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'The pile keeps coming': Public bike share mechanics handle endless repairs

The Vancouver bike share system, Mobi, has rapidly grown from 240 bicycles to 1,400, with more on the way. The bikes are sturdy, but with nearly 60,000 different customers, the small team of mechanics have an endless supply of problems to fix.

Small team takes care of 1,400 bicycles in Vancouver

Depending on the repairs, a mechanic at Mobi can fix seven or eight bikes a day, but tough jobs can slow that to just a couple. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Mark Simmons disassembles a part of a Mobi bike's seat post. The metal is all chewed up and the security cable that keeps people from wandering off with the seat is rusted and frayed. Nearly every rider that uses the bike will adjust the height of the seat, and it's getting caught.

Simmons, who works as shop lead at Mobi, Vancouver's public bike share system, files down the seat post, installs a new length of cable, cleans it up, and puts everything back together.

"In this case, it's just wear and tear. It happens; it needs fixing," he says.

A relatively small shop keeps the hundreds of bikes in working order. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The Mobi system was launched a little less than two years ago with 240 bikes and 24 docking stations. Now, the system — which is owned by the private U.S. company CycleHop, but overseen by the City of Vancouver — has about 1,400 bikes and more than 130 stations. 

And with nearly 60,000 riders having a go at the bikes, there's no shortage of technical issues to keep the small team of mechanics busy.

Crews on the streets will routinely reposition bikes to makes sure the system is balanced, and they'll grab bikes that need a little work. Other times, users will report a specific issue.

Mark Simmons, shop lead, makes an adjustment on one of Mobi's 1,400 bikes. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"Nine times out of 10, we go there and look at it and it's fine," said Simmons.

But then there are times when the bike is definitely not fine. According to Simmons, bikes will come in with smashed up fenders, or even wheels so bent out of shape mechanics refer to them as "tacoed." 

A coat of pigeon poo

Simmons said his specialty is the electronics. Each bike has a unit that lets users unlock the bike and tracks system data. The problem usually just requires a software reinstallation, but Simmons gestured toward the small "wall of fame" to highlight one case where the electronic unit had been completely butchered, and its guts forcibly removed.

"I just thought it was impressive that they were able to make such a mess of it," he said, trying to describe the technique. "I think that might be gnawing, but that looks like a screwdriver or crowbar or something of that ilk."

Mark Simmons points to a Mobi bike electronic unit that has been subjected to violent vandalism. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Simmons has seen bikes completely caked in sand, covered in sticky juice or pop, or just generally vandalized.

Then there's the pigeon poo, usually from the Mobi station outside the City Centre SkyTrain station on Granville Street.

"That's not very pleasant," he said of repair jobs hidden under a layer of pigeon droppings.

Simmons said, to his knowledge, only two bikes have had to be fished out of the water. In one case, the user called it in after losing the bike over the side of the seawall along False Creek.

Mark Simmons' fingers show the wear caused by endless bike repairs. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The same bike every time

A bike mechanic's job usually involves different kinds of bikes with different components, but at Mobi, it's the same blue-fendered bike, over and over.

Mechanic Jeanette Steinmann, who started with the company in December, said the collection of bikes waiting for repair never ends.

"The pile keeps coming, yeah. Sometimes I have weird dreams, because sometimes they're just so wet, like waterlogged ... I have dreams like that," said Steinmann, saying the Mobi bike dreams only happen "once in a while."

Jeanette Steinmann started with Mobi as a mechanic in December. She says it's satisfying to take an especially damaged bike and restore it to working order. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Simmons said for him, it's on hot days in the shop that he has lingering effects from the repetition. 

"Those days, you kind of go home seeing a shower of blue in front of your eyes," he said, saying he can't remember the last time one of the bikes appeared in his dreams.

But with the company expecting to add another 600 bikes and another 70 stations to the system by the end of the summer, even more bikes will be appearing in the shop.

Each day, Mobi mechanics get anywhere from 20 to 40 bikes in for repair. They're stacked on the left with their seats facing backwards. Once repaired, the seats are straightened out and the bikes are stacked on the right side. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker