If there is one problem with Citi Bike, it’s the looming financial mess that threatens to consume it.
New York City’s privately funded bike-share program reportedly needs a quick influx of “tens of millions” of dollars to stay afloat — and that was before the city said that Alta Bicycle Share Inc., Citi Bike’s operator, owes an additional $1 million for the lost parking revenue eaten up by bike racks that eliminate potential parking spots. Without expanding to different boroughs, more revenue from tourists and a potential price hike, operational costs could force the bike-sharing program to shut down.
Yet by most accounts, Citi Bike has been a wild success. As of Tuesday, the program’s one-year anniversary, it has transformed a city not especially known for its bike-friendliness into one where blue bikes are almost as ubiquitous as yellow taxi cabs. About 100,000 New Yorkers have already signed up for a yearly pass, and data compiled by the New York University Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management and other organizations suggests that city residents are using the bikes as transportation to complement their daily bus trips and subway rides.
This contrast makes Citi Bike a puzzling amalgamation of triumph and challenges. The good news, though, is that the city government and advocates for safe transportation want the program to succeed.
Now for the bad news.
Citi Bike, which is primarily sponsored by Citibank, began under conditions that threatened to sink the entire operation before the first New Yorker began pedaling on one of those blue bikes.
Hurricane Sandy put the program into millions of dollars of debt. Floodwater rendered 1,000 bikes unusable and destroyed 90 stations, both significant numbers, considering the program only has a total of 6,000 bikes and 330 stations in total. The hurricane also delayed the program’s initial start time, forcing it to pay workers despite receiving no income from riders.
Software issues also plagued Citi Bike, contributing to its unstable beginnings. The program was set to use software from a company called Bixi to track bikes and allow users to pay for rides — the same software used by programs in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland — when Bixi ran into serious financial issues.
“We changed out software that had been working really well with new bikes,” Dani Simons, director of marketing and external affairs at NYC Bicycle Share told Mashable. “So we launched in New York with software that definitely had a lot of glitches.” Alta is the parent company of NYC Bicycle Share, which operates Citi Bike.
Some believe those glitches have frustrated tourists who were unable to pay; the software interface didn’t always accept credit cards. Visitors and anyone who purchases 24-hour passes are big sources of revenue for bike-share programs; day passes cost $9.95 each, opposed to yearly passes that only cost $95 (that’s a savings of more than $3,500) But Citi Bike has not attracted tourists as expected, according to multiple people with knowledge of the program. That may have contributed to its current bout of financial trouble.
The program is looking for other private investors that could help it pay for unexpected maintenance and repair costs as well as continue its plan to push into all five boroughs; right now, it only operates in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Citi Bike is unique in that it receives no government funding, unlike bike-share programs in other cities across the United States, including Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Citibank, the program’s title sponsor, agreed to provide $41 million in funding over a five-year period when it launched, but that amount has proved insufficient, and it won’t be getting any money from the city.
De Blasio’s predecessor, Mayor Mike Bloomberg, was an avid supporter of Citi Bike; he christened it as a “new way to get around town” when it launched one year ago. But part of the program’s appeal was that it wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime. Both government administrations have advocated for Citi Bike, but not to the extent that City Hall is willing to change how the program receives its funding.
Its problems don’t stop there. Citi Bike has also run into problems that some believe are caused by an inattentive parent company.
The software issues and other problems over the course of the year have not been addressed in a timely manner, according to Caroline Samponaro, a senior director at Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit that works to decrease the number of cars on New York City’s streets.
“I heard someone call it an absentee landlord,” Samponaro told Mashable.
Despite this litany of significant issues, however, Citi Bike has managed to succeed in major ways because lots of New Yorkers like it.
In its first year, Citi Bike saw around 8.5 million bike share trips. In the graphic below from Sarah Kaufman, a professor at the New York University Rudin Center for Transportation, you can see how many people use Citi Bike over a 48-hour period and which routes are most popular.
Citi Bike use spikes whenever subway trains are delayed, and Kaufman says that the “huge amount” of usage in Brooklyn shows that cycling is a helpful option for bus riders (buses are a primary mode of transportation in Brooklyn).
“Citi Bike is proving itself a really valuable alternative, and a lot faster mode of transportation than a lot of bus routes,” Kaufman said.
Simons, the NYC Bicycle Share marketing director, believes program officials can improve the marketing of Citi Bike to tourists, resulting in the increase of day passes purchased.
Advocates of the program also believe that more bikes on the road means safer city streets.
City streets with bike lanes have around 40% fewer crashes ending in serious injury or death, according to information provided by the New York City Department of Transportation. This plays well with the city government’s initiative Vision Zero, which aims to reduce traffic deaths in New York City.
In other words, it’s looking ahead, despite the problems it currently faces. In the short term, Simons said, Citi Bike officials hope to analyze data related to the most common routes riders take and use that information to determine which stations need the most attention.
Officials also hope to use that data to help expand the program. The goal is to bring Citi Bike to all five boroughs as quickly as possible, and though that is not likely to happen by this summer, it’s on the horizon.
“Citi Bike has really transformed the way that New Yorkers and visitors get around New York City,” Simons said. “It has provided a new transportation option.”
Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments.