Why I love and hate Citibike

When I first heard about Citibike, I had just started working in Manhattan. I walk about ten blocks each way between Penn Station and my office on 6th Ave & West 23rd Street, which takes about 15 minutes or so, so the prospect of reducing that time was pretty appealing. Also, I should add that I just fundamentally hate walking. It’s just too slow. Before I got a car at the age of 17 I rode my bike everywhere. When I went to college I rode my bike to every class, even in 3-foot snowdrifts of a New Hampshire winter. After I took this job I looked into some folding bikes that I could actually bring with me on the train to work. That’s kind of a huge pain in the ass, plus the folding bikes start at around $700, so that wasn’t realistic for me. So I was pretty excited at the prospect of Citibike.

After it rolled out a few weeks ago, I did a 24-hour rental and rode from 33rd & 7th Ave (across from Penn) down to Broadway & 24th. It was fun and it was really quick. Actually, I didn’t save much wall time over just walking, but that was due to the time I spent getting the bike and getting used to riding a bike down 7th ave and then down Broadway, which was a bit jarring my first time. But that test was a enough for me to decide it was worth the $95 to sign up for a year.

My key came over the July 4th weekend and I’ve attempted to bike from Penn to the office every day this week, and back up to Penn in the afternoon. For the most part, I love it. The main thing I don’t love is exactly what I suspected would be the entire program’s downfall: lack of bikes where you need them, when you need them. Today’s Friday, and this is the second morning this week where there hasn’t been a single functional bike in a 5 block radius of Penn Station when I got in. On the LIRR on my way in, the Citibike app showed 12 bikes available at the 7th Ave & 31st Street station. By the time I got to street level (15 minutes later) there was only one bike in the dock and it had a red light indicating it was broken or otherwise unavailable. This was frustrating, but I checked the app and it showed there were 5 bikes available at the Broadway & 29th Street station, so I walked over there. This is kind of out of the way, but even biking 5 blocks is worth it (especially since I paid for the pass, and I like to use what I paid for). When I got there, one of the bikes was completely flat and the other four showed red lights. So even though there were 5 physical bikes there, as the app said, there were none I could get. I understand that things break, and as long as they get fixed I don’t have a problem with that, but if the dock knows the bike is broken (as evidenced by the red LED) why show it in the app?

Screenshot of the citibike app showing no bikes available between 34th&7th and 23rd&6th.
Screenshot of the citibike app showing no bikes available between 34th&7th and 23rd&6th.

After that, I just decided to walk the rest of the way since there were no other stations on my way. Maybe “hate” is too strong of a word; I still think Citibike is a great idea and I think they’ve done a great job for the most part, but none of that helps me if I can’t actually get a bike when I want one. I don’t know if there’s a solution to this, maybe they could incentivize people to drop bikes off at high-traffic sites during off-peak times so they’re available during peak times? Or maybe they just need more docks at the major hub areas. In any case, on my walk in this morning I started reconsidering buying my own folding bike.