Our journalists take to the road – episode 1: bikesharing
My date with a donkey called Beauty
First instalment of an incidental series in which our journalists try out new ways of getting around. This episode: Fleet Europe journalist Frank Jacobs tries the bikeshare scheme Donkey Republic in Aalborg, Denmark.
I live in the centre of Aalborg, the compact little capital of Northern Jutland. Shops, restaurants, the library, the cinema: everything is close by. Even the airport is just a 15-minute bus ride from the centre of town. So I don’t need a car (and since this is tax-happy Denmark, I can’t really afford one anyway).
I do need my bicycle however – Aalborg is not that small. But apparently, I’m not the only one who needs my bike: a few weeks ago, it got stolen. That morning, all that was left of my Electra Cruiser 7D Citybike was the lock by which it had been attached to a drainpipe behind our building. Nicely sliced in two with a wire cutter.
Until that terrible day, I’d only had eyes for my cool, black cruiser. While walking off my shock and grief, I started noticing clumps of orange bikes sprinkled throughout the city. They’re part of a fixed-location bike-share scheme called Donkey Republic. Was it too soon to start seeing other bikes?
Even though I’d gotten quite accustomed to shared bikes when living in London – they were then still called ‘Boris bikes’, after London's then-mayor Boris Johnson (currently in the running to become Britain’s next prime minister) – it had been a while since I tried any, and I admit I faced the same mental barriers all over again: Won’t it fast become too expensive? What if I rent one with a flat tyre, will they charge me? Will there be a spot for me when I want to return the bike? And plenty more like that.
But those theoretical questions can only be answered by a real-live try. Since it’ll be a while before I can bring myself to buy a new bike, perhaps I should just go for it, I thought.
Launched in Copenhagen in 2015, Donkey Republic is as Danish as smørrebrød. The bikes are a familiar sight around the Danish capital, particularly beloved by tourists. TripAdvisor calls Donkey Republic “the easiest way to rent a bike in Copenhagen, with many hubs to pick it up from. You book your bike online, in advance or on the spot, 24/7.”
There are now ’Donkeys’ for rent in nine locations throughout Denmark, and in 11 other European countries (in Vienna, Paris, Budapest, Berlin, Barcelona and Amsterdam, among many other cities). The company has one foothold in America, in the unlikely gateway city of Sandusky, Ohio.
Considering the many questions I had beforehand, renting a donkey was swift and easy. Download the app. Enter credit card details. Locate Donkeys for rent on the map in the app. Pick one. Done.
Mine was waiting for me near the Friis shopping centre in town, at one of Donkey Republic’s 14 ‘hubs’ spread throughout the city. When you make the reservation, you get sent the name of a specific bike. Mine was called ‘Beauty’. Hey, wait a minute. This is a bike I’ve just reserved, no?
Reassuringly, Beauty turned out to have a firm orange body and two charming wheels. A sturdy black luggage carrier mounted at the front completes Donkey Republic’s distinctive look. A click on the app sent a signal that unlocked the bike, and Beauty was mine for about as long as I wanted.
Before you rent, the app gives you a clear overview of the all-in prices, which slide down as time ticks up: from 12.5 kroner (€1.7) for less than 15 minutes to 50 kr (€6.7) for up to 4 hours and 100 kr (€13.4) for up to a day. I could keep Beauty for up to 3 days for just 230 kr (€30.8), with 55 kr (€7.4) for each additional day. Prices vary per city. Insurance (15 kr, €2) is on top. You can also get a membership, with unlimited access to the bikes for the time of your subscription.
A bit unsteady at first, I directed Beauty via Nytorv towards the bridge across the Limfjord, until recently the only above-ground link between Aalborg and Nørresundby, its twin city across the water. Donkey Republic bikes have just three gears and are built to withstand the rough-and-tumble life of a rental, but Beauty was easy to manoeuvre and get up the elevation towards the bridge. Going down on the other side, the brakes turned out to be top-class as well. Phew!
Close and open
Before crossing over the Limfjord again via the recently-refurbished railway bridge (now also accessible for cyclists and pedestrians) I stopped to test whether I could close and open Beauty during my rental. Yes, I can: as easy as pressing a button on the app. Quite useful if I’d want to rent for a longer time.
It was a gloriously sunny day, and it felt good to be out with all the other cyclists. I could have gone on for hours, but the thought that a monthly membership cost as much as a few hours’ pay-as-you-go put a stop to that. Reluctantly, I directed Beauty to her resting place near the train station (took me a bit to find it, but this is where the orange colour of the other Donkeys came in handy).
As soon as I checked her into her stable, Donkey Republic sent me a receipt for my about-two-hour ride: 65 kr (€8.7), or about the price of a pint of beer (in Denmark). A five-star experience all-round, and one I’m certain to repeat. Perhaps I’ll even go for the whole hog (donkey?) and try a membership for a month. Unless, of course, my cool, black Electra runs away from its abductors and finds its way back home…
- Rental process is swift and easy (download app, install, done)
- My bike was perfectly maintained (brakes, tyres, gears all ok)
- Option to lock during rental period is useful (also facilitates longer rentals)
- Not really cheap, but nothing in Denmark is (prices vary per location)
- Took me a bit to identify drop-off location (bike colour helped)
- ‘Sexy’ helps to separate the good from the great; and neither the bike nor their name (‘Donkey’) fits that bill.