Opinion

Felix Salmon

Citibike: A victim of its own success

Felix Salmon
Jun 19, 2013 14:30 UTC

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.)

COMMENT

Every time I look at the map, all of the bikes are on the Lower East Side. Right now it looks like it would be hard to park a bike in Felix’s neighborhood.
Meanwhile, there’s nothing in Midtown between Lex and 7th.
Other bike shares periodically redistribute bikes. NYC better get savvy to that soon, or this is going to become the Lower East Side Commuter System.

Posted by RZ0 | Report as abusive

How to tell where CitiBike is working

Felix Salmon
Jun 7, 2013 17:29 UTC

Given the big problem with NYC’s bikeshare program, how can users get a good idea of whether or not any given station is working? The app won’t tell you. But over at Streetsblog, commenter ohhleary points to this site, which shows not only how many bikes are in a given dock right now, but also how many bikes have been in that dock over the past 24 hours. He (or she) explains:

Click on a station, and if you see the graph “flatlining” during peak hours, you can pretty much assume the station is down.

Here’s an example, using two stations on Washington Square:

washsq.jpg

The station on the left seems to be working OK, with activity during the day and less activity at night. But the one on the right has a tendency to flatline, whatever the hour — a good indication that it can neither dispense nor accept bikes.

If the problem with stations being out of order isn’t easily fixed, then, I’d suggest that CitiBike add this simple piece of functionality to their app: when you select a given station, it should show not only the number of bikes and spaces available, but also how those numbers have changed over the past few hours. If they haven’t changed at all, that’s a reasonably good indication that the station might not be working.

COMMENT

You’re right, I’m sure CitiBike will add a little flag showing WHERE THEY’RE FAILING. Happily.

Posted by PhilH | Report as abusive

The one big problem with NYC’s bikeshare

Felix Salmon
Jun 5, 2013 20:17 UTC

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.

COMMENT

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

Bikeshare: Threat or menace?

Felix Salmon
Jun 1, 2013 19:29 UTC

Presented without comment, a few quotes from the WSJ’s “Death by Bicycle” video:

  1. “Do not ask me to enter the mind of the totalitarians running this government.”
  2. “We now look at a city whose best neighborhoods are absolutely begrimed by these blazing blue Citibank bikes.”
  3. “It’s not just shocking; it’s also a fire hazard in some cases, because the fire trucks can’t get into subway stations.”
  4. “Before this, every citizen knew, who was in any way sentient, that the most important danger in the city is not the yellow cabs. It is the bicyclists.”
  5. “Tourists are going to get onto these bikes as well!”
  6. “The bike lobby is an all-powerful enterprise.”

(h/t: Josh)

COMMENT

Favorite objection so far: someone at Gawker grousing that one set of the racks is near a bike shop that makes a good deal of its money from renting bikes to people.

Any bike shop that cannot beat the prices ($9.95 plus tax for Not More than 30 minutes at a time, at which point it’s $27 for the first hour and $24 each additional hour) and conditions (bikes that are designed for commuting, and therefore horrid for recreational riding or riding by any non-adult) of Citibike for recreational rentals shouldn’t be in the business of renting bikes for recreational use.

Posted by klhoughton | Report as abusive

Why it’s not OK for cyclists to run red lights

Felix Salmon
Aug 5, 2012 17:33 UTC

Randy Cohen, the NYT’s former Ethicist columnist, has now attempted an ethical defense of running red lights on his bicycle. “I flout the law when I’m on my bike,” he writes; “you do it when you are on foot, at least if you are like most New Yorkers.”

This, of course, is one of the weakest ethical defenses imaginable: if lots of other people are flouting the law, that doesn’t give anybody else the ethical right to do so, let alone the legal right. But Cohen continues:

I roll through a red light if and only if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk and no car is in the intersection — that is, if it will not endanger myself or anybody else. To put it another way, I treat red lights and stop signs as if they were yield signs. A fundamental concern of ethics is the effect of our actions on others. My actions harm no one. This moral reasoning may not sway the police officer writing me a ticket, but it would pass the test of Kant’s categorical imperative: I think all cyclists could — and should — ride like me.

The “should” at the end of this passage is utterly indefensible. At best, Cohen has demonstrated that he’s causing no harm to others (although I’ll take issue with that in a moment). But if Cohen is doing something illegal — which, by his own admission he is — then he needs something much stronger than “no harm to others” before he urges such behavior on all other cyclists.

There are cases where flouting the law can be the ethical thing to do, but those are generally cases where following the law, or standing idly by in the face of something which is clearly wrong, cannot be ethically justified. In this case, stopping at a red light and waiting for it to turn green does no harm to anybody, and there’s no morality I know of which would frown on such behavior.

It is important to cyclists that we get the full respect of drivers as fellow road users, with just as much right to be riding down the street as they have. The biggest danger facing cyclists is when drivers get annoyed if we slow them down, or drive as though we’re simply not there. Developing a relationship of mutual respect between drivers and cyclists is the most important thing we can do to improve cyclists’ safety, and to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities on the streets. And cyclists will find it much harder to earn that respect if they visibly flout the law every time they reach a red light.

Do pedestrians flout red-light laws all the time? Yes, of course they do. But they also fear cars, and respect the fact that the roadway is built for the purposes of cars and not for themselves. No pedestrian insists on the right to walk down the middle of the road at any time of day or night, and to be respected by drivers while doing so.

Similarly, Cohen — quite rightly — saying that cyclists “are a third thing, a distinct mode of transportation, requiring different practices and different rules”. I wrote as much myself, in my unified theory of New York biking. But that theory was based on the idea that the tragedy of New York cycling is that everybody — pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists — treat cyclists too much like pedestrians. Cohen, by contrast, says that “most of the resentment of rule-breaking riders like me, I suspect, derives from a false analogy: conceiving of bicycles as akin to cars”. I wish that New Yorkers would conceive of bicycles as akin to cars: pedestrians would look first before stepping out in front of us; cars would respect our right to be on the road; and fellow cyclists wouldn’t endanger everybody by riding the wrong way down the street.

One of the weirder parts of Cohen’s essay is that he extols Amsterdam and Copenhagen, which are cities where, to a first approximation, all cyclists always stop at all red lights, and don’t go again until the light turns green. Doesn’t he understand that in order for New York to work as a cycling city, cyclists will have to stop taking the law into their own hands? “Uninterrupted motion,” he writes, “gliding silently and swiftly, is a joy.” Well, yes, it is. Uninterrupted motion is quite nice for car drivers, too, but they stop at red lights. And even pedestrians generally wait until the way is clear before they cross the street.

More to the point, I simply don’t believe Cohen when he writes that he only breaks the red-light rule “if and only if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk and no car is in the intersection”. What about when there’s a pedestrian in the crosswalk who’s walking away from the bike? I’ll bet he does it then, too. The point is, when you can make up your own rules, you can also make up when to bend them. I can understand that Cohen would prefer it if New York had rules like Idaho’s. But whatever the rules are, we should obey them. If Cohen wants to agitate for a change in the rules, I’ll join him and support him. But I’m not going to pretend that it’s OK to break the rules just because you think the rules should be changed.

It’s quite common for pedestrians to thank me when I stop at a red light behind the crosswalk. That’s nice of them, I guess — but it’s also a bit depressing: it shows that most pedestrians expect most cyclists to flout the law. And that makes them afraid and resentful of cyclists in general. That’s the last thing anybody wants. And so for the time being it behooves all cyclists to adhere to the law as it stands, even if they’re convinced that they’re doing no harm. Running red lights is highly visible behavior, and every time a pedestrian or a driver seen Cohen do it, that only confirms in them their prejudice that cyclists are lawless people with no respect for the rules of the road. They can’t see the counterfactual case where Cohen would have stopped had there been a pedestrian in the way: all they see is the law-flouter.

I’m no angel on this front: I’ve done, on my bike, everything Cohen has done on his. I just don’t kid myself that I’m behaving ethically when I do so. And I’m trying to set a good example, even if I don’t always succeed. If you ever see me run a red light on my bike, feel free to tell me off. I’ll deserve it.

COMMENT

Well in some cities it is legal to ride a bike through a red light. And where I live I would NEVER get through red light. Why…because they only change for a car…not a bike. In some cites when a bicycle stops over the bicycle symbol that is on the street the light changes just as if they were a car. That is what needs to be done but most cities won’t because they just don’t care…period. I am in the street when I approach a stop light and if I were to stop all the time I would have cars mad at me because they feel I am in the way. I could use the crosswalk at a red light, but that is infinitely more dangerous. Why…because cars making a right-hand turn do not care one bit if they hit me and will cut in front of me all the time. Then when I am in the middle of the intersection about to get to the other side, those cars making a turn, either a left going the same direction as me, or those making a right in front of me will ALWAYS cut in front of me. You have to stay in the street and you have to run a red light at least part of the time. Those that don’t ride in the city should not comment as they have NO clue.

Posted by PugsleyDude | Report as abusive

How to make New York’s cyclists safer

Felix Salmon
Jun 26, 2012 13:29 UTC

It’s becoming something of a trend these days: good report, bad press release. The latest example comes from John Liu, the New York City comptroller, who is warning about New York’s bikeshare program. “LIU: BIKE SHARE PROGRAM PEDALS PAST SAFETY MEASURES” says the release (geddit?) — and certainly that’s the message received by the New York Times, which wrote up the news under the headline “Bike-Share Program May Mean More Accident Suits Against the City, Liu Warns”.

The report itself, by contrast, is much less alarmist, and mostly extremely sensible. Biking in New York is dangerous, for cyclists and pedestrians both, and it’s important to make it safer. Especially as thousands of new bikeshare riders are going to start wobbling their way around largely-unfamiliar streets. Here’s the scary chart:

bds.tiff

The blue curve is the well-known safety-in-numbers effect: as biking becomes more popular, it also becomes safer. New York is an outlier here, and not in a good way.

Charles Komanoff has some on-point criticisms of Liu’s report, and if you read his report closely you’ll notice one big flaw in the chart. The x-axis shows bikers as a percentage of total commuters, while most bike trips in New York are not home-to-work commutes at all. If you included all New York cyclists, New York would have a higher ratio of cyclists, and fatalities per cyclist would go down. Put it this way: the chart is taking the total number of bike fatalities, and dividing it by the total number of bike commuters, rather than the total number of bicyclists as a whole. That results in low numbers for cities like Portland, where cyclists are much more likely to commute to work, and high numbers for cities like New York, where they’re much more likely to just be running errands, or shopping, or meeting friends.

That said, New York needs to become safer for cyclists and pedestrians both, and Liu has some very sensible proposals for helping it do that. The city should put a lot of effort into maintaing signage, bike lanes, and intersections, especially the most dangerous ones: the effect of that could be huge. It should expand the Safe Streets for Seniors program, which helps older New Yorkers navigate safely around vehicles of all types. It should educate bikers and drivers both on bike safety and the rules of the road; drivers in particular should look out to make sure they don’t cut in front of cyclists when making a turn, and also leave extra space when passing a cyclist just in case the biker has to swerve around a pothole.

The recommendations continue: kids should get taught bike safety at an early age. The “5 to ride” pledge should be promoted to all businesses with bike messengers or delivery people. There should be more police on bikes, and they should start handing out tickets to cyclists speeding through red lights or dangerously salmoning. On top of that, they should start ticketing cars and vans in bike lanes. And just generally be tougher on traffic. As the report says:

New York’s roads are an interactive, multi-modal system; increased enforcement from any surface modes will increase safety across all other modes. Through greater enforcement of speed limits and greater traffic signal compliance, the roads will be safer for all users.

Liu also wants to beef up New York’s overworked and largely ineffective Accident Investigation Squads; that’s a great idea. And he wants to collect lots of data on biking in New York and make it public. Which is a no-brainer.

Liu is also pushing to make helmets mandatory; I’m not such a fan of that idea. For one thing, I have yet to see any empirical data showing that mandatory helmets increase safety. And in general, insofar as a mandatory helmet law would reduce the number of cyclists, it would also reduce the safety-in-numbers effect. And as the chief fiscal officer of New York, he’s worried that increased biking might mean increased liability in terms of settlements paid out by New York City to injured cyclists. That worry seems small to me: as Komanoff says, the number of new cyclists will only increase the total by about 6%, and the $10 million of insurance that the bikeshare program has is much bigger than the $2 million to $3 million that New York has paid out annually in the past three years.

Overall, however, I’d say that the report is a very positive thing. And in that it stands in contrast to the press release, which quotes John Pucher of Rutgers University as saying that he “would expect at least a doubling and possibly even a tripling in injuries and fatalities among cyclists and pedestrians during the first year of the Bike Share program in New York”. I’ll happily take that bet: it’s ridiculously alarmist, such a rise hasn’t happened in other cities with bikeshare programs, and no such projection is made in Liu’s report. Liu also wheeled out the media-relations guy from AAA New York, of all people, to say that the best way to prevent cyclists incurring serious injuries is to force those cyclists to wear helmets. That’s just depressing: one would hope that a car-drivers’ organization might at least pay lip service to safer driving, rather than putting the onus entirely on the bikers.

I’m very excited about New York’s bikeshare program, and look forward to using it regularly. I hope that the increase in the number of cyclists will help bring a bit more civility to New York’s biking community, especially in terms of stopping at lights and riding in the right direction. Meanwhile, my biggest fear is that we’ll see the opposite: a bunch of people who have no idea what they’re doing, riding on sidewalks, salmoning, and generally causing chaos. I don’t think that’s probable, but it’s possible, and I look forward to Citibike and NYC doing everything they can to prevent it from happening. As they do so, Liu’s report — if not his press release — is likely to be quite helpful.

COMMENT

the x axis – cyclist commuters as a percentage of all commuters – presumably includes train and subway riders, which form a much higher percentage of NY commuters than of any of the other listed cities. Isn’t the relevant figure cyclists to drivers?

Posted by Blox | Report as abusive

Yuppies on bikeshares

Felix Salmon
Jun 20, 2012 16:24 UTC

Last year, I expressed some skepticism that Washington’s Capital Bikeshare program would have much if any success in getting the unbanked on bikes. And according to Capital Bikeshare’s latest member survey, it seems that I was right:

educ.tiff

Out of 5,157 bikeshare members surveyed, all of them had been to college; 95% had graduated; and more than half had graduate degrees. Assuming that most of the 5% with “some college” are current undergrads, I think it’s fair to say that this is a very well educated demographic, and very much not the poor or unbanked.

The people at Reason think this chart is grounds to stop subsidizing the bikeshare program altogether, which is silly: the government subsidy for bikeshare is basically a rounding error in the grand transportation budget, and I’m sure that the amount of government funds spent on maintaining roads in affluent suburban communities is orders of magnitude greater than the amount spent on bikes.

But it definitely seems to be true that the Capital Bikeshare scheme has done very badly at reaching the poor, the unbanked, and people of color. (Bikeshare’s membership is 79% white, in a city that’s 34% white.) Bikeshare’s most successful membership drive came from a deal at Living Social, which reportedly almost doubled Bikeshare’s membership; it’s fair to say that Living Social’s Washington email list probably skews white as well. But the deal does demonstrate, I think, that price matters: drop the membership fee, and membership rises. Which is something New York should pay attention to.

Or, to put it another way: there are surely hundreds of reasons why well-educated whites flock to bikeshares while blacks who haven’t been to college avoid them. But cost is surely very high up on the list. And so if you want your bikeshare program to be broadly adopted across social classes, it’s a really good idea to make it cheap.

Update: Thanks to WashCycle for paying more attention to the survey methodology section than I did. This member survey, it turns out, is not representative: members were solicited for their responses only via email, and the only way that you could take the survey was online. Which might well explain a lot. Also, the survey took place in November, before the scheme to enlist the unbanked went live. Apologies for missing both of those things, and well done to WashCycle for picking up on them. Let’s just say there’s no disclaimer anywhere in the survey that its results are not representative of Capital Bikeshare’s membership as a whole.

COMMENT

“the government subsidy for bikeshare is basically a rounding error in the grand transportation budget, and I’m sure that the amount of government funds spent on maintaining roads in affluent suburban communities is orders of magnitude greater than the amount spent on bikes.”

Well hey, if you’re against cutting it because it’s just a small “rounding error”, then I guess you’d be more amenable to tackling DC’s deficit by cutting the big expenditures: Pensions, public sector salaries, redundant public sector services, etc etc… Dishonest argument is dishonest.

So because we spend tons of money on roads for rich suburbs, we should thus also spend money on bikeshare problems that benefit the rich, but MAY, sometime, in the long run, possibly, benefit the poor, at some point? Libertarians generally favor toll roads by the way, so they’d agree that yes, funding “public” roads in rich subdivisions is silly.

Why not expand this? Why not add rollerblade, skateboard, unicycle, and horse shares? It’s public transportations! WE ALREADY SUBSIDIZE ROADS AND TRAINS!!!!!!! WHY DO YOU HATE POOR PEOPLE/BLACK PEOPLE/ THE CHILDREN!?!?!?

Posted by duh2 | Report as abusive

Bikeshare pricing charts of the day

Felix Salmon
May 15, 2012 20:47 UTC

When I wrote about New York’s expensive bikeshare scheme last week, I got a lot of pushback from people saying that I was missing the point. These bikes are designed for short trips around town, at a marginal price of zero: the large sums you pay if you keep them checked out for an hour or more are a deliberate attempt to discourage that behavior.

OK, fair enough — but in that case, if you’re charging high variable costs, the converse should be that you should charge low fixed costs. Most bike schemes work in much the same way: you pay a certain amount up front for membership, be it for a day or a week or a month or a year, and then the variable per-hour costs on top of that. If New York’s bikeshare scheme is indeed quite cheap, then one would expect the variable costs to be low.

But they’re not.

Ben Walsh put together some numbers for me, for various cities around the world with bikeshare schemes. Not all cities work in exactly the same way, and some have no direct comparison points with New York at all: in Chicago, for instance, the membership options are 1 month, 2 months, and 3 months. In any case, here’s what we managed to find, for New York’s three options:

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1wk.png

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It’s pretty clear that New York is at the top end of the range, here: only Frankfurt rivals it in price. To have access to New York’s bikes for one day, you need to spend $9.95 — that’s more than six times the £1 one-day membership in London, and it’s significantly more, too, than you’d pay in Washington or Toronto or Paris.

The first reaction of New Yorkers, when they hear this, is surprisingly positive: they think of it as a tax on tourists, and everybody likes taxes on tourists. Let the tourists pay through the nose for their one-day memberships, and we locals will save loads of money, through an implicit cross-subsidy, on our one-year memberships.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case, either. Look at the cost of one-year memberships, and New York is still top of the league table, at $95. That’s the same as Toronto, and more than seven times what Romans pay. (Indeed, the one-time membership fee in Rome, at €10, is barely more than a daily membership in New York.)

New Yorkers, then, are being asked to spend much more money per year than bikeshare users in just about any other major city — even if they never take out a bike for more than 45 minutes. And what worries me is the deterrent effect that these prices will have.

The first trip you take, on one of the new New York bikes, will cost you at least $10, and possibly as much as $95. Cab rides don’t cost much more than that, and you can fit four people in a cab. Experienced urban cyclists like me will definitely cough up the $95, even if that hurts a little, because we know how convenient it can be to be able to take one-way bike trips in Manhattan, especially if it’s going to rain later, or if you don’t like biking back in the dark, or if you got in to work on the subway but then just need to go a mile or so to your lunch meeting.

But the great promise of the bikeshare scheme is that it will get people onto bikes who have never biked before — people who are generally very nervous about biking at all on busy urban streets. Those people are going to want to try before they buy, and the $10 cost of a trial one-day membership is high enough to give them a good excuse not to bother.

The East River Ferry is a great example of the benefits of low entry costs and the opportunity the city’s bikeshare program is missing. When the ferry was reintroduced last June, it was free for the first 12 days. Passengers flocked and even once full fares kicked in, it remained far more popular than planners projected.

That said, from a user’s perspective there are two costs worth considering before you opt into one of these schemes, and the dollar cost is only one of them. The other one is convenience — and on that front, New York’s 10,000 bikes look as though they’re going to be everywhere you might want one, so long as you stay south of 60th Street; there are even a few docking stations in Queens! In that respect, getting on a bike is (fingers crossed) going to be much easier in New York than in most other cities — and I can definitely see how that convenience might be worth paying for.

I don’t think the pricing for these bikes is going to cause the plan to fail: New Yorkers are used to paying lots of money for convenience. I just wish there were some cheaper way of getting New Yorkers to try these things out. Because $95 is enough money — roughly the same as an unlimited monthly transit pass — that a lot of people will simply not bother.

COMMENT

I believe the pricing is fair, it’s cheaper then most cab fairs and putting gas in your car put together. Plus look at the bright side you get to work out more which means your spouse will love you more as your body starts looking great. Me, myself I love bikes, I purchased a bike from http://www.bikesxpress.com and now I can ride all the time. I love it!

Posted by bikesxpress | Report as abusive

New York’s expensive bikeshare

Felix Salmon
May 7, 2012 19:04 UTC

New York’s new bike-share program, sponsored by Citibank to the tune of $41 million (plus $6.5 million from MasterCard), will go live at the end of July, and the prices are public already. Transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan called them “the best deal in town short of the Staten Island Ferry.” Which, not really.

The Staten Island Ferry is free, of course, but that aside, New York transportation has a very simple pricing scheme. To a first approximation, all rides, whether on the subway or the bus or some combination of the two, are $2.50, no matter how long they are.

And the bikes cost a lot more than that.

As with all bike schemes, there’s a base price to enter the scheme — $10 per day, $25 per week, or $95 per year. Then the first half-hour of bike riding is free (45 minutes if you’re an annual member); after that, you pay on a per-ride basis as well, starting at $4 when you bike for more than half an hour.

The $10-per-day cost is already a significant expense: that’s four subway rides right there. And then the hourly charges really start to rack up if you keep the bike for some length of time. If you take the bike around Governor’s Island, for instance, and stay there for a couple of hours, you’re likely going to end up in the 3-hour time bracket, which is $49. On top of your $10 daily rental. As Garth Johnston puts it, for any real let’s-bike-around-the-city plans, you’re definitely going to be better off just buying your own bike.

What’s more, New York is significantly more expensive than similar schemes in rival cities like Washington and London. Here’s a chart of the cost of one trip, based on a 24-hour membership:

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London’s 24-hour membership is just £1, or $1.61, and the cost for the second half-hour is only another £1. Which means that anybody can get on a bike, ride it for an hour, and pay just £2 — less than the cost of a journey on the Tube. In New York, by contrast, getting on the bike costs $10, and then the second half-hour costs another $4, for a total of $14. That’s more than four times the cost of the London bike. By the time you’re on the bike for 90 minutes, the New York cost goes up to $23; you’d need to be biking twice as long to pay that much in London.

Here’s the full chart, going out to the maximum charge for 24 hours:

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As you can see, none of these schemes are exactly friendly towards someone just taking a bike and using it to bike around for, say, six hours. But if you do that in London, you’ll “only” pay $58: in Washington, it’s $85, and in New York, it’s $131.

I can’t think of any other area where London is so much cheaper than New York: it’s just weird to me that New York would set the prices for this scheme so high. Maybe the problem is that they haven’t found a lot of places to put the docking stations, so they’re having to set the price high to keep the demand in check. All we’ve been told so far is that the plans for the docking stations will be available “soon”; it’ll be fascinating to see how many of them there are in the first instance.

But one thing’s sure: the price difference between renting a bike and hailing a cab is very small in New York, while it’s very large in London. Which probably makes cabbies very happy, while doing very little to reduce congestion.

COMMENT

Salmon,

You’ve been punked by DOT!!

Hope you and your little friends enjoy being overcharged to ride around on an overweight bike advertising for Citibank.

LMAO

Posted by SeanSweeney | Report as abusive
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