Issue 02: Bike Share

By David J. Schloss

The Citi Bike program came to New York City in fits and starts. It’s now an enormous success.

The Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan is deceptively steep and the rain pours down on me in sheets as I lumber up the bike path astride a bright blue Citi Bike. Below me a subway rattles down the elevated tracks, the passengers warm and dry in the face of a massive spring thunderstorm.

Still, I wouldn’t trade places with them, at least not yet. I’m enjoying getting to my destination under my own leg power and without having to rely on someone else’s timetable. I’m also going to enjoy getting lost on my way (which it turns out I’m about to do).

As the rain washes over my face and I start to lose sight of my riding companion cresting the center of the bridge in the deluge, I’m giggling as I think about the massive importance of what I’m doing—riding a bike share program in one of the largest cities in the world, a city that’s trying as hard as it can to convert itself from a constant gridlock of cars into a haven for bicycles and pedestrians.

The Citi Bike program came to New York City in fits and starts. In 2007, mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Janette Sadik-Khan to the position of Commissioner of the Department of Transportation and the city began a rapid metamorphosis that erased miles and miles of roadway and replaced them with pedestrian malls, dedicated use bike paths and sharrows as far as the eye can see.

The changes weren’t without controversy—the city’s plan to temporarily turn the Times Square corridor into a pedestrian mall were met with cries of outrage and consternation from merchants in the area. But by the time the test program came to a close the merchants were blown away by the increase in sales.

According to a 2010 Esquire.com profile of Sadik-Khan sales in the time square pedestrian plaza were up 71 percent, the largest increase in the history of Times Square.

Soon other areas in the city were converting to pedestrian-friendly plazas and pushing cars to the periphery. Madison Square park and Herald Square park were renovated, favoring bikes and feet over cars.

From 2006 until 2012 the city has embarked on a program of rapidly adding bicycle routes to city streets, nearly 250 bicycle lane miles were added in six years, a rate unprecedented in the history of New York City, or just about any other city for that matter.

With all that infrastructure in place, the bike lanes often felt under utilized. During the day the protected lanes (separated from traffic by a concrete curb and, usually, a parking lane) often stood mostly empty aside from the occasional delivery bike blowing through the lights or riding the wrong way. While there are major concentrations of cyclists in some parts of the city, in some areas the bike lanes are largely vacant.

The problem is obvious—it’s not easy to hang onto a bike in New York City. Apartments are small and the city is notorious for having pre-war buildings with no elevators. Businesses are reticent to let bicycles past the front door (prompting a 2009 law that requires offices with freight elevators to allow bicycles to use them) and bikes locked outside often disappear in the arms of bike thieves.

So how do you take a city that’s in the middle of a massive program to increase the number of bicycle rides and decrease the number of car trips and rapidly get more people riding (without having some way to overhaul the space in apartments and offices)?

You simply roll out a bike-share program that’s the largest in the United States (and one of the largest in the world) and put affordable bikes on (figuratively) every street corner. That should be easy, right?

Bicycle share programs aren’t new, the first was (unsurprisingly) in Amsterdam in 1965 and was started by a group called Provo which, according to its Wikipedia entry “was a Dutch counterculture movement in the mid-1960s that focused on provoking violent responses from authorities using non-violent bait.”

Provo scattered white-painted bicycles all over the city with the idea being that people would use the bikes and then leave them at their destination. Within a month most of the bikes had been confiscated by the police or were vandalized. Still, Provo succeeded in getting the government (and much of Europe) talking about bike-share programs and they soon began to proliferate.

In the 1970’s France rolled out a program, but bike share systems really took off in the 1990’s as systems to prevent loss and damage started to evolve, mostly using smart cards to allow registered users to unlock bikes at kiosks.

More than 23 countries (as of writing, according to the Wikipedia article on Bicycle Sharing) have a bike share program in place currently and tens of thousands of bikes are currently in service on the planet offering free or low-costs rides in metropolitan areas.

In September of 2011, the City of New York announced that it had selected Alta Bicycle Share as their partner for a planned bike share program. The decision wasn’t much of a surprise, Alta is cited as the only company in the world that solely focuses on large-scale bicycle share programs.

Bicycle share programs are run differently in different regions, with some systems operating as part of the municipal governments, some as a private venture and some as a public-private mix.

Citibank stepped up to provide more than $41 million in financing to launch the system and to secure the naming rights for the first six years. The financing allows the system to operate without the need for city subsidy.

The goal was to launch in July of 2012 using the hardware developed by Bixi, a Canadian company that operates the wildly successful programs in Boston, Chattanooga, London, Melbourne, Minneapolis, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago and on several corporate campuses.

Almost from the get-go there were problems getting the system up and running, the largest being software glitches that delayed the launch by more than a year. Software that was developed for Bixi (also called Public Bike Share System Company or PBSC) known as “8D” was scrapped in favor of something developed in the U.S. 8D then sued PBSC (the partner of Alta, remember) for $26 million for ending their contract and using an American firm, Personica, to develop a replacement to 8D.

This isn’t Alta’s only controversy either, the firm has been sued by employees in their Washington, D.C., program for claimed failure to pay wages and benefits mandated by the company’s contract and now there is a Federal investigation into the allegations. Meanwhile there have been questions to Alta’s contract process in Chicago, Alta has sued their insurance company over losses, and is about to be sued in New York City over deployment of the bike system in certain neighborhoods.

This same software issue delayed the roll out of systems in Chicago and Chattanooga, Tennessee but by the time Alta was getting ready to complete the installation the massive Citi Bike program another unforeseen delay occurred when Hurricane Sandy pummeled the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where bikes and equipment were being stored prior to roll out.

On May 27th, 2013, the Citi Bike program finally opened with about 4,300 bikes of the 6,000 bikes planned for the first phase deployed. Bike kiosks are arrayed across the city from 58th street and south and across areas along the west edge of Brooklyn within easy reach of the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges. When the system is completed the bikes will reach into the 70’s in Manhattan and across more of Brooklyn. (Meanwhile residents of the other boroughs are clamoring for the bike program).

On The Road

I’ve been riding bikes in New York City for nearly two decades—before the bike paths arrived, before the completion of the Greenway, before it was in any way safe to ride a bike around Manhattan. I’ve also ridden in dozens of cities around the world, including the bicycle meccas of Amsterdam, Portland, Seattle, and Beijing.

Ordinarily before I ride in a city I do a bit of research, checking out the best routes and paths and looking for local shops and landmarks. But to ride the Citi Bike I decide it’s best to come at it like a resident or a tourist—as blind as possible, with the exception being that we wear helmets.

There is (naturally) no helmet with the Citi Bike bicycles, and the city has been giving out coupons for discounts on helmets in a dual effort to get people into local bike shops and to reduce the chance of massive amounts of head injuries arising from the program.

My friend Chris (aka “Bugsy”), a transplanted Brit that lived in New York most of his life before moving to South Carolina is visiting for the week. He suggests paying a visit to Adam Yauch park, the playground in Brooklyn named after the Beastie Boys superstar that recently passed away.

With a destination, we now need a starting point and so we decide to chain together two errands—Bugsy is a DJ and is getting his turntable fixed at a shop on 70th and Second Avenue which is near errand number two, a trip to Jackson Hole (68th and 2nd) for a massive cheeseburger.

The only research we do is to download the Citi Bike app and look for a spot near the starting point. Luckily there’s kiosk at 58th and Second Avenue and after parking our car, we head right there.

The Citi Bike stations consist of a row of bikes (the number varies depending on the location) and a self-serve kiosk that looks like one of the city’s parking ticket stands. Yearly users can bypass the self-serve kiosk and go right to a bike, dipping a key fob card into a reader to unlock a bike.

Annual users pay $95 a year, plus tax (that’s $.26 a day) and can use a bike for 45 minutes at a time, as many times as they like. Daily users ($9.95 plus tax) and seven-day users ($25.00 plus tax) have trip limits of 30 minutes, and can also take a bike out an unlimited number of times.

The trick though is that any minutes overtime rack up pretty quickly. With the 24-hour and 7-day passes the next 30-60 minutes of use over the return time is $4.00, 60-90 minutes is $13 and each additional half hour is $12.00.

We quickly realize we are going to have to do a relay race, riding our bikes for thirty minutes at a time and then checking them into another kiosk only to take another bike back out. What we don’t know, and what isn’t listed anywhere on the station is how long we have to wait between trips (if there is a time limit) and how to tell the next station that we’ve already paid.

It is brutally hot—there’s a heat wave on the East Coast and the day’s temperatures will be near 100. I’m already dripping with sweat from walking around the city and can’t wait to be moving in the breeze to cool off a bit.

But before we can get that far, we’ve got some things to sort out. I walk up to the kiosk and select English as my chosen language and then select a 24-hour pass for two people.

This is the first headache we will encounter with the checkout process–you can only put two people on one credit card so a family or group with more than two people will need multiple cards, and the system also puts a hold of $100 on whatever card is used. I use my Amex and the system makes me agree to a few simple rules (all of which we will violate within the first two miles of riding) “Yield to pedestrians. Stay off the sidewalk. Obey traffic lights. Ride with traffic.”

The kiosk displays two codes comprised of the numbers 1-3 (such as 12213, 31221) and then prints out a slip with the codes. Bugsy and I walk over to the bikes and we both enter a code. He enters his, pulls his bike and he’s good to go.

I enter my code on a keypad that looks as if it’s been through battle. The buttons are already worn out and I’m leaning in as far as I can to hear the quiet beep of the button press to see if I’m doing it right. I enter my code, wait a second while a yellow light illuminates under a picture of a clock and then for the briefest of instants my light turns green, and then it goes red.

Hmm.

I go to the next bike and try again. Yellow light blinks then it goes red. I give Bugsy my code and have him try, same thing. I figure that the quick flash of green must have been a malfunction and now my code isn’t working. I don’t know, however, how to get a new code.

Because I’m working on an article I decide to try to use a second card to get a code—after all what’s $10 in the face of journalistic success—and repeat almost the same process only this time giving Bugsy my codes (since he managed to extract a bike) and watching as he is unable to retrieve a bike.

We decide to do what most people probably would at this point, moving to the next station. There’s another one, according to the Citi Bike app over on 58th and 3rd, so I walk while he rides that way.

But at the next station I realize I have no idea how to retrieve a bike using the unlimited 24-hour access I’ve purchased. It’s not on my ticket (which I’m still clutching) and it’s not written anywhere on the kiosk. I decide I have to call the help number printed on the slip of paper.

Disturbingly, the first thing the automated system tells me to do is to hang up and call 911 if I’ve been involved in an accident. I get through to a representative and the very nice woman on the phone tells me that I’m probably right about the malfunction at the last station. I ask her how long one has to wait after checking a bike in before taking out another one and find out that it’s two minutes (this isn’t listed anywhere on the station) and that in order to take a bike out again I must go to the kiosk and press a button to request a new code. This new code is then taken to the adjacent stand and entered to retrieve a bike.

I have Bugsy park his bike in the stands (as we’ve now spent 10 of our 30 minutes navigating this process) and then I get a new set of codes. We take these codes to the stand and he immediately gets his working. Once again, I press the buttons on the locking mechanism and nothing happens.

I’m actually still on the phone with the representative chronicling this when I hear a voice behind me say “the red light means that bike isn’t available.” “What?” I say, craning my neck while holding the phone. As the friendly New Yorker dips his unlimited card into the lock, he tells me that the red lights mean that the bike is out of service—either because users reported them for repair or because the lock isn’t working right. I realize suddenly that red lights were on most of the locks at the original station, and that’s why I couldn’t get a bike out.

This crucial gem of information is not listed anywhere on any of the bikes, stands nor on the kiosk.

Once we have this wisdom, the city is our oyster. I unlock a bike, put my helmet on and we ride back over to Second Avenue. A “sharrow” bike lane (that’s one that’s a shared use lane with a bike symbol pointed on it) lines the left side of the street and we start to pedal “down” the avenue. I say “down” because Second Avenue nearly instantly starts a climb and we pound up the hill in macho racer mode as we run through the three speed internal hubs.

The bikes aren’t as clunky as I had feared. There’s actually a good amount of spryness in the front end and I find myself able to weave around potholes and car doors with not as much less Premium Rush finesse as I expected. The brakes on my first bike of the day are for shit however, so panic stops are out of the question and a few times I finish my stop at a traffic light with my foot on the asphalt.

Having to keep an eye on both the remaining time in our rental and on getting to our destination Bugsy and I split tasks. He’s on Google Maps finding a bike route and I’m on the Citi Bike app looking for relay points for bike swaps.

The ride is a bit harrowing, though exhilarating. Cars are passing too close to us and we get cut off more than once. At one point the bike lane doubles as the left hand turn lane and there is a moment there where a driver and myself both try to give each other the right of way. That’s sort of the opposite of what I was expecting, but the experience still brought me within two inches of a fender.

Finally Second Avenue’s multi use lane turns into a dedicated bike lane and the ride gets 100-percent more awesome. We sail block after block with no worries of hitting cars. It’s not until we reach the dedicated bike lane that we see another Citi Bike user, an indication that the city’s infrastructure is as important for the program as are the bikes.

It’s pretty clear that 30 minutes isn’t really enough time to go anywhere far in Manhattan. We travel from 58th and 3rd Avenue to a bike station on 4th and Second Avenue and have just under four minutes left when we check in. That’s a straight shot of 52 blocks and if we weren’t in good shape we’d have run out of time. We pull our bikes over to a station and I suddenly realize that we’re across the street from NYC Velo, one of my favorite bike shops. I’ve bought a bike and dozens of awesome t-shirts there, and so I decide to go chat a bit about their thoughts about having virtually-free bikes available directly across the street.

First though I enjoy my role as pretend tourist and I stop for some excellent gelato next door. It’s painfully hot when we stop moving and the frozen treat is a nice cool down.

Inside NYC Velo, a few customers are milling about looking at bikes and accessories. I approach Marin Werneth, the store’s sales manager and ask him to talk a bit about the Citi Bike program and if he’s seen it affect sales in any way—good or bad.

“The rain is affecting sales more than Citi Bike,” he says referring to spring and summer rains that have broken every record for nearly 100 years.

“[The program] is geared toward people who live in the city,” he says, looking off into the distance. “The rentals we do here are mostly tourists. It may be affecting small bike sales, but it’s boosted accessories, helmets at least.”

Werneth explains that his shop doesn’t have any of the helmets on the city’s discount program but they’re still honoring the coupons, taking a slight loss to help sell safety gear to the city’s denizens.

Bloomberg, he points out, has projected that shops will be hurt a bit in the short run as they lose the sale of low-end city bikes but benefit in the long run as the city becomes a more cycling-friendly location. “A $500 bike is a bit easier when you already know that you like to ride,” says Werneth.

It turns out that most of the complaints that he’s heard about the program are about the same things I’ve already encountered—the quirky checkout process, the lack of complete instructions and out-of-service bikes. “When you have a community, you’re going to have some problems [at first].”

Bugsy and I walk back to the station and take out more bikes, this time without a hitch. We begin to ride down Second Avenue and work our way toward the Williamsburg Bridge, which is when the skies open up.

As we ascend over the river the rain gets heavier, bringing some relief to the heat but soaking our clothes. I contemplate getting the rain coat out of my backpack, but it looks like the skies are blue in Brooklyn so I pedal full-force toward the clearing. This is when I enviously look down on a train full of dry, air conditioned passengers and half-giggle half-grimace at them.

As we descend the bridge we coast over to another bike station and lock up the bikes. This trip was much shorter than the sprint down Second Avenue in terms of distance but much longer in terms of traffic lights and navigating local streets. As Bugsy locks up his bike under blue skies I see a massive bright light in the reflection the bridge.

“Was that lightning?” I ask and as Bugsy says “yup” a massive peel of thunder rings out. We look around for some shelter (tree, another tree, low lamp posts, sketch looking scaffolding) and go hide under a building’s awning as we wait to see if the massive storm cloud over Manhattan is gong to follow us.

We get new bikes and then head off into Brooklyn, almost immediately getting semi-lost riding through the ultra-orthodox Hassidic communities as we try to work our way back over toward Flatbush and the harbor. I’ve been on many of these streets before—there is a store nearby I often visit for business–but I’m deeper and more intimately enmeshed with the Jewish community on a bike than I could ever be in a car.

I’m dumbfounded at the slow pace of life here. Everyone walks everywhere. The streets are lined with cars but our bikes seem to be the fastest things in the neighborhood. It’s as if the 1800s continued unchanged here, but with the exception that everyone seems to have an iPhone.

Because we’ve gone too far west we swerve back toward a bike station I’ve located at Cadman Plaza and as the skies again open up we take shelter under the entrance to another apartment. As the pouring rain tapers off we walk back over to the stands and retrieve another code.

My lock turns green and I pull, but my bike doesn’t want to come out. Something in the mechanism isn’t releasing with my pull so I give it a mighty King Arthur style tug and the bike comes out of the stand very, very quickly and the pedal strikes my shin. I yelp, then curse, then get on my bike and ride away because my time is ticking away and I don’t want to spend precious minutes babying my injury.

The next part of the ride is fun though dangerous, cruising through streets without shared use lanes and weaving around traffic. Google Maps doesn’t show the best bike routes so we often end up riding in a street that later turns out to be parallel to a bike route.

With the rain gone the weather proceeds to try to exterminate us via oppressive heat. As we ride down the bumpy cobblestones of Joralemon Street (where it turns out one of the buildings are suing to remove a bike station) my mood fluctuates between happy to be on a bike and just plain tired.

Finally we find the bike station across the street from Adam Yauch park and after about three hours of riding and hiding from the rain we have arrived at our destination. We take pictures of the park and play in the nearby fountains across the street, trying to cool off in a water park designed for kids under 12. They look at us as we sit on the pretend pier and dip our feet into the cool water.

It’s .6 of a mile to the subway stop at Borough Hall, which has plenty of Citi Bike stands nearby. We could go retrieve our bikes and ride the short hop to the train station but neither of us can bring ourselves to get back on a bike. We are too tired of pedaling around the city and although the half-mile jaunt is really what the program was designed for, we decide to walk.

Five minutes and $2.50 later we’re aboard a subway headed back uptown, basking in the luxurious air conditioning.

Use Case?

After having ridden around the city on the bikes, and talking to other people who have ridden the Citi Bike program the question seems to be “who is a Citi Bike for?” “I’ve found that Citi Bike is best for trips where there’s no convenient public transportation alternative,” says Christopher J Stephens, a Bike Hugger reader who lives in New York City who largely summed up my experience with the program, and the conversations I’ve had about it.

“My best recent Citi Bike trip was from 10th Avenue and 18th Street to Battery Park City [about three miles – ed], on a Saturday morning. Normally, I would have had to schlep several blocks to a subway station, hope that weekend service wasn’t being fouled up by repairs, then hiked another long distance to my destination.

“I would have had to allow 40 minutes, at least, much of it waiting on a hot subway platform. Instead, I walked two blocks to a Citi Bike rack, rode for 18 minutes, and walked another block to where I needed to go. Faster, more pleasant, and cheaper (that last is a bit dubious, actually – I have an annual membership, but I also have an unlimited ride MetroCard).

Because of the location of the bike stations, the program is actually less useful for some residents than it could be. The operators have tried to concentrate the bikes where there is population density, but there aren’t any stations above 60th street (yet) and even when the system expands it won’t serve people in the upper west or east side or Harlem.

That’s a shame because while there may be fewer people above 60th street, more of the space is dedicated to residential buildings than the more commercial midtown. It seems much more likely that a resident near Columbia University would want to ride a bike for an errand than an office worker in a suit in midtown.

“It’s not going to make a major impact on how I get around (there are no racks near where I live, for example),” says Stephens “but when it shaves five minutes off my trip here, ten minutes there, it all adds up. It will replace some longer, slower crosstown bus rides, and it will mean that I can take a subway ride on one line, and instead of making a strategic transfer to another subway line, I can just make up the difference on a Citi Bike.”

This last bit is the key use of the Citi Bike program, bridging that awkward distance between a subway line and a destination. When I attended School of Visual Arts I’d often hike from the Path train on the west side to classes on the east side because it was faster than waiting for the crowded. I’d have killed for a relatively inexpensive cross-town commuting tool as fun as Citi Bike.

The brilliant thing about Citi Bike is that it will inexorably change the fabric of New York City. While some residents will likely complain that they’ve got a station outside their condo, for the majority of residents the program is a dream come true.

I would not be surprised to see this program expand over time into all the boroughs and become a major part of the city’s planning and development. In fact, that’s already begun. New York City’s Housing Authority has partnered with Citi Bike and now provides a $60 annual membership.

More bikes on a road makes cycling safer for all users. While adding 4,300 bikes (or even the final planned 10,000) doesn’t seem like much in the face of the 8.3 million residents of New York City but in just one day (June 30th, the most recent on the Citi Bike site) there were 28,554 trips in a 5pm to 5pm time frame. Just over a month from launch the program had already had more than 645,000 trips.

Here’s the staggering thing, based on the average duration of the trip and the average speeds and distances of these rides the Citi Bike program had racked up 1.54 million miles. Even assuming no growth in use as the number of bikes and stations increase, that’s 18 million miles a year.

That’s the sort of thing that can prevent the need for more busses, more subways and more fossil fuels being burned to power them. It’s the sort of thing that can create new neighborhoods as people change their patterns to be near bike stations.

Yes, the keypads and software needs some work. Yes, the instructions need to be better. But with more than 57,000 annual subscribers in the first 30 days, the program has already generated more than $5 million in revenue, it’s a pretty good bet that improvements are coming.

For city residents and for those who look to Manhattan as a roadmap for their own cities, this program is a boon. Decades from now we’ll be talking about how the Citi Bike program helped change Manhattan and how people use transit.

If only we can get the bikes out of the kiosks.


Ed. note: After a good run of 42 issues, our magazine app is no longer available, but we’ve archived the content here on our blog. 


Also published on Medium.