This spring marks the 10th anniversary of the launch of Citi Bike, the bike-share system in New York City. What better time then to revisit what 2013 Jacob thought of its introduction?
When Citi Bike first started rolling out, I had just begun my time as a communications intern with the East Side Access project (what led to the now infamous Grand Central Madison). One of my main tasks was to keep the office’s intranet site, a glorified blog, up to date with posts about the project, employee profiles, and general reporting on news of interest. One of the first posts I wrote featured the newest transit option in town. I’ve copy-pasted the entirety of that post below:
If you have walked the streets of midtown and lower Manhattan or Brooklyn Heights since Memorial Day, you may have noticed the presence of blue bicycles in the traffic flow or observed blue bikes lined up, carving a niche for themselves in existing roadways. What has prompted the arrival of these blue bikes? The answer is Citi Bike, a new bike-share program that is taking hold of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Since its inception less than two weeks ago, more than 27,000 people have purchased an annual, $95 membership to the service. Citi Bike is now the largest bike-share program in the United States. In the first ten days of the program alone, it was estimated that there were 100,000 trips taken with a total of more than 270,000 miles ridden (for reference, the distance of the Earth to the Moon is approximately 240,000 miles).
Not everyone is happy about the presence of more bikes. According to multiple news sources, one Brooklyn Heights bike rack was left covered in trash in protest over the loss of space to place garbage for pick-up. Residents of the affected building now must place their garbage in front of other buildings. Other people complain about how there will soon be a large group of inexperienced cyclists roaming the streets of New York. In addition, some stations have had malfunctioning kiosks refusing to accept user codes or even have racks that fail to work at all.
Despite these conflicts, many are excited about the potential for a greener New York City. While it may take a while for all of the glitches to be worked out and for New Yorkers to get the hang of the system, Citi Bike looks to build on its successes and expand in the near future.[Given my current tendency to go long on Jacob Albrecht dot com blog posts, seeing a writing sample of mine that’s fewer than 300 words is surprising. As I do with most older written work, on my first read through I immediately noticed and was critical of my previous choice of words, sentence structure, overall framing of the issue, and couldn’t help but wonder ‘how did 2013 Jacob think this was good writing?’ Inevitably, I will return to this post in a decade and ask myself the same question, but I digress.]
For all of the praise I heaped onto Citi Bike in the first paragraph, I did not have a positive view of the scheme as a whole. Those “other people” worried about New Yorkers and tourists alike who’d never ridden in the city zooming around on Citi Bikes were a stand-in for me to express my own opinion. Even now, doing research for this post, I am very surprised that the first Citi Bike–related fatality did not occur until 4 years after the bikes were introduced. While other purported issues, like the replacing of a handful of parking spots with hundreds of docks didn’t bother me, I had little faith that Citi Bike would survive and thrive as it has.
Given all that, I am willing to accept the title of Hypocrite when I admit that my recent adoption of Citi Bike has been a mostly positive experience. I signed up for a membership at the beginning of 2023, and as of this writing have over 55 hours and almost 200 miles biked around the city, mostly in Manhattan. The chief reason I signed up was for a more convenient way to get to my sister’s Upper East Side apartment to dog sit, but I’d been mulling over joining for a while. I purchased a helmet at the end of 2021 with the intention of joining Citi Bike once the weather improved, but as the nice weather came and went the helmet only gathered dust in my closest. The prospect of riding around Manhattan for the first time is daunting, especially for someone like me who hadn’t ridden a bike in almost 8 years. My sister moving to the UES and the inconvenience of walking there was the final straw that led me to bite the bullet.
At first, I was one of those inexperienced cyclists I would have warned you about 10 years ago. I took my first test ride early on a Saturday morning to avoid riding in any traffic. It was likely quite evident to anyone who chanced to be out at that hour that I was a rusty cyclist. I stumbled at first while trying to get my footing on the pedals, and my approach when dealing with cars and other bikes left much to be desired. The first few rides after that trial were equally as shaky as I dealt with other new challenges, such as the first time navigating through Central Park, and figuring out how narrow a gap between cars is too narrow to try to fit through comfortably. Over the last few months, however I’ve come into my own as a cyclist. Where the streets of Manhattan once seemed too daunting to navigate I now glide with confidence. I still deal with unfamiliar and stressful situations here and there (like almost being run over by a fire truck approaching from behind in the bike lane), but I am now a far cry from the novice who hopped on a Citi Bike for the first time way back when.
Just as liberating myself from the subway to become an überpedestrian changed how I experienced New York, so too has getting on a bike. There is once again the thrill of adventure revisiting locations that were starting to become tired via walking. I have a greater appreciation for bike lanes, and even greater revulsion for bad actors on wheels. Like I’ve done on foot many times over, I’ve pedaled over the larger bridges of the city, though I very much doubt you’ll be hearing a new podcast anytime soon. I now get a similar feeling of elation I’d experience when taking an early morning walk over the Queensboro Bridge as I do taking a late-night ride on a nearly abandoned West Side Highway. Not only is there the glee that comes from exploring someplace new, but I come away feeling as if I’ve found a part of the city that’s mine alone. In a town as large as this one, it’s nice to find a secluded spot to enjoy a moment of private reflection. While most folks get around via the subway or ride sharing, I still revel in taking the bike/pedestrian lane less traveled.
The gamification of Citi Bike has also encouraged additional miles of exploration. Citi Bike awards users Angel Points for moving bikes from crowded docks to docks with few bikes. Over time, the accrual of these points will reward participants with complimentary weeks of membership, free credits to use on e-bikes, and even direct money payouts. Some of the most invested cyclists will make thousands of dollars a month by methodically moving bikes around. I’ve made about $30 total since starting out, and I’ve deleted the reminder on my phone to consider whether to renew my annual membership since every month I accrue enough points to push that deadline back another month. There have been a few instances when I’ve arrived at a destination early, and to kill time performed a few short rides between docks to boost my points total. If I continue cycling at the rate I’ve gone, I will have made back my initial investment into the Citi Bike membership by the end of 2023.
Citi Bike is far from perfect, however. The bikes are heavy and cumbersome. When selecting a bike, I must always be sure to check that the gear shift moves correctly, the brakes work, the seat won’t budge under moderate weight, and other pre-departure checks. Sometimes a flaw in the bike, such as a malfunctioning bell, may not be evident until a ride has already begun. Whole docks don’t always work correctly, forcing users to walk to the next closest functioning dock to retrieve a bike. It’s not always exactly clear how Angel Points are distributed to different docks, and at times they’re meaningless when every dock for miles of your location are either all pick-up or all return points. I thankfully haven’t experienced this myself, but a common gripe on r/CitiBike is that occasionally, when someone isn’t paying attention, thieves will target and steal Citi Bikes, leaving riders with a $1200 bill.
Despite those flaws, I’m probably with Citi Bike for the long term. The fact that my current membership can continue indefinitely, if the current points system holds, means that any thoughts of acquiring a bike of my own are put on hold. The benefits of Citi Bike, such as no maintenance or storage concerns, outweigh what I’d gain from cancelling the membership early to invest in a bike I wouldn’t need to adjust the seat of before every ride. The one thing I will have to keep an eye on is the future of Citi Bike in general, as the current owner, Lyft, is currently going through economic hardships, and even the system’s sponsor, Citi Bank, is going to see its 10-year naming-rights contract expire soon. Regardless of that outcome, I don’t think I’ll be restraining myself to exclusively pedestrian adventures anymore.
See you out on the streets.