Finally I have come around to using Bike Sampa, the largest bike sharing service in São Paulo. Since I am mostly based in the countryside I was using my own bike to get around but missed it when I was in the big city, so I jumped on the bike sharing wagon a few months ago.
Like in other large cities around the world it is a very useful service and I really like using it to get out and about in São Paulo for short-medium distances.
So far I have covered quite a lot of city ground on those orange bikes, even though I must confess I am not all very experienced in urban cycling and have had a few scares - Brazilian drivers are not all that friendly to bikes and many people in São Paulo still see cycling as a weekend pursuit rather than a sustainable option of transport.
It's a great service but are some hiccups that I have experienced, some to do with technology, some more related to the overall operation - I thought I would initially outline some of them here and follow up as and when I get feedback from Serttel, the company that operates the bikes.
In some peak commuting times, it can be difficult to find a spot to return or collect bikes, particularly near to underground stations. Balancing empty stations versus full bike stations has been a problem for some time even though the operating company uses trucks to reshuffle the bikes to other locations. This means sometimes users are forced to fend, when they've got to struggle to find a place to ditch a bike or need to be somewhere fast.
The docking stations are solar-powered and often run out of power when the weather is cloudy, which can happened a lot in São Paulo and especially now in the winter. So in cloudy or rainy days, retrieving and returning bikes may or may not work.
It is common to locate available bikes in the Bike Sampa app, and users get to these locations only to find that the docking station is offline and bikes cannot be retrieved. The spots are equipped with two 3G modems from different operators, and when they don't work, status updates on bike availability can be impacted.
Sometimes, I have also found that the actual docking bay can be damaged, meaning users have to double-check in the app to ensure that the bike has actually been returned. Damages are also commonly found in the bikes themselves (flat tires, wonky handlebars, damaged bells and brakes). The company has been quoted that this is to do with the high level of usage and that maintenance is constant, but coincidentally the bikes I have used are more often faulty than not.
So there are a few quirks - and also room for expansion: there are just 255 spots in operation across São Paulo at present; this compares to London's Santander Cycles (Boris bikes) with 839 stations available since 2010 and Vélib, the Paris bike-sharing scheme which has rolled out 1800 locations since 2007.
Still, the Bike Sampa scheme is a fun and cheap way to get around São Paulo. The project, along with the recent introduction of cycling lanes across the city have made it a lot more appealing to those who until recently had not considered a bike as a viable alternative to their private car. Slowly but surely, we are getting there.
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