As New York’s Bike Share Fixes Failures, It Needs to Cope With Success

Citi Bike seems to have worked out some of its initial kinks, but now demand for bikes may be outpacing supply.

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Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New York's Citi Bike is the largest bike share system in the U.S.

I wrote last week about my disappointment with the first few weeks of New York‘s bike share program, Citi Bike—and I wasn’t alone. Like a lot of other Citi Bike users, I was constantly bedeviled by the glitchy mobile app, failing bike docks and a general sense of not being about to count on the overall reliability of the system. Though New York City and Citi Bike have consistently failed to give comprehensive data on how the system is performing, an investigation last week by WNYC estimated that as many as 10% of the bike docks seemed to fail each day. As I wrote last week, if that failure rate couldn’t be brought down, Citi Bike would remain a toy—not a viable transportation system for the biggest city in America.

I’m not sure what’s happened in the week since—whether Citi Bike took some step to address those problems—but the bike share experience has been getting a lot better. Personally I haven’t had any trouble beginning and completing short bike trips over the past several days, including one where I left a stuck subway car and switched over to Citi Bike to get home in time for a Father’s Day brunch. And I’m not the only one who’s noticed things seem to have changed for the better. In a new piece, WNYC notes that the Citi Bike dock failure rate seems to have dropped sharply, from an average of 10% last week to about 2.5% now. There’s still room for improvement—and the comments on the WNYC piece show that the system is still giving some people headaches—but things are clearly much better.

Now Citi Bike just has to deal with the problems of success. And those could be much tougher to fix.

(MORE: New York’s Bike Share Program Needs a Serious Debugging)

The Reuters blogger (and avid cyclist) Felix Salmon, who’s been following CitiBike, puts it bluntly: as bike sharing in New York demonstrates that it can work, more people will want to use it. That means we’re likely to see a lot of empty stations, especially in popular, densely populated locations:

This isn’t a software problem. Rather, this is a problem common to all bikeshare schemes, but which is more extreme in NYC for various reasons. The East Village, for instance, is a largely residential neighborhood; lots of people want to bike from there, in the mornings, to go to work or just about their day, but few people want to bike to there, in the mornings. As a result, the bike stations empty out quickly.

This is a problem which can’t be fixed by debugging software; indeed, it can’t even be fixed by installing more bike stations. NYC’s bikeshare scheme might not cover a huge amount of the city, but where it exists, it has the highest station density of any municipal bikeshare scheme in the world. And as station density increases, people are more likely to grab a convenient bike and ride it to somewhere more central — even when they’re just riding a few blocks to the nearest subway station.

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That’s how I use Citi Bike—grabbing a bike at a station near my home, and riding 10 minutes or so to a subway station. And I have noticed availability problems—too few bikes in the morning when I’m setting out, full stations near the popular subways stations that prevent me from being able to dock. It’s not as frustrating as getting to a station and being unable to take out bikes, but it does undercut the usefulness of bike sharing.

Of course, every transportation system in New York grapples with overcrowding: the subways, the buses, the taxis, the cars, the bicycles, your own two legs, hang gliding. Citi Bike already sends employees in trucks to move bikes from station to station in an effort to keep traffic flowing. As Salmon notes, “that kind of thing is a significant ongoing expense, and it’s unclear to what degree it’s built into the Citi Bike budget.” He suggests that New York City taxpayers may eventually need to spend money on the program to prevent bike sharing from becoming a victim of its own success. (Right now much of the cost of the system has been borne by Citibank, which spent over $40 million for the right to turn the bike share into a rolling bank ad.)

Salmon may be right, but I don’t see that happening any time soon—nor should it. Right now Citi Bike services some of the richest parts of New York—midtown and lower Manhattan, downtown Brooklyn and Williamsburg. These are also the parts of New York that are already very well served by existing transportation, including the subway. I don’t think a taxpayer in the South Bronx or East New York—more remote and poorer parts of the city—should be subsidizing a bike share system they will probably never use. Bike sharing is a nice amenity—especially if it works—but I’d rather see that money spent on subways and bus lines.

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