OV-Fiets is the shared bike system of The Netherlands and it is very popular for the last kilometre of a journey from the train station to people’s end destination. Last week the Railways, who operate this system, announced that the growing demand made them decide to expand the fleet (now roughly 8,000 bicycles in 250 rental locations) with 3,000 brand new bicycles over the next three years. The growth is startling. In 2009 600,000 rides were made, but just 5 years later, in 2014, that had more than doubled to 1.5 million rides.
But the Railways will not just buy the same bicycles they have available now. Even though the public is generally very content with the present bikes, the new bicycle has to be better than the old one, that some people called clunky. The Cyclists’ Union was also not entirely happy with it. They said the current bicycle is not suitable for longer distances and it doesn’t fit in the standard bike parking rack.
The railways asked the public to help choose that new bicycle. To determine which suits them best the Railways built a test course right next to Utrecht Central Station (Utrecht is where the Dutch Railways have their headquarters). Last Friday and Saturday everybody was allowed to test ride one or all of the six types of bicycles that made it through the pre-selection to this final election process. A lot of people, from of all kinds of backgrounds and ages, did indeed come to make that test ride, as did I.
On the national TV news spokesperson from the Dutch Railways, Erik Kroeze, said: “We could have locked some experts in a hall to test them, but ultimately we want our travellers to think the bicycle is convenient. So that is why we said ‘We go outside!’ and here we ask the people ‘Which one is most convenient for you?’.”
The bicycles looked quite similar at first. Only minor differences in lights and coat protection could be seen and the rear racks were different, but once you started riding them they turned out to be very different indeed. First thing you noticed was how you got the saddle to the right height. The current system is very unfriendly and requires a lot of force. Most of the new bikes had a much better system. The moment you rode off it was clear that certain bicycles were much heavier than the others. Some felt flimsy, others chunky again. It will be difficult to find one that suits all people. While I was stating one of the bicycles had the perfect distance to the handlebars, a woman right next to me – towering more than 20 centimetres over me – complained she didn’t have enough room for her knees on yes, the same type of bicycle. The reverse was true as well. On one of the bicycles I had trouble to even reach the handlebars, but she must have loved that one.
My video: Testing the new OV-Fiets bicycles.
All of the bicycles had a coaster brake. Hand brakes would require too much maintenance I think. But two of the 6 bikes had gears. Because I am used to pedal back when I shift gears that confused me terribly. I normally have no trouble to change from riding a coaster brake bike to a one with hand-brakes, I do that all the time, but adding shifting gears without being able to pedal back, messed up my ability. When I shifted gears I used the brake unwillingly and when I wanted to stop I squeezed the handlebars where there were no brake levers. I hated that and it would be dangerous in a real traffic situation. The other bicycle had one gear that shifted automatically. I had no idea self-shifting transmission does even exist for bicycles. It had the downside that it just shifted when that bicycle thought you wanted it. A short sprint doesn’t always mean you want to change gears so that was a no from me too. No gears please, keep it simple!
The test course had some obstacles that you hope you would normally not see in a real traffic situation but bumps and small high bridges do exist. So it was useful to test how convenient the bike took these hurdles. Racing through the water was great fun of course. And that is what this was also: involving the public in a fun way.
The Railways say they will include the findings of this test in their decision-making process. So it will be interesting to see which of these six types of bikes we will see back 3,000 times.