Sharing Bikes Around New York City

Gloria and I recently from several days in New York, where we attended a wedding for one of Gloria’s friends from graduate school. We stayed in downtown Brooklyn while we were there. This was my first time visiting New York, so there was no shortage of things to see and places to go.


Brooklyn is experiencing significant growth and redevelopment right now. Williamsburg is probably the most notable example. There is a ton of redevelopment and new construction right now in downtown Brooklyn, with several high rise condominium projects. Gloria specifically had her eye on a Colombian restaurant in old downtown. The restaurant was farther than we wanted to walk, but not so far that we wanted to wait for a bus, so we thought we would try New York’s bike share system, which is also known as Citi Bike. In our East Sacramento neighborhood we use our bikes a lot for transportation and errands. It’s less stressful than driving, we can experience our neighborhood more directly than we would in the isolation of a car, travel time is often about the same when you factor in traffic and parking, and parking is always cheap (i.e. free) and easy. We also wanted to try it, because the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) plans on rolling out a bike share program for Sacramento in 2015.

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Citi Bike has hundreds of stations spread throughout the New York area and thousands of bikes. Each station has a kiosk where you you can pay to use the system and about two dozen docks for bikes. Citi Bike has an app that you can use to find bike stations and plan routes. You can buy an annual membership or buy passes for 24 hours or seven days. If, for example, you buy a 24-hour pass, you can use the system as many times as you want within 24 hours. You can use a bike for up to 30 minutes at a time for no additional fee. Once you undock a bike you have 30 minutes to ride somewhere and dock the bike at another station. If you reach a station and that station is full, you can get an addition 15 minutes to ride to another station and dock your bike there. This works well for short trips, such as those in the range of 1-3 miles, and is what the system was designed for. If you need to travel farther, then the subway or the bus is probably a better solution. 30 minutes can be challenging, however, if you don’t know your route very well, which is a problem I’ll get into later.

The bikes are designed for urban utility and high-volume use by the public. The bikes are very sturdy and durable in its construction, although for some the weight may make handling and managing the bike awkward. The step-through design makes mounting and dismounting a breeze. The bike has a quick release for saddle height adjustments. I did not try to pull the seat post out of the seat tube, so I cannot comment on the ease of stealing the saddle. The bikes have three speeds, using a Shimano nexus hub operated by a grip shifter. For urban riding and for the amount of cargo you can reasonably carry on a Citi Bike, three speeds are plenty. The bikes have a “basket” on the handlebars. I use the term “basket” loosely, since the basket is more like a clip and it relies on a strap to secure your cargo. This should work fine for some items, but I wouldn’t trust it for a lumpy bag of groceries, a laptop case, or many other items. Finally, since the bikes are meant for short trips and transportation they ride and handle slowly. They ride more like beach cruisers than performance race bikes.

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A bike is a great way to get around Brooklyn and New York. Citi Bike has its challenges, but it’s still new. The business model is new and still maturing. For New York, and especially Manhattan, Citi Bike’s biggest problem is that you can already walk to just about any place you want to go and it is the few trips that are too long to walk, yet too short for a bus, that a bike becomes preferable. Another challenge for the system, at least from our out of towner’s perspective, are complex and unconnected bikeways. Many of the main roads in New York and Brooklyn, which also offer the most direct and intuitive route, have high traffic volumes and high speed traffic, but lack bicycling infrastructure such as bike lanes. Ironically, many have dedicated bus lanes. For some reason Citi Bike installed many stations on streets that are horrible for bicycling. The only reason I can think of is that Citi Bike wanted to install them near subway stations, bus stops, and major shopping and business areas, which coincidentally happen to be located near busy streets that are horrible for bicycling. We often either found ourselves undocking a bike and then walking a block or two to the nearest bike-friendly street or taking a strange loop, at the direction of Google maps, to reach a more bike-friendly route.

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The app was useful for locating a bike share station and a bike. The most useful feature allows you to search for a bike share station and bike. You can search by using a specific location, either an address or a name, or around your present location. The app will show you a map with all of the bike share stations. If you select a station the app will show you many bikes and docking spaces are available at that station. For trip planning, however, it stinks. The iPhone version links to Maps. However, Maps only provides trip routing for walking and driving. It does not provide bike routing. If you rely on Maps and use a route intended for walking or driving, you could easily find yourself on a very busy street with no bike facility. If I wanted a bike route I had to switch over to Google maps. Citi Bike also has a version of the app for Android, but since I use an iPhone I could not try this version to see if it offered better trip routing. Hopefully, this is something Citi Bike remedies and something SACOG considers for Sacramento bike share.

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