brady
PEXELS

Tom Brady, as every sentient resident of the US probably knows, is widely regarded as the greatest football quarterback of all time.  But even that track record didn’t help him the other day when he decided to rent a Citi Bike in New York City and ride a few blocks, subsequently posting his experience on his widely-followed Twitter account, where the New York Post found it and wrote it up. 

Here’s where he and I shared a common experience.  By his own admission, he hadn’t ridden a bicycle in New York for about fifteen years.  When he went up to the self-operated kiosk to unlock a rental bike, Brady says it took him about ten minutes to figure out how to unlock the thing.

I, too, have recently decided to rent a bike from a self-service kiosk for the first time.  And I, too, had a heck of a time getting it unlocked, though perhaps for different reasons than Brady had.  Beyond this single commonality, I don’t think Brady and I share much else.  But the fact that someone as otherwise physically competent as Tom Brady had that much trouble figuring out how to rent a bike may say something about the systems used. 

Because I naturally have more first-hand knowledge of my experience, I’ll summarise it briefly here.  I still have relatives in Fort Worth, Texas, where I visit occasionally, and last month I was in town staying with my sister and had some extra time on a Saturday afternoon. The last time I’d been in town, I had noticed some bike-rental kiosks on the bank of the Trinity River, where the city has installed jogging and biking trails that follow the river for many miles. So I looked up on the web where you could rent a bike at a location I knew how to access by car, paid online for a one-hour pass (eight bucks), and headed down to the kiosk without any clear knowledge of how they were going to know I paid for it.

Luddite

I should mention at this point that, in contrast to Tom Brady and most other adults in modern civilisation, I do not have a smart phone.  Well, I sort of do, but it’s what you might call brain-damaged.  It’s a flip phone sold by the Caterpillar Tractor people, I suppose on the basis that if there is still any market for rugged flip phones, people in the heavy-equipment industry are liable to be a big part of that. 

I don’t spend a lot of time around heavy equipment, but when my telecomm company forced me to get rid of my old flip phone a few months ago because it would no longer work with their upgraded 5G system, I hunted around and found the one new flip phone out there, and got that.  It’s basically an Android system, but the little screen makes most standard apps either inoperable or impractical, and I haven’t bothered with installing any of them anyway, because that’s not what I want the phone for.  So I can make phone calls, I can text after a fashion, but that’s about it.  And that’s all I want from my flip phone, which I don’t have to worry about dropping on the floor.

Fortunately, the people who designed the bike-rental kiosk had taken into account eccentrics like me who, for whatever reason, chose not to download the rental app on their smartphone.  At the end of the kiosk there was a box with a touchscreen, and a place where I could enter personal details like my phone number.  The idea was, they’d text me a confirmation number to check that it was me, and then when that matched my paid-up account, the system would unlock the bike.

Most of the bikes had electric assist, which wasn’t something I was familiar with, so I picked the one bike on the rack that was just a plain old manual bike, and started to try to rent it. 

At this remove, I don’t recall all the details, but I ran into several problems.

Speed bumps

One was, the surface of the touchscreen was very weathered.  This both made it hard to read in the sunlight, and it also failed to register my touches unless I pounded two or three times in the right place, which wasn’t easy.  So it took the better part of a minute just to enter a four-digit number, what with all the mistakes and not-registering and all.

Eventually, I got through the rigmarole that a non-phone-app-user had to get through, and I heard a click.  I pulled my selected bike out from the rack, only to discover that it had a flat.

So here we went again:  put it back, make sure the machine recognises I finished my world’s record short bike ride, make sure I still had some of my eight dollars’ worth of riding left, and start all over with the phone number entry, the text to my phone, the punching in of the new text code, etc. etc.  This time I grabbed the first bike that didn’t look like it had a flat.  I tried the electric assist but never could get it to do anything.  No matter — I’d come out for the exercise anyway.

The bike ride itself was uneventful, and I made it about halfway to Benbrook before turning around at a point where I would have had to cross the river over a kind of spillway.  The battery made the electric-assist bike a little heavier than it would have been otherwise, but it had three manual gears too, which was all I needed for the gentle rises on the path.

Once Tom Brady finally managed to free a bike, his ride was uneventful too, although as a safety issue I feel compelled to mention that he failed to wear a helmet. (I’d borrowed my sister’s helmet on my ride.)  Imagine the headlines if he’d fallen off:  “All-time-greatest quarterback felled by rough spot on Broadway pavement.” 

Fortunately, neither Brady nor I encountered anything worse on our bike rides than a less-than-friendly user interface.  But we both eventually got our bikes, and I suppose that is some sort of success.

This article has been republished from Engineering Ethics with permission.

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...