Citibike: A victim of its own success

By Felix Salmon
June 19, 2013

There’s good news on the CitiBike front. The big problem I wrote about on June 5 — the way in which entire stations would regularly go dark, refusing to dispense or accept bicycles — seems to have been solved. This is true anecdotally: I haven’t encountered it in the past few days, and neither has anybody I know. And WNYC has now published empirical data showing the same thing. Here’s their pretty interactive chart of stations which have been inactive for more than 4 hours straight between 8am and 8pm:

CitiBike isn’t talking — as WNYC puts it, “New York City continues its information blackout” on the subject of what on earth is going on with the scheme. Every so often it will release an upbeat statistic, but neither the press office nor the social-media presence is being remotely helpful when it comes to talking broadly and openly about what’s going on. Here’s the NYT, on June 11:

The Bloomberg administration has refused to quantify, or even elaborate on, the rash of problems plaguing its system, which has had technical errors of a magnitude never experienced by bike-share programs in other major American cities.

As a result, all we can do is hazard educated guesses. And my theory of what’s happening is actually the same as it was on June 5. My theory then was that the problem was the result of “some kind of failsafe mechanism which shuts down an entire station when some reasonably common thing happens”. Since then, not only do the stations seem to be much more reliable, but I’ve also — anecdotally — seen a significant rise in the number of docked bikes which feature a lit red LED, indicating that particular bike is not available to be rented.

In other words, it seems that when the system launched, a bad bike would cause a whole station to go dark; now, it just disables that particular bike. That’s a significant improvement in a short time, especially given that, as WNYC said on June 11, “it turns out the nation’s largest bike share is beta testing the entire software system”.

Which is not to say that everything is running perfectly. Here’s a screenshot of the official CitiBike map which I took yesterday late morning, showing all the empty bike stations in my neighborhood:

Not all of these fully-light-blue stations were completely empty: some of them, if you selected them individually, would show one or two bikes in them. But invariably those few bikes had red lights or were otherwise broken (flat tires, missing seats, that kind of thing).

This isn't a software problem. Rather, this is a problem common to all bikeshare schemes, but which is more extreme in NYC for various reasons. The East Village, for instance, is a largely residential neighborhood; lots of people want to bike from there, in the mornings, to go to work or just about their day, but few people want to bike to there, in the mornings. As a result, the bike stations empty out quickly.

This is a problem which can't be fixed by debugging software; indeed, it can't even be fixed by installing more bike stations. NYC's bikeshare scheme might not cover a huge amount of the city, but where it exists, it has the highest station density of any municipal bikeshare scheme in the world. And as station density increases, people are more likely to grab a convenient bike and ride it to somewhere more central -- even when they're just riding a few blocks to the nearest subway station.

In cities like London and Paris, that happens less frequently. In those cities, there's more of a distinction between the commercial center and the residential suburbs, and the bike stations are much more thinly scattered in residential neighborhoods than they are in NYC. As a result, they're less convenient, and you're unlikely to use them to travel to the nearest subway station, just because your closest bikeshare station is likely at your nearest subway station.

So while Paris might be able to get away with trucks bringing bikes back out to more distant stations from the center in the evenings, New York's CitiBike trucks are going to have to be much more active during the day, and especially during the mornings, shuttling bikes back to residential neighborhoods from commercial areas like Rockefeller Center where the bike racks fill up early on. That kind of thing is a significant ongoing expense, and it's unclear to what degree it's built into the CitiBike budget.

Citibank has signed its contract, now, and probably doesn't feel any particular need to throw more money at the scheme to make it better. But since the bike-share scheme is clearly extremely popular, maybe now's the time for the city itself to come in and provide a bit of cash to make things work as smoothly as possible. So far, CitiBike has cost NYC taxpayers nothing. It might be time for that to change.

Update: A tipster emails to say that the CitiBike server was crashing "several times per day" up until last week -- a problem which has now been solved. But the hardware is a different issue: apparently the batteries in the kiosks have all been replaced at least twice so far, and a lot of rides are failing to be closed out, forcing the operator to do so manually for all rides over an hour. (If you return your bike to the rack and it buzzes, but the light doesn't turn green, then it has not been properly returned, and anybody can just remove it from the station and pedal away.)

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