Citi Bike’s Winter Problem

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A couple get their Citi Bike bicycles from a station near Union Square as the bike sharing system is launched May 27, 2013 in New York. About 330 stations in Manhattan and Brooklyn will have thousands of bicycles for rent. With AFP Story by Brigitte DUSSEAU: US-Transport-Bicycle-Share-CitiBike
A couple get their Citi Bike bicycles from a station near Union Square as the bike sharing system is launched May 27, 2013 in New York. About 330 stations in Manhattan and Brooklyn will have thousands of bicycles for rent. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA        (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo: STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images2013 AFP

Since its debut last May, Citi Bike has been heralded as a huge success, counting over 5 million trips and 94,000 annual members in its first six months of business. But New York City has a way of seeming perfect in the spring, which is all but forgotten in the depths of winter — and that could go for its bike-share program as well. Upon the first real snowfall of the season over the weekend, Citi Bike’s public plan for the less hospitable months is still vague at best, with a wait-and-see approach that threatens to undermine the relatively smooth rollout so far. 

“Welcome, old man winter. We’ve been expecting you!” reads a Citi Bike blog post (“Pro Tip: Embrace the Cold”) from last month. “To be clear, this does not mark the end of biking season. ’Cause Citi Bike season is year-round, friends!” The specifics on how it expects to make that work, however, are few and far between.

Unlike bike shares in other frigid cities like Boston, St. Paul-Minneapolis, Ottawa, and Montreal, New York’s system plans to stay open through blizzard season, relying on a lot of manpower and speedy shoveling: According to the Department of Transportation, NYC Bike Share, which operates the program, “will relocate bikes from major streets to sidewalk and plaza stations and workers will shovel out stations promptly.” There are currently 330 stations throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, making such measures a monster task in the event of any substantial snowfall.

As for the docks located in the road, “The bike share company may also install flags on street racks to make them more visible in the snow,” DNA Info reports.

But the head of the sanitation-workers union isn’t pleased with the preparations. “You won't even know they're there in ice and snow,” said Harry Nespoli. “They're going to be covered and when this plow has to come down the street, there is definitely a possibility of damage.” (According to the DOT, the racks “[do not] pose any different a challenge than the millions of cars, planters, scaffolds, construction sites, barriers, benches and other routine parts of the streetscape already do.”)

A drop in ridership is less avoidable. In Minneapolis, home of some hard-core cyclists and brutal winters, the number of people who commute to work via bike is cut in half during the winter months. Citi Bike’s average daily ridership is about 35,000 so far, a number sure to fall as the roads get icy, although it's encouraging users not to quit. “Keep pedaling as the weather changes. Don’t stop now!" the blog urges. "If you keep riding (even only two or three times a week), the slight temperature changes from day to day won’t phase you much. Before you know it, you’ll be pedaling in an 11 degree windchill dreaming of balmy 40 degree days.”

Should things get really bad, the system can be halted entirely. “If conditions make biking unsafe, the stations can be temporarily locked down but service will be restored as quickly as possible once conditions permit,” the DOT said. (Citi Bike members will be alerted to a potential shutdown via e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and text message.) But local riders seem uninformed, so far, about the inclement-weather rules:

In Toronto, where the two-year-old Bixi bike share stays open for winter, “there were no problems of note” last year, its manager said, despite some snow, although all stations were eventually removed from the street permanently to avoid plows. “Winter-specific maintenance consists of replacing the bikes’ chains, which rust due to the water and salt on the roads,” the Star reported.

That's the best-case scenario, something the city and its bike-share partners appear to be counting on. Their strategy, so far, has been to avoid addressing the problem until it really becomes one. Winter, of course, is unpredictable and the issue might not come up this year at all. But when the snow does pile up, eventually, what Citi Bike shouldn't count on is having embattled blizzard veteran Mayor Bloomberg as a defender. He'll be in Bermuda by then.