Photo by Omar Rawlings on Flickr.
When it opened on Memorial Day, New York’s Citibike instantly became the nation’s largest bikeshare system. But after an alternatingly fun and frustrating Saturday touring New York City on 2 wheels, I found that the system continues to struggle with crippling software glitches.
"Excuse me, do you know how this thing works?” I turned to see two middle-aged women fiddling with the bike beside me at the Citibike station in Midtown Manhattan. “Well, this is my first time using Citibike,” I replied, “but I use the system in DC regularly, so hopefully this is similar.” I must have looked competent, because this was already the third such inquiry I had received that morning.
It’s important to note that Citibike is less than 2 months old and is already wildly successful. But the problems that plagued the system early on are still widespread and need to be resolved before it can be a legitimate transportation option for New Yorkers.
One of the system’s biggest drawbacks is its unreliable software. Reports say it’s the result of a corporate dispute between operator Alta and its partner that led to a switch in software.
Of the roughly 2 dozen interactions I had with docking stations over the course of a 24-hour membership, I experienced more software problems than I have in 2 years with Capital Bikeshare. The first 3 times I attempted to purchase a one-day pass, I made it to the last step of the cumbersome touchscreen process, only to receive an error message, forcing me to cancel the transaction and start over.
After the third time, the line of would-be cyclists behind me had grown so long that I decided to step aside. I walked a couple of blocks to the next station, where I repeated the process, finally succeeding on my second try. My friend, who encountered the same problem, succeeded on her third try, repeating the same steps on each attempt.
With memberships secured, the next hurdle was obtaining a bike. As with Capital Bikeshare, day and weekly pass users must insert their credit card at the kiosk each time they want a bike. There, they’ll receive a new, 5-digit access code which they can enter at individual docks to unlock a bike.
However, on several occasions, I had to enter the same code at multiple docks before the dock let me remove a bike. After a night out with friends, I entered my code at each of 5 full docks nearby, only to be rejected each time. I waited a few minutes, got a new code, and tried again with no luck.
Determined, I walked the few blocks to a nearby station, where I repeated the same process several times, again with no success. After a circuitous conversation with a pleasant, but ultimately futile customer service rep, I threw in the towel and hailed a cab back to my hotel, deprived of a leisurely bike ride on a nice night.
There are even more issues, however. Even when it works, the registration process is slow and confusing, taking several minutes per person to complete and resulting in long lines. In tourist areas around Times Square and Central Park, these queues have become prime targets for bike rental hawkers, who pose as Good Samaritans to mislead prospective bikers about the fees associated with Citibike.
Citibike’s mobile app was great for finding open docks and available bikes throughout the city, but its information on bike lanes was poor. Hoping to avoid the pedestrian chaos of Times Square as I headed south on Broadway, I followed a bike lane shown on the app. I made a left on 48th Street, then a right on 7th Avenue, and found myself in the middle of 5 lanes of fast-moving downtown traffic with no bike lane in sight.
As a regular bike commuter, I shrugged off the honks and yells from motorists that ensued, but I can imagine the tourists I met earlier being put off by the same experience.
Overall, the system functioned more often than it didn’t, and allowed my friends and I the freedom to explore the city at our own pace, while enjoying the beautiful weather and getting some exercise along the way.
And while the glitches were frustrating, the quality and quantity of bicycle infrastructure, everything from protected on-street lanes to recreational paths and bike-specific traffic signals, was impressive, a part of the larger transformation of the city’s streets led by Mayor Bloomberg and his transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.
And the Citibike system continues to expand; despite the problems, underserved neighborhoods are already clamoring for stations of their own. As it grows, it can become what Capital Bikeshare is for DC: an integral part of the city’s larger transportation network. But for that to happen, the system’s operators need to iron out the software problems and provide users more reliable information.