After 100 Days, Architects of NYC’s Bike-Share Success Take Stock

By the numbers, Citi Bike has been a huge success, taking weeks to build the substantial ridership that other systems took years to achieve. With the instant popularity have also come growing pains: Ensuring a balanced supply of bikes across the system remains an ever-present challenge, and plans to expand remain just over the horizon, leaving many neighborhoods clamoring for bike-share.

Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/nycstreets/8883623650/##NYC DOT/Flickr##

Last night, three of the people behind Citi Bike’s planning and operations took to the stage at Baruch College to talk about the program’s history and day-to-day reality, and answer questions about where NYC bike-share is going from here. NYC DOT Policy Director Jon Orcutt, NYC Bicycle Share General Manager Justin Ginsburgh, and Jon Sellman, vice president of consumer marketing and advertising at Citi were joined on stage by moderator Charles Komanoff.

NYCBS, the operator of the system, projected 60,000 annual members in the program’s first year. After a little more than three months, Citi Bike had already hit 80,000 members. With the system averaging 36,000 trips per day in August, it regularly sees six and sometimes even seven trips per bike per day, outpacing London and other similar systems. The overwhelming demand caught the company off guard when the system first launched. “We had more calls to our call center than we expected,” Ginsburgh said. “When you kind of flip a switch for something incredibly new with no real track record, you can get caught flat-footed.”

Today, the company has 54 employees in its Brooklyn call center, an in-house bike shop that repairs about 150 bikes each day and makes an additional 50 repairs in the field, and 11 rebalancing teams working three shifts to move about 2,500 bikes around the city daily.

“We are constantly climbing the learning curve of rebalancing,” Ginsburgh said, noting that because New York’s program is so large and densely concentrated in the core of the city, the rebalancing patterns are different than other cities, like Washington, which are both smaller and more spread out.

“Our initial rebalancing strategy was vehicle-based,” Ginsburgh said. “We’re starting to realize that fighting congestion during rush hour is a losing battle.” Instead, the company is starting to roll out bike trailers to aid redistribution, and has set up three staging areas — near Penn Station, on Delancey Street, and at Pier 40 — to shorten travel distances. Ginsburgh also said NYCBS is working with a team of Ph.D students to come up with better systems to meet rebalancing needs.

Orcutt said that DOT is set to release a survey in the coming months of approximately 1,000 users interviewed at bike-share stations about their trip mode choices, in an effort to see how bike-share has changed travel behaviors. In a separate study, the Department of Health is working with Citi Bike on a multi-year, longitudinal study of thousands of bike-share users to learn about the effects of the program on their weight and health behaviors.

That study includes demographic information about users. Ginsburgh said last night that Citi Bike users tended to be white, male, and with household incomes in the six figures, though he didn’t have the exact numbers. NYCBS referred us to the Department of Health, which said it was not ready to release this demographic information.

Without the exact data, it’s impossible to say how Citi Bike’s demographics compare to cyclists overall or to the population of the Citi Bike service area in Manhattan and nearby Brooklyn. Other bike-share systems have attracted more women than cycling in general, but users also tend to be wealthier and whiter than the general population.

Responding to an audience question, Orcutt rejected the idea that bike-share is inherently classist. “I think it’s bullshit,” he said. “You can leave here today and ride down to the NYCHA projects on Avenue D or over to Farragut Houses.” Orcutt also noted that a third of New Yorkers enter the bike-share zone each day. “You’re going to do it where the trips are. It’s not about where rich people are,” he said.

From left, Justin Ginsburgh of NYC Bicycle Share, Jon Orcutt of NYC DOT, and Jon Sellman of Citi. Photo: Stephen Miller

The current system relies on private sponsorships and its own user revenues, not subsidies. Last night, the panelists said they are not looking beyond that model at this time. “There’s no taxpayer dollars, and for me that’s really important,” Ginsburgh said. “Politically, it makes it a lot more acceptable to everyone.”

Citi’s Sellman noted that the bank was attracted to the sponsorship deal because the saturation of bank branches in Manhattan left it fighting for attention with its competitors, and bike-share presented a unique form of outdoor advertising that would increase the brand’s exposure. In addition, Sellman said, sponsoring a service like bike-share would help the bank recover from its unpopularity during the financial crisis.

Orcutt noted that both the city’s contract with NYCBS and the Citi sponsorship deal are six-year agreements, lasting beyond the next mayoral term. “We haven’t really been thinking out past that about what a different business model is,” he said, noting that bike-share’s success so far indicates that the program is likely to last well beyond its initial six years. “We are looking at assembling resources to expand the system now, and that’s where the focus is.”

“We’d  love to get more sponsorship,” Ginsburgh said, mentioning the Upper East Side and Upper West Side as attractive places for sponsor-driven system expansion. “The crown jewels, in my mind, are still out there, available for sale,” he said.

DOT has said, and Orcutt repeated last night, that the completion of bike-share’s initial rollout — which would bring 1,000 additional bikes and 90 more stations to Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Long Island City, and the eastern parts of Bedford Stuyvesant — is on track for the end of this year. DOT has said that expansion funds could come from a federal Sandy recovery loan and sponsorships that it is still seeking.

Longer-term, Orcutt said the city could support a much larger bike-share network. “I actually think you could quadruple what we have now,” he said. (The Department of City Planning’s 2009 bike-share study envisioned a network as large as 49,000 bicycles.)

In the nearer term, work to bring the system up to 6,000 bikes continues: A slide from Sellman said that Citi Bike had 5,670 bikes at launch, 5,700 bikes presently, and was continuing to grow to 6,000. Planning for future phases to bring the network to the originally-announced 10,000 bikes and beyond is expected to begin by the end of this year, but few details have been announced yet.

  • Ian Turner

    Is there a reason why NYCBS is not considering a rewards-based rebalancing system? It just seems crazy expensive to pay people to rebalance bikes all day.

    One example of a rewards-based system: You can rent a bike for free (no membership required) if you take it from a dock that is >80% full and return it to one that is <20% full.

  • Anonymous

    @7c177865bd107a919938355fe93de93a:disqus : Ginsburgh said last night that it was something they were open to and exploring, but that other rewards-based rebalancing programs in other cities have not been very successful. (DC tried this with its Reverse Rider Rewards program but still has rebalancing issues.)

  • Anonymous

    CitiBANK made a shrewd move sponsoring BikeShare in NY. Frankly, it had become an afterthought in the retail banking world, eclipsed by Chase and BofA. Now its brand is omnipresent.

    Citifield, for reason maybe a branding expert can explain, has far less impact than Citibike.

  • Mfs

    Yes there are bonus stations in Paris velib’ that are at the top of hills where you get an extra 15m but they are always empty.

  • Eric McClure

    Perhaps because CitiBIke is having a much better season than the Mets.

  • Anonymous

    More neighborhoods, more stations, more bikes!!!
    Was there any talk of how financially successful the system is? If they expected 60,000 members, but have 80,000 so, that’s about $2m per year extra. Will they be able to use money like that to expand the system faster or are their finances dominated by the sponsorships?

  • Ian Turner

    I know the Velib’ and DC rewards programs have not had much impact, but on the other hand they are pretty chintzy. DC’s system is paying out a grand total of $168.75 per month for its Reverse Rider Rewards program, which is about the cost of one full-time rebalancer (without truck). Velib’s rewards system is even meaner; the extra 15 minutes are worth at most a few cents.

    A serious rewards-based rebalancing program would look at the cost of paying full-time employees to achieve a good state of balancing and aim to accomplish that same goal at lower cost (not necessarily at near-zero cost). Nor is there any reason to restrict rebalancing efforts to annual members a priori (although it may turn out that way since daily members are so profitable).

    For example, if you assume that the current system of three people with a truck can move 20 bikes an hour, at a cost of perhaps $80/hr, then your goal should be to have a rebalancing rewards program that costs less than $4/rebalance. One example offering you could make would be to give 500 frequent flyer miles every time someone makes a balancing trip (as opposed to an unbalancing one).

    One framework to use may be that used by the stock market, where market participants who add liquidity get rebates on fees, paid for by participants who take liquidity. http://usequities.nyx.com/markets/nyse-arca-equities/trading-fees

  • john

    Anecdotally speaking, CitiBike is changing NYC in ways few dared to imagine.

    What I’d like to see is subsidized memberships for low-income NY’ers without credit cards (c’mon Citi, you can securitize this!), more stations, and more cooperation with MTA on messaging and route map coordination.

  • john

    That, or CitiBike is everywhere in the city’s media industry centers, while CitiField is tucked into a corner of Flushing Bay…

  • Anonymous

    If Citibike is going to expand to other areas, please don’t sacrifice station density for geographic coverage. It is easy to overlook density, but it is what makes Citibike so damn useful and flexible.

    So when Citibike expands to say Astoria, they should only do so when the neighborhood can be blanketed with stations.

  • Joe Enoch

    I don’t understand the concern over tax-independence. If you read the comments section for The Post and Daily News, you’ll see that most people already assume that the city funded the program.

    A relatively small investment from the city could easily double the program’s current reach.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not sure that people who post comments on the Post and the Daily News websites are representative. I would definitely support spending some tax money on bike share, but perhaps they are afraid that if they do there would be real opposition, not just uninformed comments on websites.

  • Joe Enoch

    The tabloids’ comments sections are certainly not representative of popular opinion, but I do think it’s a pretty keen look into the mind of NIMBYs and people who hate bicycles and street redesigns. That said, a good portion of those people already believe the city is funding it, and given it’s growth, why not infuse some tax dollars into a popular program?

  • Joe Enoch

    The program is so cheap as it is, what possible reward could you offer?

  • Ian Turner

    There is no requirement that rewards be less than the cost of membership. As I suggested above, one option would be to give 500 frequent flyer miles (or ThankYou points, or whatever) for each balancing trip. If someone wants to go on a rebalancing spree and earn the 70,000 miles needed for a flight to Japan, then I say let them. (70,000/500 = 140, so this is a real possibility for someone with a reverse commute).

  • Anonymous

    500 miles would have to come from somewhere and have a value of ~ $5, so that’s not going to happen.. Per the math in the article, they rebalance for $1 per bike.. (2500 per day with 11 teams at living wage = 73 cents per trip for the labor)

    And that reverse commuter would have to stay in that area or not bike back out.. How many people do you know that live in midtown and work in the east village? The most needed routes are hard to find reverse commuters for because the source area has no residential districts.

  • SteveF

    Let’s not ignore that MasterCard is also a CitiBike cosponsor. They are a CREDIT CARD Company – maybe they can work up some alternative form of credit to create a viable form of deposit on the bike for low income NY’ers. It’s the need for bike and trip deposit guaranteed by a credit card, more than the trip price, that blocks low income users. Few have credit cards.

  • L Sturman

    A philanthropist should offer a matching gift to any city block that raises money to bring a dock to their block. Let communities come together and pave the way to cover the 5 boroughs with docks. (Low income communities can raise a small portion).

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