The one big problem with NYC’s bikeshare

By Felix Salmon
June 5, 2013

New York’s bikeshare program has gotten off to a successful start — finally. It’s worth remembering that before it was delayed by Hurricane Sandy, it was delayed by something else: the failure of its operator to have the requisite software lined up. Cody Lyon has a good overview of the chaos behind the scenes. The company with the NYC contract, Alta Bicycle Share, won the contract on the strength of software developed by a company called 8D Technologies. But then Alta and its Canadian partner, PBSC, abruptly fired 8D and decided they could develop their own software in-house.

That decision was massively overoptimistic, and resulted in the original delay to the NYC rollout — as well as resulting in 8D suing Alta and PBSC for $26 million.

Big software projects almost never work very well, especially projects where there are as many different things which can go wrong as we have in the NYC bike-share program. And so when the CitiBike program launched, there was a certain amount of trepidation: would it actually work?

The answer, it seems, is that it does work; it just doesn’t work very well. Or, to be a bit more precise, when it works, it works fabulously. But when it doesn’t work — which is all too often — it doesn’t work at all.

I’m a massive fan of bikeshare plans in theory, and I warmly welcomed NYC’s CitiBike system in particular, after it launched. I ran into a couple of problems with stations not being able to dispense bikes, but I put that down to teething troubles, and didn’t think them worth mentioning.

Now, however, I’m worried that the problem of stations being able to neither receive nor dispense bikes is a big one, and that it’s not going to be fixed any time soon. I sent some detailed questions on this issue to both CitiBike and NYC’s department of transportation, and I’ll let you know if and when I hear back from them, but so far they seem to be suspiciously close-mouthed about what’s going on — which in turn makes me think that this is no easy-to-fix glitch.

There’s a set of interrelated problems here. On a hardware level, the docking stations don’t seem to be nearly as beautifully designed as the bikes themselves. The bikes ride smoothly and easily; by contrast, you need to give them a real shove to return them properly, and it’s hard to tell whether you’ve actually returned your bike or not. (You need to be paying attention to a small series of three LED lights, which aren’t always easy to see in direct sunlight; sometimes they’ll turn yellow, in which case the bike has been returned; sometimes they’ll turn green, in which case you need to wait for the light to turn off before the bike has been properly returned; and sometimes they won’t turn on at all, in which case the bike has not been returned.)

Anecdotally, a lot of people seem to be encountering “open rides”, where they think that they returned their bike, but the return isn’t registered in the system. That’s financially dangerous, of course: if you don’t return your bike, you’re liable for as much as $1,000. But I fear it’s also creating broader problems with the bikeshare stations. These can look fine on the official app, and on the website, showing plenty of open slots and bikes for rent. But when you get there, you find that you can’t successfully return a bike to any of the open slots, and you can’t successfully remove any of the bikes for rent.

This is not a vandalism issue — there is no indication, at any of these stations, that they have been deliberately crippled, and the NYC DOT’s Seth Solomonow tells me that “a quick inspection can address” the problem. Basically, if a technician goes out there and resets the station, the problem is solved. But there doesn’t seem to be a way to reset the station remotely, and it’s not at all clear whether CitiBike HQ even knows when a station isn’t working, unless and until someone calls them to report the issue.

But the issue does seem to be widespread. I’ve managed 15 successful trips so far, plus one trip where I had to return a bike to the same station I rented it from, since I only wanted to bike a couple of blocks and all the stations I tried to return it to, closer to my destination, weren’t working. (CitiBike should in theory be great at turning a 15-minute walk into a 5-minute bike ride, but that doesn’t work if you can’t be sure that you’ll be able to return the bike at the other end.) I’d say that roughly half the trips so far have been trouble-free at both the beginning and the end, while on the worst one I encountered four different broken stations (two at the beginning, and two at the end) before finding stations which were working.

I’m certain that this is not me doing it wrong, or some idiosyncratic issue with my keyfob: it works fine when it works, and when it doesn’t work no one else can remove or return bikes either.

I’m not certain, however, that Alta and PBSC are on top of this problem and know how they’re going to fix it. They’ve had an extra year to get this right, but if the app doesn’t know when a station isn’t working, my guess is that the system as a whole doesn’t know that either. And that’s going to be hard to fix. What’s more, if there’s some kind of failsafe mechanism which shuts down an entire station when some reasonably common thing happens, that mechanism is likely baked into the system and will also be hard to patch with some kind of simple software update.

I’ve been using the CitiBike system a lot, since it launched, because right now I don’t have a bike of my own: mine was stolen despite being locked securely to an official bike rack. I’ve been thinking that maybe what I should do is just use my bike for trips which don’t involve parking it on the street, and use CitiBike instead for all other trips. But in order to do that, I’ll need a reasonable amount of predictability to the system: if the app tells me that there are bikes nearby, I’ll need to be sure that I can use one — and also that I’ll be able to return it to a station near my destination. If I have to build in an extra 15 minutes or so just in case the bike stations aren’t working, that makes the entire system much less convenient.

I have a theory that one of the reasons for the bonkers opposition to NYC’s bikeshare is precisely that it is so convenient. The Driven Elite used to be able to feel superior to everybody else just because being driven around the city was easier and quicker than than any other form of transportation. Their ability to ignore the subway is really quite impressive: one of the themes running through Too Big To Fail was senior bankers turning up late to emergency meetings at the NY Fed because they had been stuck in traffic when taking the subway would have been much quicker. But it’s harder to ignore bikers who are happily riding past your car and getting to where they want to be so much faster than you are. And because the likes of Dorothy Rabinowitz would never be seen dead on a bike, they’re railing against the evolution of their city into something great which they feel excluded from.

Bikeshare is all about being convenient at the margin: being able to leave your house that much later, and arrive at your destination that much earlier, because the bikes are just sitting there waiting for you to use them. If you can’t be sure that you’re going to be able to rent one of the bikes, because the system is glitchy and often entire stations just don’t work, or if you’re worried that the stations near your destination won’t accept returns, then all that convenience simply disappears. So this is a very important issue. I hope it gets fixed soon, but I have to admit I’m a little bit pessimistic.


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One of the actual, verifiable (at least anecdotally by me) issues with the stations is that they run on solar power, but on many of the streets in NYC, they appear to not actually be getting enough sunlight to power through the day. On Saturday, I actually tried to get a bike out from 16th and Irving, and ran into two bikeshare employees who were manually swapping out the dead battery in the station with a working one (and resetting the docking station as part of the process). They explained what the problem was, and I spent some time hanging out and talking to them. And then ended up going to a station several blocks away to get a bike. And then encountered another “dead” station at the end of my trip (57th and B’Way) – I thought the canyon created by the buildings up there might very well be causing the same problem at that end.

Many other systems are hardwired into the electrical grid, but that eliminates one of the selling points of this system – the ability to easily move stations as the system evolves.

Posted by very-simple | Report as abusive

There’s a simple reason many professionals do not take the subway: there is no cell phone service in it. Being out of touch for phone calls and emails for the duration of a subway ride is simply too inconvenient and risky.

The subway is usually far quicker and more reliable than surface travel. Provide functional cell phone service underground and many of us will switch permanently.

Now, Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein will never ride the subway, because their security handlers won’t allow it. You win some, you lose some.

Posted by EpicureanDeal | Report as abusive

“And because the likes of Dorothy Rabinowitz would never be seen dead on a bike”

In fairness to her not personally riding a bike, I believe that Ms. Rabinowitz is 78 or 79 years old.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive

citibike is already a success in that it has already been a game changer. there are more bikes in nyc than ever (mostly non citi).

however, citibike has a more fundamental problem (related to some of the above) in that it is based on an older architecture (from 2007). like with most technology things evolve. citibike’s smart-dock system cannot compete with the newer smart-lock technology (of 2013). nological-shift/

Posted by BikesForAll | Report as abusive

“if you don’t return your bike, you’re liable for as much as $1,000..”

You’ve gotta be kidding me-a grand for one of these? hare-delayed-by-storm/

And this is AFTER the subsidy from Citibank, and for units presumably purchased with a fleet discount?

Posted by crocodilechuck | Report as abusive

When you return a bike, the green light means it has been successfully re-docked:
It can be really hard to re-dock. You have to jam the bike in with some force. A couple times, I’ve had to try two or three different docks before I got one to work.

Posted by RZ0 | Report as abusive

What does it cost to rent one of these things for say a couple hours to go somewhere to lunch and back? Docking stations were always a terrible concept whether with laptops or on Star Trek, maybe a different scheme needs applied here?

Posted by Woltmann | Report as abusive

EpicureanDeal -> I wouldn’t have thought no phone reception should be that big an issue. It doesn’t seem to bother anyone in London that they are out of contact for an hour due to the tube / Boris bike. It’s unlikely anything so important it requires an immediate response occurs during that short time

Posted by ABT | Report as abusive

“In fairness to her not personally riding a bike, I believe that Ms. Rabinowitz is 78 or 79 years old.”

Yes; by BSNYC, at least, she’s seen as dead but never on a bike.

I was standing outside the AMC hut at Crawford Notch one morning when this crusty old guy came skittering across the gravel drive on his bike, hopped off, and growled “now for some breakfast.” Crawford notch is a long and steep climb. The guy had a triple but flat pedals; I was impressed. A few minutes later an elderly lady came along (*walking* her bike); figuring she was his wife, I struck up a conversation. It was his 85th birthday!

Posted by Greycap | Report as abusive

From personal experience, the reason that the Boris-bikes (nobody calls them Barclays-bikes) have been such a success was that from the day the bikes were there, it all just worked. Unlocking bikes, apps showing accurate (live) availability of bikes, docking bikes, teams redistributing bikes when there are full&empty docking stations. It was all running from day one.
It’s been a huge success since then and has effectively altered how automobile drivers react to bicyclists: where before the Boris-bikes there was an all-out war between cars and bike-messengers, there now is balance between cars and bikes.
I hope they can work it out in New York, but I agree that there is not much time to fix things before people give up on them and therefore the cyclist uptake will lose critical mass.

Posted by BlackDuck | Report as abusive

Alta operates the Hubway here in Boston, but I haven’t heard about any such issues here (I don’t use it–I take my own bike everywhere). Hopefully we won’t be “upgraded” to the new software if the old software works and the new software doesn’t. But I seem to recall when the Metrocard system was installed on the MTA, it took a while for the bugs to get worked out. It sometimes just seems more difficult for New York to do what other cities manage to do.

Posted by Moopheus | Report as abusive

I’ve used the bikeshare six times. I had problems on two occasions. The first was that I couldn’t return a bike at the 16th St/5th ave location – it seemed to be dead and so I returned it to a nearby station. The next was a station that wouldn’t let me take any bike. Both times i tried calling bikeshare and gave up after being on hold for ten mins.

Teething problems are to be expected. I hope that they can do a better job of communicating with their customers.

Posted by pbooth | Report as abusive

Great article from a user perspective! There are great points in this article, including the trials and tribulations that occurred to the system before launch. The Boston system uses the 8D software, so the software “glitches” shouldn’t be compared. Saying all that the Alta + PBSC team are VERY good at what they do and the system has only been up and running for a week. Time will tell if the in-house software will be as good as the original 8D software that won the team the contract.

The New York system is off to a great start and the ease and convenience of bike share will prevail, as casual users become aware of the system spontaneous bike riding will increase exponentially in New York City – and really isn’t that the goal – to get bums on bikes!

Bikes will never replace the car, however aren’t we all better off with multiple options – especially options that are healthy, affordable and environmentally less damaging?

A special thank you to Ms. Rabinowitz on taking public bike share viral.

Derrick Moennick –

Posted by Moennick | Report as abusive

@ABT – I’d theorize that for a lot of people the issue is less being out of touch and more a desire to use commute time to read and respond to emails. Not saying that thought is 100% logical because one could possibly try to read the paper or a printed document instead, but checking emails on a smartphone is one of the easier productive tasks when riding in the back of a car, on a bus, or on a subway.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive

@Woltmann: the idea is you don’t rent it for a couple of hours to go to lunch. You rent one for up to 30 minutes* one way, and then rent another for the return trip. This maximizes the availability of the bikes and means you are not responsible for the bike while it’s docked (if you rented it for two hours to go to lunch, you’d need to make sure it doesn’t get stolen while you are having lunch!)

* You can use it for 30 minutes without additional fees if you are a daily/weekly user; if you are an annual member, the time limit is 45 minutes.

Posted by qrt145 | Report as abusive

Seems like the different software and overexpansion have caused some growing pains. I’ve had almost uniformly good experiences with the software and the call center in 2+ years in DC. The 8D software does have pretty wonky prompts, but at least it has good uptime — it’s based on parking meter software that’s been field tested for a while.

The “good shove” is something I keep having to remind tourists as I’m riding around town. Here, there’s a perky chime when you successfully dock; perhaps that was eliminated to make NYC’s quieter. The locking mechanism emits a pretty load groan when it fails, so even without the chimes it’s usually obvious when it hasn’t worked.

Solar access does impact the system reliability. The trucks can run around and swap in new batteries (there’s a car battery inside the kiosk), but that’s far from ideal.

@crocodilechuck: Yes, the bikes are highly customized to make them impossible to piece out, and besides, $1000 is a baseline price for a solid bike built in North America. Citibank didn’t “subsidize” them, they paid for the initial fleet — and just like any other rental, if you break it or lose it, you buy its replacement.

Posted by PaytonC | Report as abusive

If this is “no-easy-to-fix-glitch” it may be an opportunity to shift away from the older “smart-dock” technology to newer “smart-lock” technology.

Keep all the same stations (but without the docks), keep citibike brand, keep alta as operator…just shift to the newer technology.

The newer smart-lock technology could accelerate roll-out of bikeshare to all five boros (and specifically places that need it most like red hook and the south bronx).

Posted by NYCInnovates | Report as abusive

Londoners have a neat trick for releasing and returning bikes without needing to give them a hard shove or two-handed pull out of the dock. The London bikes are substantially the same as the Citibikes – so this should work Stateside too. Tilt the bike forward by grasping the back of the saddle and lift the back wheel up by a couple of inches and it will slide out or in quite easily……… you’re welcome!

Posted by NiftyFifty | Report as abusive

A hard shove is NOT needed to dock the bike; trying to apply brute force will likely only frustrate. The locking plate on the bike just needs to be correctly aligned with the receptacle on the dock, which often requires the front of the bike to be lifted slightly off the ground. The same principle applied for docking in the Taipei bike share system; only there, the physical parts were more clearly visible.

Posted by HappyBiker | Report as abusive