New York’s Bike Share Program Needs a Serious Debugging

New York's Citi Bike has been popular, but it's also been problematic—perhaps fatally so. The country's biggest bike share program has to be fixed, and soon.

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New York's Citi Bike program is the biggest bike share in the U.S., but it's had early problems.

I’m not a hardcore cyclist. The greatest moments in my cycling history involved popping wheelies—and then falling from—a knock-off BMX style with neon-green wheels. (It was 1986, and it was totally rad.) I may live in Brooklyn, the East Coast capital of urban biking, but until a couple weeks ago I had never ridden a bike within the boundaries of New York City. I was more likely to be run over by a bike than to ride one.

But I was still very eager for the Memorial Day launch in New York of the Citi Bike, the biggest bike sharing system in the U.S. I was so eager that I bought an annual membership in time to try the system out on day one. And now more than two weeks later, I’m still eager—eager for the bike sharing system that I dropped nearly $100  on, the one that was promised to change the way I got around New York City, to actually work effectively.

So far that hasn’t happened. Easily more than half the times I’ve tried to use Citi Bike, some glitch has brought my trip to a halt—or prevented it from ever beginning. Take an example from last week. On a drizzly morning, I left my apartment in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, and walked to the bike docking station just a couple blocks away. I wanted to borrow a bike and cycle the three-quarters of a mile to my subway station, which should turn a 12-minute walk into a 3-minute ride. But even though there were several bikes waiting to be borrowed at the station, I couldn’t take a single one—every dock rejected my key, even though the official Citi Bike app showed that the station was working. The rain increasing, I walked to another station a couple of blocks away. When I encountered the same obstacle, I just gave up and walked to the station, late and wet and very unhappy.

Even my successful rides have been fraught. On Saturday I successfully borrowed a bike—from the second station I tried, admittedly—and rode the three miles to Williamsburg. This is the perfect Citi Bike route—not well served by subways and buses, and too far to walk easily. But the first few docks I tried to use to return the bike in Williamsburg failed, with no explanation given. I finally got the last available dock to accept the bike—if that hadn’t worked, I’d have been out of luck.

I’m hardly alone with my Citi Bike kvetching. In a piece on June 11, the public radio station WNYC reported—by its own survey of the data—that 10% of Citi Bike docks appear to fail each day:

Ten months ago, when Mayor Bloomberg announced Citi Bike would be delayed, heexplained why: “The software doesn’t work. Duh,” he said on his weekly radio show. “Until it works, we’re not going to put it out until it does work.” Two weeks after the system launched, complaints of software failures are rife. And though the city refuses to release specific information on outages, a WNYC analysis indicates on any given day, about ten percent of docks have been failing.

Moreover, the city had ample warning the software was buggy — and launched anyway.

As WNYC points out, that 10% is an estimate based on their own jury-rigged analysis—which they had to carry out because New York City has refused to answer media questions about the number of down stations, customer complaints and any other indications of system problems. But it fits with my personal experience, as well as those reported by others.

The problem here seems to be a software one. The bikes themselves are fine, and while there have been complaints that the system doesn’t cover enough of the city, the current territory seems more than enough for an initial phase. (Future plans involve expanding the system from the current number of 6,000 bikes to 10,000.) Citi Bike itself is popular—it was used over 100,000 times in the first 10 days of the system. But Citi Bike can’t seem to reliably detect when bikes are being taken out and when they’re being returned. The mobile app that goes along with Citi Bike is buggy and rarely correct.

As the New York Times reported, other cities that have rolled out bike share programs have not experienced these sorts of initial bugs. New York’s problems may be the fault of Alta Bike Share, the company chosen to operate the system:

Alta’s partner based in Montreal, Public Bike System Company, has since severed ties with 8D, and chose to develop its own software before the introduction of the New York system.

New York’s program was expected to begin last summer, but faced delays because, as Mayor Bloomberg put it last August, “the software doesn’t work.” (Flooding from Hurricane Sandy postponed the program further, amid damage to equipment stored at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the storm.)

In January, records show, Alta filed a lawsuit in an Oregon circuit court against Public Bike System Company, saying it delivered “nonconforming goods and faulty goods” to New York’s bike-share program. Alta said this week that the suit was never served and that the groups remained partners.

So that’s frustrating. The worry is that the problems Citi Bike users have experienced so far may not just be opening night jitters, but systematic failures that will be difficult to fix. And if these problems can’t be fixed, the viability of the entire system may be in doubt. Just ask financial blogger and dedicated cyclist Felix Salmon, who diagnosed Citi Bike’s woes early:

Bikeshare is all about being convenient at the margin: being able to leave your house that much later, and arrive at your destination that much earlier, because the bikes are just sitting there waiting for you to use them. If you can’t be sure that you’re going to be able to rent one of the bikes, because the system is glitchy and often entire stations just don’t work, or if you’re worried that the stations near your destination won’t accept returns, then all that convenience simply disappears. So this is a very important issue. I hope it gets fixed soon, but I have to admit I’m a little bit pessimistic.

So am I. But I also hope it gets fixed soon—and not just because I’ve already laid out $95. An effective bike share—which means one that works virtually all the time—will make this city more convenient, connecting neighborhoods and neighbors. But even more, biking in this city is fun—especially when you don’t have to worry about parking or theft. When Citi Bike works—as it did for me last evening, when I biked from my subway station back home—you feel free. Urban cycling, as the rock star and cycling aficionado David Byrne wrote last year, is a rush. It just shouldn’t be a gamble.