urban planning

The Bright Future of Citi Bike

Program head Jay Walder testing out an e-bike. Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

If there’s one corporate headquarters where it’s acceptable to show up for a meeting disheveled after a long ride, that would be Motivate. From its offices in Industry City, the company runs Citi Bike and similar systems in San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Columbus, Portland, and Washington, D.C. Working up a sweat is part of the point. Motivate’s CEO Jay Walder greets me in a T-shirt and baseball cap, and together we stick our heads into the shop where mechanics are assembling prototypes for the next generation of shareable bicycles. It’s been five years since Citi Bike launched — five years since I hopped on my first clunky blue two-wheeler on my way to an evening event, and a woman pointed me out to a child: “Look, there’s a guy in a suit on a bike!” Nearly 140,000 annual members, plus a steady stream of out-of-towners, have taken 60 million rides and collectively logged enough miles to overshoot the Sun. What was once a wacky innovation has become a fact of getting around. Today, it looks simultaneously promising and stalled.

Walder and I find some shade in one of vast courtyards between Industry City’s U-shaped buildings. Although Walder is a veteran of old-style transit — he once ran the MTA, as well as the transportation authorities of London and Hong Kong — he is fluent in earnest, utopian Siliconese. “We’re at the point where the combination of product evolution, technology, and changes in infrastructure could lead to the most fundamental change in city functionality in 50 years,” he tells me. He wants bicycle superhighways, smart parking meters, and sensors that auto-ticket vehicles that stray into bike and bus lanes. But his more immediate enthusiasm is for a simpler technological weapon: the pedal-assist e-bike.

I have ridden my own wheels to get here, but Walder dispatches me onto the streets of Sunset Park on a partly electric prototype, which feels like changing out of ski boots and into feather-light sneakers. This is a different creature from the throttle-controlled electrified bikes that delivery workers use to whip through their rounds (and that the city has banned). Rather, it’s a heavy, thick-wheeled beast, familiar except for the little battery-powered angel that nudges you gently along as you pedal, so that you feel as though you’re always traveling downhill. The motor adds buoyancy rather than speed, and cuts out when the bike hits 18 miles per hour; after that, you’re on your own. As soon as I travel a block, it’s obvious that these machines make biking instantly more practical for longer trips, older riders, and anyone who would rather not huff up a hill or arrive in disarray.

That extra bit of ease can have a powerful effect. Walder sketches out a hypothetical but not-too-distant future in which e-bikes might make up half the fleet. “We’re at an inflection point right now. The more we can broaden the constituency for biking, the easier it is to adapt public space.” Which is to say, the more New Yorkers ride, the more bike lanes they will demand, and those in turn will attract ever-greater numbers. A dysfunctional subway, glacial buses, and paralytic roads make the future of urban biking look especially good. If e-bikes become popular, they might even wrest the cycling culture from the fit and the quick, lowering the obnoxiousness quotient and embracing more women, seniors, and kids. The ability of some to go a little faster could actually prod others to slow down.

(The potential of e-bikes goes far beyond Citi Bike. UPS has deployed an initial fleet of pedal-assisted cargo vehicles in Paris and Pittsburgh, which hints at a future of fewer delivery trucks idling and double-parked.)

And yet this is the first year that Citi Bike won’t continue expanding its turf. Walder doesn’t mention it, but the de Blasio administration has other plans on its mind. The city is marking Citi Bike’s five-year anniversary by breaking its monopoly, inviting other companies to launch a handful of tiny pilot programs in Coney Island, the Rockaways, Staten Island’s North Shore, and the area surrounding Fordham University in the Bronx. Those new programs will dispense with built-in docking stations: Riders just put the kickstand down anywhere on the sidewalk within the coverage area and the next rider uses an app to locate and unlock it.

Testing dockless bikes in a few widely scattered spots is fine, but it does nothing to nurture a network that’s badly in need of a growth spurt. Concentrated in mostly white, mostly affluent neighborhoods, it has jumped the Hudson River to Hoboken and Jersey City but still not penetrated the Bronx, Staten Island, upper Manhattan, most of Brooklyn, or much of Queens. A heavily promoted discount program for residents of public housing, who pay only $60 a year (compared to the full price of $169) has yielded a scant 2000 memberships.

And while the mechanics of rebalancing — shuttling bikes around to where they’re needed most — have improved, they’re still not reliable enough. On the Upper West Side, commuters who take an extra few minutes brushing their teeth in the morning may find nothing but vacant docks. Most crucially, although protected lanes are starting to link neighborhoods together, with major new arteries along Queens Boulevard and Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, biking in most of the city remains an extreme sport. New York is still less than halfway to being a good bicycle city.

Unlike so many urban problems, though, these shortcomings are comparably easy and inexpensive to solve. The system is nimble and popular, and costs the taxpayer nothing. Sure, weaving e-bikes into an existing web will be a challenge, involving new software, well-distributed charging stations, and an impressive array of possible glitches. Paris, which boasts one of the world’s preeminent bike-share brands, Vélib’, fumbled the introduction of e-bikes so badly that the system seized up, memberships dropped, and Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s car-control agenda looked suddenly shaky.

But New York can learn from Paris’s fiasco, adjusting in real time. “The beauty of all this,” Walder says, “is that while the MTA talks about change over decades or generations, we talk about change over months.”

The Bright Future of Citi Bike