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We explored Schenectady by rented bicycle. This is how it went

We explored Schenectady by rented bicycle. This is how it went

There were concerns our 6'5" videographer might be too tall, but seats adjust sufficiently

A lot of people are interested in the new regional bike-share program, and I can attest to it.

Four people approached me separately late last week as I was returning a CDPHPCycle bicycle to its kiosk outside the Schenectady County Public Library on Clinton Street, asking about the cost and how the rental system works.

A couple of them thought the $5 per hour seemed high, while a man with his wife and children pulled his station wagon over to ask how the system worked, and called the cost "reasonable."

So yes, there's public interest. Readers can decide for themselves whether the price being charged is worth it.

But after touring parts of the city by bicycle with a videographer, I can report that Schenectady — despite the challenges of urban traffic levels and the occasional pothole — is more bikeable than you might think.

The assignment was to "explore Schenectady" by bike, to feel its slopes under our peddles in a way we never do when driving, to scope out its lush lawns and fine residential architecture and listen for the birds, when not listening for a car coming up from behind.

CDPHPCycle, managed by the Capital District Transportation Authority with corporate sponsorship from the CDPHP health plan, debuted July 27, after two years of planning, and after a pilot program in 2014 was deemed successful. It has 160 bikes spread across about 40 cycle kiosks in Schenectady, Saratoga Springs, Albany and Troy. The goal is to give people who don't own bikes a chance to get around on one, with maybe a little exercise thrown into the bargain.

In Schenectady, the bright-green bikes can be found in Riverside Park, the entrance to Vale Park, on State Street opposite Proctors, at Union College, Schenectady County Community College, on North Jay Street and at the central library.

We chose to rent at the central library, since it has one of the largest kiosks with six bikes based there. Most other locations have three.

The rental process requires people to sign up at the cdphpcycle.com website, provide payment information and then be issued an account number. Users then create their own four-digit password.

To date, 578 people have registered, and 452 people have actually ridden one of the bikes at least once, according to CDTA spokeswoman Jaime O'Neill.

"I know people are intrigued about it," she told me. "People are still learning about it."

As of Friday, through the first nine days of the program, there have been 1,025 trips. Most activity had been in Albany, which also has the largest number of rental bikes.

So it was up to us to improve Schenectady's numbers. Not that we're competitive, just looking to keep readers informed of the burgeoning number of transportation options in the city: ride-shares, a free downtown trolley and rental bikes that have all arrived since May.

I'd taken care of registration Thursday, and it took only a few moments to rent a couple of bikes. One account can rent up to six bikes, so a family can rent through a single account.

I entered the account number and password on an electronic pad on the back of the bike, and success released a giant U-bolt that holds the bike to its rack (there are holes on the left rear of the bike for carrying the U-bolt while you're riding.)

The seat height adjusts easily with a release lever. We'd had concerns our 6'5" videographer might be too tall to ride comfortably, but the seats adjust sufficiently that he was comfortable, and it could have gone even higher.

With that settled, we headed north across Union Street onto Barrett Street, and then right on South Street, heading toward the Union College campus. Seward Place, though, forced us up onto the sidewalk, since its boulevard lanes aren't even wide enough to hold a car and a bicycle simultaneously. Pro tip: Obey all cycling laws, but don't be a fool about it.

The Union campus is one of Schenectady's most beautiful and historic places. As we peddled across it we had to dodge earnest clumps of high school students and parents, for it was an admissions open house day. We managed not to hit anyone, but it took effort.

We emerged into South Street, and then Union Avenue. I don't know the city well, and didn't realize Union Avenue was different from Union Street, but they'd said to "explore Schenectady," so we did.

Left onto Lenox Road, and we were passing some really nice homes, on the edge of the historic GE Realty plot. We reached Nott Street, and lo and behold, there was Ellis Hospital — one editor's suggested destination. We found it, I have to say, unexpectedly. We were exploring, remember. We would not need its emergency services Friday, despite being outmatched by every other vehicle on the road.

At this point, we'd climbed the hill that separates Erie Boulevard and downtown from the rest of the city, and did it with only a little heavy breathing, even though these bikes only have three gears. Gentle hills aren't much of a problem.

We rode a little further on Nott, and I arbitrarily chose to turn onto Grand Boulevard, which turned out to be a really pleasant, low-traffic and flat route through upper Schenectady and on into Niskayuna. We turned right when we reached Van Antwerp and rolled down to the Upper Union commercial district, where we took a water break. The trip had taken less than an hour and we'd covered about four miles (these are sturdy bikes, friends, not racing bikes, and we weren't in a hurry anyway.)

If we'd decided to eat — Upper Union has more than a dozen culinary options — we could have reinserted the U-bolts to stop the hourly charge, though we would have had to reinsert the account number and password to resume. While you're riding, the pad where we inserted the account information kept running track of the minutes ridden, miles covered and the cost.

Had we broken down, the pad would have displayed a customer service number. "With any malfunction like a tire losing air or something else going wrong, you can leave it where it's at and call the customer service number and they will come and get it and you will not be charged for that ride," Watson said. Social Bicycles of Brooklyn is providing the bikes and overseeing the day-to-day details, but has people based in Albany.

Every bike comes equipped with a front basket, suitable for water bottles or a sandwich or, it turns out, a camera.

Having ridden mostly in low-traffic zones, we decided it was time for the test — riding in traffic. The trip back downtown on Union Street took less than 20 minutes, and required hugging close to parked cars to stay out of the traffic lane. Motorists probably noted the cyclist with the reporter's pad in his chartreuse jersey's back pocket making clumsy starts at stop lights, but we got back to the library without incident, and that's where the curious accosted us.

For me, urban riding won't replace the relaxation of cycling in the countryside, but there are still places in Schenectady — like the Mohawk-Hudson bike path and its new Mohawk Harbor extension — that I would like to poke around, and probably will.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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