Since launching back in May 2013, Citi Bike has altered the landscape of the city and how New Yorkers navigate it. Transportation Alternatives says, “every day it moves more people than the entire fleet of green cabs.” And now it will celebrate its fifth birthday, on May 27th with a party in Prospect Park.

In 2018, a public bicycle transportation system seems like a given, but bicycles weren’t always welcome here. At one point, back in the Koch Administration, there was even a proposed ban on bicycles in Midtown, because the mayor thought bicycle messengers were responsible for “the city’s rampant traffic chaos and danger.”

And when our current bike share concept was taking shape under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the New York Post predicted a “bloodbath” of injuries and fatalities thanks to “10,000 more weapons of pedestrian destruction”—i.e., bicycles. (There has been one Citi Bike fatality since the program launched.)

“Five years ago, we couldn’t really imagine that you’d be seeing Leonardo DiCaprio and Park Slope moms and the whole range of New Yorkers riding around on blue bikes,” said Julie Wood, the spokeswoman for Motivate, which is Citi Bike’s parent company. “But now it’s such a part of the fabric of the city, that we kind of take it for granted.”

Citi Bike is now deeply woven into the city’s public transportation system, often taking commuters the last mile between the bus or subway and their destination. There have been almost 60 million trips since 2013; there are now 143,000 annual members. New York had a crappy, cold winter this year, and yet between January and March, there were over 2.5 million trips on Citi Bike.

The system currently uses zero dollars in public funding.

But it's still evolving. On Thursday, the city announced a limited pilot program that would expand the bike share program — trying the new dockless bike share model, instead of Citi Bike — into the Fordham area of the Bronx, Staten Island’s North Shore, Coney Island in Brooklyn and the Rockaways in Queens.

Whatever form it takes, safe street advocates support bike share—and they have a wish list of things that would make it better.




System Expansion
Currently, the Bronx, Upper Manhattan, Staten Island and vast swaths of Queens and Brooklyn are Citi Bike wastelands. The new dockless pilot program adds bikes to a neighborhood in each of the outer boroughs, but its permanence isn’t guaranteed. Safe streets advocates say dockless biking is good, but it’s also important to build on the successful Citi Bike program.

“We want to see a citywide bike share program,” said Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives. “What’s good for Park Slope is good for the Bronx.”

The question is whether there’s enough density to support expansion—meaning “density of population, jobs and destinations,” transportation economist Charles Komanoff said in an email. “These are all worse in poorer and higher-minority districts.”

Dockless bikes are one solution, but in other cities, they are seen as a nuisance, since they are often locked anywhere there is a pole, obstructing sidewalks and curb cuts. Basically, if dockless bikes are going to work, there needs to be space to park them.

“This means repurposing space that's currently occupied by cars, and setting it aside for dockless bike share parking,” Transportation Alternatives spokesman Joe Cutrufo said in an email. “One place to start would be intersections, where converting car parking to bike parking serves two purposes: it creates a dedicated space for bikes, preventing bikes from filling up sidewalks, and also makes intersections safer for pedestrians by improving visibility. (this is known as daylighting). Just because these bikes don't have docks doesn't mean the city can opt out of making space for them. And that requires political will.”

Motivate’s Wood said that the company would be happy to expand to all five boroughs, but that when and where they expand is driven by the city’s Department of Transportation, which is responsible for finding new locations for docking stations.

The DOT said in a statement, “There are no plans to expand Citi Bike into new neighborhoods while we evaluate the feasibility of dockless bike share for New York City.”


More racial and gender equality
Motivate doesn’t collect data on the race of its members. But other cities do have an issue; CityLab said last year that “It’s no secret that bike-share systems across the country have an equity problem.” It goes on to say that in Washington, D.C., only 4 percent of bike share members were black — in a city that’s 50 percent African American.

Researchers have posited that this is because bike infrastructure may be seen as a threat, because it means gentrification, or because communities of color just don't care about biking. A representative for Congressman Adriano Espaillat, arguing against protected bike lanes in Inwood, said, "The Dominican community that makes its home east of Broadway is not actually a cycling community."

But City Lab cites a study from Portland State that surveyed residents in a few neighborhoods around the country — including Bed-Stuy, where Citi Bike has been successful — and concluded that the issue is actually “not a desire to ride, but information on discount programs, access to safe streets and protective gear, and reassurance about liability and hidden fees.”

And this is an area where dockless bike sharing may make a difference. Anecdotal evidence from DC says that more African Americans started riding when dockless bikes were added to the mix.

Komanoff thinks another solution would be city subsidies targeting those districts. “It would be good to see a "Fair (Bike) Share" campaign paralleling the Fair Fares campaign for half-price Metrocards for poverty households,” he said, “though I willingly grant that Fair Fares is far more urgent.”

The city and Motivate seem to be trying to address the racial disparity issue: Citi Bike gives a discount to NYCHA residents (the discounted membership costs $5 a month) and certain credit union members, for example, and has partnered with community organizations to communicate better with residents and to help them learn about bike riding.

Women also ride in fewer numbers than white men. A 2015 study from the Rudin Center for Transportation says that in Citi Bike's first two years, 77.7 percent of member rides were taken by a man. In European cities that have bike lanes that are physically separated from car lanes, women are 50 percent of riders. Motivate says women take about a quarter of their rides, which means the needle has moved slightly since three years ago; it says its numbers are in line with other bike sharing systems nationally.

“We would really love to close the gender gap,” Wood said. “ I think there’s both strength in numbers and safety in numbers. More women biking will make more women want to bike.”

She noted that before Citi Bike “the only women who were able to bike in New York City were women who owned bikes.” Now they can try a bike out for a day to see if it’s for them. To that end, the company runs promotions for women and clinics for youth to teach them the skills of urban bike riding.

But there are other reasons women may be avoiding Citi Bike. The lead author of the NYU study, Sarah Kaufman, notes that other cities have seats for children, and docks in residential areas by schools. She wrote in an email, “It only gets you so far to expect women, who are overwhelmingly responsible for caretaker trips (kids, elderly relatives) to bike for part of the way or pay for a bike membership on top of multiple car or transit trips.”

Wood said, “I think it would be really fun to have other types of bikes. We’ll certainly look into that.”


Better rebalancing
This is the scourge of bike share riders across the country. You need to get to work—but there are no bikes available near your home. Or you want to return a bike, only to be a victim of “dockblocking"—all the docks are filled.

Motivate, and all bike share companies, have tried different strategies, from trucks to sprinter vans to valet staff. But its most successful innovation has been Bike Angels, which uses volunteers who are compensated with points redeemable for swag or a membership extension. Bike Angels account for about 40 percent of rebalanced bikes.

A better, safer bike network
“A train is only as good as the track it runs on,” says Transportation Alternatives’ White. “Citi bike would be so much more attractive to so many more New Yorkers if it were simply safer.” And safer, he says, means “a cohesive, connected bike network.”

But this can be a tough sell in residential neighborhoods. Earlier this month at a Community Board 12 hearing, electeds tried (and failed) to convince the DOT to rip out new protected bike lanes on Dyckman Street in Upper Manhattan. Businesses had complained, they said, and the new lanes led to slower fire department response times (the FDNY says the new pattern does delay response times, because of double-parked cars). Most likely, the real issue is fewer parking spots.

Transportation Alternatives argues that many of these problems could be solved with public financing of Citi Bike. White points out that the new ferries are currently being subsidized at $6.60 per passenger.

“We're not aware of another city another system in the world that is fully funded by member dues and sponsorship without a cent of public investment,” he said.

Public money could build out the infrastructure—which would make women and people of color feel safer, and would bring bikes to where they live. It could also subsidize the membership fee for lower-income New Yorkers. And it could encourage a variety of bike styles, so that people could transport their groceries or their kids. Safe streets activists even have a number in mind: $12 or $13 million.

But Citi Bike’s spokeswoman said they aren’t asking for public funding. “We’re proud that Citi Bike is a sustainable system that we’ve been able to make work without any public funding.”

Safe streets and transit advocates are undeterred. “We have the best big city bike share system in North America. Maybe the world,” White said. “ And it's time to take it to the next level.”

Correction: Story has been edited to reflect that between January and March, over 2.5 million trips were taken on Citi Bike, not more than 41,000.