It was just over a month ago that the bright blue bicycles started to appear across parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn. New York City‘s CitiBike program is now up and running in a big way. There are thousands of bikes, hundreds of stations and, especially since I have three stations convenient to my apartment, I’ve signed up with an annual membership for the program.
And now that I’ve had a chance to try the bikes out a bit I figured it was time to put together a few thoughts on the program. Overall I think it is a win, but it is not without a few problems.
By way of background, I’ve been living in Manhattan for 14 years now and I’ve had a bike here the entire time. I have had my share of incidents, including hitting cars twice and a pedestrian once; needless to say I’m a big believer in wearing a helmet when I ride. I also haven’t ridden nearly as much in the past few years. Much of that is because I’ve become lazy but a big part is that dealing with locking up a bike when I get somewhere is a pain. Or I would want to ride home after work but not to work. Both of those problems are solved by the CitiBike program, though it introduces plenty of other issues as well.
The past few years have seen a number of bike lanes created around Manhattan. They are great for cyclists, so long as they aren’t being used by pedestrians as an extended sidewalk, delivery trucks as free parking or otherwise blocked for no good reason.
Getting out to the rivers means better paths available, though they can get crowded on nice days. The mix of leisure riders and those out for exercise creates similar traffic jams to the mix of tourists and locals on the sidewalks. There is bunching, blocking and, occasionally, swearing. Somehow we all manage to survive.
The bikes are big and heavy. They have only three gears and the fastest gear is pretty crappy in terms of being able to ride with any speed. That’s annoying to me as I want to get around town but I can also see where it is useful. Not allowing people to ride too fast on the bikes will likely help reduce accidents and incidents.
The rates are fair, I suppose. Access for 24 hours runs $9.95 and a 7-day pass is $25 (my annual subscription was $95). Both rates are less than what regular bike rentals go for but there is one huge caveat to the CitiBike program: you’re limited to 30 minutes at a time with a bike (45 minutes for annual subscribers). Reviewing my usage over the past two weeks I’ve had 17 rides. Some were as short as a couple minutes while only a couple were more than 20 minutes. But I also know more or less where I’m going and how to get there. I can see the 30 minute limit being troublesome for visitors in some scenarios. It is easy to get around that by returning the bike, waiting 2 minutes and getting another one, but the restriction is there and penalized with significant financial costs.
The CitiBike blog has a bunch of information, including a daily stats update. There are more than 50,000 annual members and recent weekends have seen thousands of daily pass purchases each day (weekdays aren’t too far behind). More than 1.5 million miles have been logged in the first four weeks. That’s pretty impressive. So is the backlog in shipping out fobs to annual subscribers; the wait is ~5-7 days last I checked.
There have been a number of stories in the press over the past several months. Complaints about the location of the stations (they pretty much stop at the southern end of Central Park and don’t go too far out in Brooklyn), complaints about no bikes in a particular rack or no open slots to park, complaints about the system not allowing bikes out and complaints about the quality of the bikes. I’m sure there were more but I am too busy enjoying my new riding option to get bogged down in them.
The system is far from perfect, but it is a heck of a lot better than me dealing with my own bike most of the time. I’m just glad I’ve got my helmet with me; navigating rush hour traffic on one of them is a pretty crazy way to spend 20 minutes in NYC.