Friday, August 23, 2019

Hello Cycling

I've had bicycles since I was old enough to learn and I rode motorbikes for many years. I want some way to get around on my time off. We have a car of course, but I drive to work every day and don't really want to spend even more time in the car. Also, driving on the narrow streets in Okinawa is stressful and no fun. I prefer two wheels.

But Okinawa is hot and humid for much of the year, and Naha is quite hilly. A regular bicycle leaves me literally drenched in sweat. I'm not kidding - if I bike from home up to Omoromachi in summer, I will form literal puddles around me when I stop. Bicycles are great for exercise but not that practical as utility vehicles.

A bit of coast close to the new Parco City shopping mall. Easy to get to with a bicycle. Hopeless with a car since there's no place to park around here.

A few months ago I discovered Hello Cycling. It's an app-based rental service (owned by Softbank) for electric assist bicycles. They have cycle stations — each with a handful of bikes — around town, typically by convenience stores, car parks and apartment buildings. It's available in Naha, Tokyo, Osaka and a few other cities. Fukuoka has lots of them, Kyoto has a few, while Nagoya curiously have none at all.

A typical station by a Yamaha bike shop. Not coincidentally, the bicycles seem to all be Yamaha as well.

The service is really simple to use: you download the app and register your email address and a credit card. On the app (and online) you can see all the stations in an area. Hover over them to see how many bikes and empty return spots are available. Select a bike, press "book", and you get a 4-digit number in the app and in an email. Go to the bike (you have 30 minutes), turn it on and enter the number. The bike unlocks and is ready to use.

Returning it is just as simple. Stop at any station, park and lock the bike, press "return" and confirm. If you want to stop on the way, you just lock the bike. When you get back, turn it on again, then enter your number to unlock it. You can also register an IC card (any card — I use my "Okica" transit pass) then use that instead of the PIN. A registered card also lets you take any free bike directly without booking in the app.

They're extending the increasingly popular monorail. This is the future Ishimine station.

Electric assist bicycles

These are regular bicycles with an electric helper motor: you pedal, the bike measures how strongly you push and the motor adds power in proportion to the effort you put in. Simple, but the effect is profound. Flat areas feel like rolling on a gentle downward slope, while steep hills and strong headwinds effectively disappear.

If you stay within certain limits they legally count as bicycles. You need no license, and you can ride and park them just like a regular bicycle. They do cost a fair amount, however; you add the cost of a motor and an expensive high-capacity battery to a regular bicycle.  Decent ones start at 100k yen, and really good ones can be several times that. We don't have a place to put a full-size bicycle, so I — foreshadowing alert — would need a foldable model. That further increases the cost of course.

A Yamaha PAS With bicycle. You can see the small motor control by the left handle and the larger rental terminal (with GPS and cellular connection) in the center.

This is actually quite a nice bicycle and well suited for its intended use. But it is quite small for me; the saddle is as high as it will go. The curved handlebars are good for manoeuvring it around a parking lot but get a bit too close to be comfortable when bicycling.

The most common Hello Cycling bicycles are Yamaha "PAS With" city bikes. A solid frame with low instep; three-speed internal gears; a wide saddle, curved handlebars and sturdy tires; and a large front basket. It's heavy and stable and will never win a speed competition. But it will take you to the supermarket and back with the basket full of groceries like a champ. It will take you to the beach, your university lecture or the rail station with equal aplomb. It sells for about 110K yen.

It's heavy but the weight really doesn't matter — it's an electric assist bicycle. For the most part you simply don't notice the weight, but you do appreciate the stability. On flat roads with "Eco" assist it feels like you could coast forever. On steep hills you gear down, increase the assist level to strong, and ride up without breaking a sweat. I've effortlessly pedalled up hills on Pipeline Road so steep that I would have to stop and walk if I were out running. I happily went up a back road in Urasoe that was so steep it was a little scary to ride back down again.

The bicycles also come in a very nice powder blue. 

Battery capacity is plentiful. How much you use obviously depends on the terrain, weather, your speed and how much you rely on the motor. They are normally charged to 90% (that greatly extends the battery lifetime), and after a day of cycling in hilly Naha — perhaps 25-30km — I have typically used about 30-40%. Yamaha states the battery lasts for 56km, and that seems conservative.

On the downside, the brakes are inadequate. I can squeeze the rim brakes until my hands hurt without locking the wheels. Also, I'm not a tall guy, but even with the seat in the topmost position it's still a little short, and the handlebars are a bit too close to feel really comfortable. The intended demographic for this bicycle is likely women running household errands.

A walking path near Shuri castle.

If I got this bike for myself, I would absolutely replace the brakes with disc brakes. For comfort I would replace the seat post with a longer one, and also replace the curved handlebars with a straight type. Or (more foreshadowing) just get myself a different type of bike of course.

The entrance to Urasoe Yodore, an old royal burial tomb. 

Overall the bikes and the booking service both work really well. I've yet to have a bad experience with either.

  • The service is cheap and almost frictionless. Just pick up a bike, go cycling, then return it. At 1000 yen per day I don't even think about the money.
  • The bikes are pretty good, and they're kept charged and well maintained. I guess the business (convenience store, apartment or so) that house the station are tasked with seeing to the bikes docked there.
  • This is really useful when travelling. In Tokyo, for instance, you can probably get from your hotel to your meeting or conference way faster going straight across town with a bicycle than finding your way through the subway system.
  • Unlike rental scooters in other cities, you return these at bike stations. They don't clutter up the streets and side-walks; they get better maintained; and they're soon ready for use again. And there's no backlash against them so the service is much more likely to stay available in the long run.
  • Our nearest station is 600m away, too far to pick one up just for shopping or carting a package home. They work better as all-day joyrides for us.
  • Stations usually have only a few bikes, so you can't count on a bike always being available. There usually are, but if you need to make really sure, you can of course pick a bike up ahead of time then park it until you need it.
  • A couple of blogs have mentioned booking a bike, only to find the battery nearly drained. They were recently returned and the battery hadn't yet been replaced. You can't see the battery level in the app, so make sure you check it when you go pick it up. You can always cancel and book another bike if it doesn't have enough charge.
  • Many stations in the big cities have raised their prices to 100 yen per 15 minutes and 1500 yen per day. That's still cheap, and I would still not hesitate to use them, but I guess it's a sign they're not always going to be this inexpensive.
Hello Cycling is a good service. It's aimed at residents (Docomo has a similar service for tourists centered around hotels for more than twice the daily cost), so stations tend to be in residential and business areas, and there's no real way to use it in anything but Japanese. If you can use it, I would warmly recommend it.