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How to fix a broken bikeshare key

Can you fix a bikeshare key that suddenly won't fit into the slot? You can, but as I found, the repair is only temporary. If you use this trick, be sure to also call Capital Bikeshare and get a replacement key.

CaBi key with circuit extracted. Photo by the author.

The problem came up on the day CaBi opened in Montgomery County. I was eager to use the new docks, and I had an errand that bikeshare could save 15 minutes on compared to walking. On my way home from work, I got off the Metro in Bethesda and walked to the dock. But my key wouldn't go in the slot.

I called Capital Bikeshare and a representative helpfully explained that old keys tend to get thicker and stop fitting in the slot. They promised to send another in a week or 10 days. They also offered a refund if I used a credit card; I declined, thinking it would be less trouble to walk to my destination.

From the beginning, I was puzzled. Plastic does age, but it gets stiff rather than expanding. After a few days, I looked more closely at my key. It was made of two layers of plastic that had begun to separate at the end with the arrowhead. When I began to pull them apart, a plastic sheet with an electronic circuit fell out.

One layer of red plastic had a slot for the circuit. I put the circuit into the slot, making sure to correctly position the raised circular dimple that's on the back of the square circuit in one corner. Once I got the circuit into the right place, presto: with the key squeezed between thumb and finger, it went into the slot. And I was off on bikeshare again.

Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is now available in paperback. 


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I've had three keys fail like this. The 4th (and most current) is showing no signs of the failure.

I've tried to stich it together but could never get it too work.

by charlie on Oct 16, 2013 1:46 pm • linkreport

I had the same problem with the Alexandria stations. Got a new key in no time. Problem solved. CaBi has excellent customer service.

by Jasper on Oct 16, 2013 2:00 pm • linkreport

I had the same problem and was able to get the key working again for a short while, until the key came apart again and I lost the chip for good. The excellent CaBi customer service rep got a new key to me in just a few days and even extended my membership for a week because I was unable to use the service.

by jimble on Oct 16, 2013 2:07 pm • linkreport

This has happened 2-3 times to me, and if I manage to find the chip I can usually manage one last go. (Other times, the chip gets lost to the winds.) However, once the seal between the two halves gets broken, they don't want to stay together. Attempts to tape the two halves together just result in a key too thick for the slot; perhaps I should apply a dab of glue on the inside instead.

The Quebeçoise CS reps have always been super helpful; last time I got a gift certificate code for a free 3-day rental, so that I could still use the system until I got the new key.

by Payton Chung on Oct 16, 2013 2:21 pm • linkreport

I have to say to their credit when I lost my keys and it took a couple of weeks to get a replacement they sent me a free 3 day pass which I thought was nice.

by BTA on Oct 16, 2013 2:38 pm • linkreport

Same thing happened to me months ago. I put the sensor in place and taped it in. The two plastic parts come apart occasionally, but the sensor stays in place and has worked now for months. The key (pardon the pun) is to have the sensor stay in place so the plastic parts can lay flat and it fits the slot.

by Michael Forster on Oct 16, 2013 2:50 pm • linkreport

I just replaced my first key a couple weeks ago. I should have replaced it earlier... by the end it took a good amount of work to get thing in and out of the dock... but it was a black key, so I used it right up until the thing fell apart. Don't get me wrong--the red key's plenty sharp--but I was definitely proud to be an owner of a black CaBi key!

by Steven H on Oct 16, 2013 3:27 pm • linkreport

My first key failed when I was on my way to Union Station to catch a train. Let's just say I had to walk "very briskly" to make it in time.

I called and got my new key in about a week and they extended my membership by the number of days that I was without the service; but the problem was that I had no access to bikeshare for that week. Have they addressed this since? I appreciate the credit on my membership, but would have preferred to be able to use the card linked to my account as a bridge during that week.

by RP on Oct 16, 2013 3:55 pm • linkreport

My original key (black key) recently came apart also. Sadly, the chip fell out and I had to get a new key but I've saved the old black case for when I have time to "operate".

As others have noted, CaBi customer service is incredible and wonderful. They had a new key to me very quickly.

The experience (the key coming apart) got me to thinking of how one could make their own CaBi key. as long as the chip is aligned in the slot in the proper place, the readers don't care what the key looks like. Just make the interface work and let your creativity fly. Fly like a CaBi rider down a steep, steep hill. :-)

by Keyed on Oct 16, 2013 4:01 pm • linkreport

Aha, now this has given me the idea of doing a chip transplant so that my fabled black key can rise once again! It should hold together with epoxy.

The newer Bixi equipment, as in NYC, has dual-use slots that accept either a card or the rectangular key. This is convenient because:
1. docks can accept keys that are credit card shaped
2. docks could potentially accept a dual-use transit card/key
3. the kiosk can read your key via RFID, useful for getting time credit (our system has you input the key number, which is painted such that it wears off within days)

by Payton Chung on Oct 16, 2013 4:18 pm • linkreport

@Payton; first, if the key number is wearing off that is a good sign that the key plastic is failing.

second, the newer docks also have a dedidicated key reader so you don't have to imput the number. Look for it!

by charlie on Oct 16, 2013 4:39 pm • linkreport

This has happened to me twice. The first time, I tried tape. It was too thick and I eventually lost the chip.

The second time, I placed the two sides on a piece of newspaper (the chip can be where it goes) and applied spray glue. I placed the sides together and squeezed for a while (though putting them under a book would work better). Its worked ever since. The glue I used was craft glue, so didn't have a great bond and is begining to split a bit and get hard to push in, but I think a better glue would fix it no problem.

by RyanD on Oct 16, 2013 5:05 pm • linkreport

The simple solution I found after this happend to my 2nd key fob was to apply Krazy Glue to the little groove and press the two sides back together.
Don't forget to realign the chip first though!

It's been nearly a year since I fixed the fob and it is still together and functioning!

by Tom on Oct 16, 2013 5:14 pm • linkreport

Let me add my name to the chorus of "same here" responses:

I may try the glue fix when my current CaBi fob goes bad like this.

by Rob Pegoraro on Oct 16, 2013 5:55 pm • linkreport

This same thing happened to me. They gave me a 3 day pass that I could use in the meantime and sent me another key gratis.

by Aa on Oct 16, 2013 6:11 pm • linkreport

These keys are not well designed for long term use, I'm on my third in two years.

If you don't happen to have epoxy handy, you can scotch tape the key together at the foot (the part that doesn't insert into the dock).

Next one I get, I'm taping it when it arrives.

by Matt C on Oct 16, 2013 7:39 pm • linkreport

Wow, I feel fortunate now. My original black key is still going strong with regular use, though the number started rubbing off long ago. A strip of scotch tape has stopped that deterioration.

by Chris on Oct 19, 2013 10:42 pm • linkreport

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