Initiative though not inclusive

The cycles are designed to cater to the middle and upper-middle class population as the bike-sharing system is completely digitised and requires the use of smart-phones and knowledge of English. The rental of Rs 5 for an hour is affordable and is convenient to make short trips for one’s daily requirements. However the monthly rental cost of Rs 49/249/699 will make it expensive for the common man. This could be reduced to make the initiative more attractive. Tamil information plaques at the parking stands and a Tamil version of the app would help ensure greater access. If the bike share is to be truly about last mile connectivity it should be more affordable and inclusive.  

On the whole, this bike sharing initiative is a first step towards bridging the gap of last mile connectivity and encouraging people to use public transport. Hopefully as awareness about the scheme increases, more people will use this facility. Perhaps one day, I will get to ride among bicycles instead of a road filled with automobiles and all of us would breathe fresh air rather than dust and noxious gases.