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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