There's pretty much a different, dominant bike share system in every metro area in America (Citi Bike in New York, GoBike in San Francisco, Metro in L.A., B-Cycle in Austin, Relay in Atlanta, Hubway in Boston, Divvy in Chicago, Capital Bikeshare in Washington D.C., Indego in Philly—the list goes on and on, and FYI many of these are identical imprints owned by the same top-level companies). So I promise, you're not the only one who's passed by a bike share rack and thought to yourself, "that would be totally convenient right now," followed immediately by, "I have no idea what I'm doing."
Your local service's app or website is the best place to get specific, detailed information regarding how it works and pricing where you are—though you can expect to see rates for single rides or daily passes ($2-$10), as well as monthly and annual passes (anywhere from $8-20 per month). But there is a bit of universal knowledge that we can uncover here to boost your bike share confidence... while we're in the spirit of sharing, and all.
There's a difference between bike sharing and bike renting
If you're looking for a ride to take you around on a day of sightseeing, maybe with a stop at a cafe or two, that Citi Bike isn't for you (you might find what you need from a local bike store that rents bicycles at a daily rate). The bike share system is meant to be more of an accessory to public transportation; a way to cover singular short distances, like the "last mile" of a journey you can't finish by train. In fact, most cities' systems require you to lock the bike back up to a dock within a time limit (every 30 to 90 minutes) without incurring added fees. That would certainly be a downer on your leisurely day.
Dock your bike when you're not using it
In some places and during some times of day when the demand for bikes outweighs supply, finding a close bike can be tough. And aggravating, especially so when you pass by a few Citi Bikes locked up to railings and bike racks along the way. It's a bit like saving a seat in a crowded theater for a band who are still five acts away. It all harkens back to point number one: It's called bike sharing, not bike renting. You're paying to use a communal bike to get from point A to point B. When you get where you're going, leave the bike in a dock for the next traveler to hop on.
Backwards seat equals broken bike
One of the best things about relying on a bike share to get places is that the maintenance and repairs aren't your problem! When a flat tire strikes, you can just grab a new bike at the nearest stop. But you should know that when a bike is broken, there's a protocol to keep things running smoothly: Promptly report the broken bike (there's probably a wrench button on the dock you can push to alert the bike share company) and—to alert the next rider who might reach for the unusable bike—turn the seat around to face backwards.
Mind the queue
There's a finite supply of bikes and docks at every station. So scenarios often pop up that require a bit of social organization—imagine two needy riders waiting for the next bike to show, or two people returning bikes to find one open dock while both are late for work. There's no better brief on what to do in these desperate and competitive situations than this section from an old Gear Prudence column in the Washington City Paper:
Bikeshare etiquette dictates a first-come, first-served system. Have your fob ready so there's no doubt as to why you're milling around the station. Ask any standers-by if they are also waiting for a bike to forestall any potential confusion. Really get your point across by performing some Bikeshare-appropriate calisthenics as you chant "I'm No. 1. I'm No. 1." If you see a potential lurker, calmly indicate to him or her that you've been waiting. ...
But what to do when there is a conflict? Standard dispute resolution techniques can be applied—rock-paper-scissors, coin toss, fisticuffs, licking the bike [note: please don't lick the bike]—or you could consider applying quaint notions of deference and decency and accepting the karmic benefits down the road. Or try this: You both take out your Bikeshare keys and ask a random stranger to pick a number between zero and nine. Whichever key's last digit is closer to the random stranger's choice wins the bike.
Take a class
If you really want to feel confident when you hit the road, you might find a local bike share company or bicycle riders' coalition that offers something like Bike Share 101: A class to cover exactly how your local share works, plus the rules and etiquette you need to have a safe and happy ride.