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 could not tell him 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
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.
Download the smart cycle app;
Enter your personal details, including debit / credit card details;
Once the information is entered, an OTP is sent to the registered mobile;
On entering the OTP, a token transaction of Rs. 1 is made. After the transaction is successful the login is complete;
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 now be ridden. When the cycle is parked at different locations during the travel, it should be manually locked after selecting the 'park' option in the 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.
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, a three-month pass for Rs 699, a one-month pass for Rs. 249, and a 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.
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 out many on-street activities such as, new shops that might have come up, civic issues that need to be addressed or even saying hello to friends and acquaintances. Of course, the biggest loss is missing out on the many health benefits to the mind and body derived from cycling.
Coming back to my 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.
Testing SmartBike on a National Highway
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 travel a greater distance with little effort.
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.