New York’s bike share program off to a fast start

William Holt
William Holt
The Lookout

After more than 160,000 rides, a few software glitches and one particularly irate Wall Street Journal editorial, New York City’s bike share program, Citi Bike, is up and pedaling.

Modeled after similar bike share systems from Minneapolis to Montreal, and privately funded by Citigroup among other sponsors, New York’s Citi Bike is already the largest bike share effort in North America. While bike share programs have worked well in smaller cities, the program is a significant gamble for New York, a densely packed home to 8.2 million people notorious for its traffic-choked streets and crowded sidewalks.

Citi Bike also represents a major test for the city’s mayor, Mike Bloomberg, who has yoked his legacy to this program and a range of other controversial efforts to get New Yorkers to quit smoking, eat better and generally improve their health.

While many riders are still somewhat reserved in their praise, the assessment on the street has been mostly positive so far.

“It was a bit confusing with the machines, but overall it’s pretty good, ” said Tim Hughes, a recent transplant from Australia who took his first Citi Bike over the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall. “They’ve got them in Melbourne, too, and it’s a really good idea.”

Citi Bike was launched on Memorial Day for riders with annual memberships; daily and weekly passes started June 2. The program currently features 6,000 bicycles spread throughout 300 bike docks in Manhattan and Brooklyn and is expected to include another 12,000 bikes distributed through these two boroughs as well as Queens.

Riders have the option of signing up for an annual membership at $95 or purchasing seven-day or 24-hour passes at $25 and $9.95, respectively. Daily and weekly riders can make an unlimited number of 30-minute trips for the duration of their pass. Annual members can hold the same bike for up to 45 minutes at a time.

Jonathan Flores, a commuter interested in finding new ways to get around the city, tried Citi Bike for the first time last week.

“I used it to get to work and to go to lunch,” said Flores, who was leaving his bike at the dock outside Grand Central. “I got the bike just for the day, but I’d consider an annual membership now.”

Asked whether he encountered any problems on his first outing, Flores said that the details of the program could have been made clearer from the outset.

“At first I don’t think the instructions were very obvious,” Flores said. “When I learned about Citi Bike, I thought it was $9.99 for 30 minutes, but the fact that you can use it at 30-minute intervals for 24 hours is really useful if you’re running errands in the city. I didn’t know that until today.”

The people most skeptical about the program seem to be those who have yet to make use of it.

At the Midtown dock on the corner of 45th Street and Sixth Avenue, one gentleman jabbed the kiosk with his index finger and looked around as though he were searching for an audience.

“Twenty-five dollars for a week!” he said to no one in particular. “Buy your own bike for that.”

At times the Citi Bike kiosk outside Grand Central seemed to attract more gawkers than riders. And some users have voiced complaints about the bike share’s seemingly myriad software glitches. Last week, New York’s Fox 5 aired a report on loose bikes at several terminals across the city.

But despite such doubts about the bike share, the program’s numbers show an obvious interest from cyclists across the city. According to the statistics published on Sunday by Citi Bike’s website, the program had amassed more than35,000 annual members and was used 100,000 times within its first 10 days in operation.

Both critics and supporters of Bloomberg agree that the launch of the bike share program is one of the defining legacies of his tenure at City Hall, for better or worse.

While some observers have tried to depict the program as yet another incursion on personal freedoms by Bloomberg’s totalitarian nanny state, others see Citi Bike as a brilliant addition to the city’s transportation network.

“It’s not often that a city gets to launch an entirely new transit system that gives residents another way to get around town while also boosting the local economy,” Bloomberg said recently on his weekly radio show.

He added, “Citi Bike will help to sharpen our competitive edge versus other major cities, like Washington, D.C., Paris and London, that have successfully launched bike share programs and who compete with us in attracting visitors.”

But plenty of critics still take issue with what they regard as the adverse effects of a bike share program on the safety of riders and pedestrians.

“The most important danger in the city is not the yellow cabs,” said WSJ editorial board member Dorothy Rabinowitz in a live interview on the newspaper’s website. “It is the bicyclists who veer in and out of the sidewalk, empowered by the city administration with the idea that they are privileged.”

But as the number of cyclists in New York has quadrupled over the past decade, the number of traffic deaths has declined. Boston, which launched a similar bike share program in 2011, witnessed no serious injuries from its Hubway system within its first six months of operation, according to the Boston Globe.