Permission to Bike: A Report on New York City’s New Citi-Bike Bikeshare System

New York City recently initiated an elaborate bikeshare system called Citi-Bike. It is a great gift to New Yorkers that goes beyond mere shiny bikes, practical and enjoyable as they may be. Citi-Bike’s greatest gift is that it legitimizes bicycling in a previously forbidding place: downtown Manhattan. Previous to Citi-Bike only daring, athletic and counter-cultural young men ventured onto Manhattan’s chaotic streets. But Citi-Bikes empowers people of all ages and abilities to think the formerly unthinkable: I can bike in Manhattan!

Last week I travelled to New York City for a family vacation. We were pleased to find that Citi-Bikes had been in operation for a month or so, and we decided to give them a spin. For two days we used a combination of bikes and subways to see the sights around town. First I biked a couple of miles from our mid-town hotel to the Staten Island Ferry (for a free boat ride), and then met my family and a couple of friends to bike across the Brooklyn Bridge. Lastly I biked up the East River Bikeway five or six miles back to the hotel. And the next morning my wife and daughter took a blissful six mile bike ride around Central Park. What a joy!

Our journeys were not without difficulty, however. As many others have noted, the system has intermittent computer problems. Several times we found that after painstakingly entering our credit card information, the bike rental procedure ended with a screen saying “unable to process”. We had to go to another station in order to take out a bike; thankfully there are stations every few blocks. One can only imagine that there is a computer programmer out there who is deeply embarrassed by all this, and who is working to exhaustion to fix the problem.

I used a combination of three iPhone apps to facilitate my journeys. I used Apple’s Map to locate my destination, a free app named Bikester to find the nearest bike paths, and the Citi-Bike app to find bike corrals at the beginning and end of my journey. I imagine that ultimately Citibike will combine these three functions by adding bike paths and search layers to its app.

The bikes themselves fit their context perfectly. They have a step-through frame that allows anyone to mount the bike without having to swing a leg over. They have three speeds suitable for New York City’s lack of incline. Their parts have been cleverly constructed to be unique so that they are uninteresting to thieves. They have lights. They have baskets. They have fenders. They are very practical. My only complaint is that the handlebars are so wide that a couple of times they caught on cars’ rearview mirrors as I squeezed through stationary columns of cars. I learned that experienced NYC bicyclists sometimes saw a few inches off the ends of their handlebars for this reason.

Over the last decade New York City has added more and more bike paths, and we thankfully made good use of them. Our main difficulty was that the paths were often blocked by construction or parked delivery vehicles, or simply ended abruptly, forcing us into the streets anyway. However, we soon discovered that although Manhattan traffic looks dangerous, much of that is bluff. A majority of the traffic is professional drivers–cabs, delivery trucks, and buses–who are skilled at making room for bicyclists.

I estimate that one-fifth of the bicyclists I saw on a Friday were riding Citi-Bikes. If so, that represents an incredible increase in ridership that New York City should be proud of. Some of the Citi-Bikers we met were new to city biking; one woman told us she hadn’t been on a bike since she was eight years old. We felt some c0mraderie with our fellow Citi-Bikers: we waved to each other, helped each other out, and rode together. And the festive atmosphere seemed infectious. Several times pedestrians would shout “Hey Citi-Bike!” as we rode by, with an expression that was a mix of “What a noobie” and “I want to try that!”.

As I biked I took note of the many kinds of other bicycles in use. Folding bikes seemed to be favored in the professional districts, presumably because they can be taken on a subway and stored under a desk. Many restaurants have fleets of delivery bikes parked out front. Pizza restaurants favor workbikes with big boxes over smaller front wheels. Delivery people for Asian restaurants, however, can carry their loads in plastic bags hung over their handlebars. They favor electric bikes, both scooter types and city bikes. The electric scooters have vestigial pedals in order to qualify as a bike so as not to require registration. The electric city bikes have huge ten-pound chains wrapped around each wheel. I also saw a lot of fixies (with bobbed handlebars and flip-flop hubs) and city bikes (mountain bike frames with thin tires). But I saw very few road bikes other than beat-up “retro” 10-speeds. I wondered where the road bikers were. The next day I got my answer. It was a Saturday, and I saw hoards of lycra-clad road bike riders come out to ride around Central Park.

I was glad to see that New York City has a vibrant and growing bike culture. I predict that Citi-Bikes will attract a new crop of bicyclists, people who have been given permission to bike by Citi-Bikes’ bold move.