NYC Has a Bike-Share System That Works. Why Aren’t We Expanding It?

Instead of extending the usefulness of Citi Bike to more of the city, a two-tiered system could emerge in which neighborhoods outside the current Citi Bike service area get frozen out, left only with access to sparser dockless networks.

The bike-share coverage NYC could have if City Hall wasn't so squeamish about replacing on-street parking spaces. Image: Department of City Planning
The bike-share coverage NYC could have if City Hall wasn't so squeamish about replacing on-street parking spaces. Image: Department of City Planning

This summer, dockless bike-share is coming to NYC in some shape or form. The question is, what will New Yorkers get out of it?

DOT announced last week that 12 companies have expressed interest in participating in the agency’s dockless bike-share pilot. Details are fuzzy, but we know that whichever companies are selected by the city will operate outside the existing Citi Bike service area, where Motivate holds exclusive rights.

The line from City Hall is that the new services could enable New York to extend bike-share to neighborhoods where Citi Bike doesn’t reach. But there are reasons to be skeptical that relying solely on the dockless services is a good or fair way to extend bike-share access.

While dockless bike-share systems are generating lots of trips in Chinese cities, where the bikes are everywhere, the story in America is different so far.

In Seattle, three dockless bike-share companies run a combined fleet of more than 9,000 bikes. While precise figures aren’t available, the bikes appear not to get much use — less than one trip per bike each day, compared to an average of about five daily trips per bike for Citi Bike. The companies are also hesitant to expand much more because they don’t want to hire more people to maintain their bikes, Seattle DOT’s bike-share director told the Seattle Times.

In DC, which invited dockless bike-share companies to launch in limited volumes last fall, usage per bike is less than one-third the level of the station-based Capital Bikeshare, according to data collected by Transit, a trip planner for mobile devices. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, however, since the dockless services are much smaller than CaBi.

Usage data from Dallas, which has the largest combined dockless bike-share fleet in the nation, is still unavailable.

Typically offering trips for $1 per ride, the dockless services, buoyed by venture capital, can undercut the upfront cost of Citi Bike subscriptions (though a $169 annual Citi Bike pass is a better value per trip for anyone who uses it four times a week). They can also be deposited anywhere within the designated service area, unlike Citi Bikes, which must be parked at open docks.

Finding a working dockless bike to begin your trip can get tricky though. Like station-based bike-share, if the system isn’t rebalanced, large areas can turn into bike deserts. Observers in DC and Seattle also found a significant rate of major defects, with 12 percent of the bikes diagnosed with problems like faulty brakes or busted lights.

TransitCenter advocacy director Jon Orcutt led the development of Citi Bike at NYC DOT during the Bloomberg administration. There are good reasons that Citi Bike is used more intensely than dockless systems, he said.

“The Citi Bike reliability factor, in terms of location and a strong working app ecosystem — you’re just going to get more rides from that,” he said. “[Dockless bike-share] is not a high-usage kind of system, unless you’re really going to inundate the city with them.”

Motivate’s bikes are also well-constructed and regularly maintained. Many of the dockless bike-share companies can’t say the same about their bikes.

There’s certainly an advantage to dockless technology and the flexibility it provides, both for riders who don’t need to find a dock at the end of a trip, and for operators who can avoid the expense of building stations. The ideal would be to combine dockless capability with Citi Bike’s existing network of stations.

“That would be a game changer, because then it could interact with the docked system,” said Orcutt. “You could extend the benefits of one network to everybody.”

Motivate is one of the 12 companies that responded to DOT’s request and is expected to offer its own dockless service as part of the pilot. In the meantime, however, momentum has been sapped from the continued expansion of Citi Bike, depriving neighborhoods of access to a system that’s already proven its utility in the city.

Instead of extending the usefulness of Citi Bike to more of the city, a two-tiered system could emerge in which neighborhoods outside the current Citi Bike service area get frozen out, left with access to sparser dockless networks that don’t connect to central neighborhoods.

Motivate had been in talks with City Hall to expand its fleet by another 50 percent, with the service area reaching parts of the Bronx. But Mayor de Blasio did not want the next round of bike-share expansion to replace on-street parking spaces, according to one source familiar with the negotiations.

Enter the dockless bike-share companies, which don’t come attached to stations that occupy curb space.

The irony is that any bike-share system, dockless or station-based, is bound to stir up crankiness when it debuts in a new place. The introduction of dockless bike-share in U.S. cities hasn’t been immune to griping at all.

As TransAlt Executive Director Paul Steely White told AM New York, “The city can’t opt out of facing that political reality that you still need to reorganize street space to accommodate even dockless bike share.”

It’s valuable for the city to see how dockless bike-share services function here. But experimenting with new options is no excuse to stop expanding the current system, which works very well.

  • Wilfried84

    There’s one thing I haven’t seen mentioned or addressed. As I understand it, Citi Bike has an exclusive in areas where they currently exist, so new dockless bike share would have to stay out of that area. What happens when someone wants to ride from a dockless area into the City Bike area? Will they have to transfer bikes at the boarder and switch to Citi Bike? Will there be an added cost, if the dockless bikes are run by a different company? Or can the ride into the Citi Bike area? In that case, where will they park, and and what provisions will be made for sufficient bike parking? And what happens to those bikes? Can Other folks simply pick them up and ride around? I that case, dockless bike share is in effect operating in the City Bike area.

  • JarekFA

    I live just outside the Citibike area in South Brooklyn. Like 10 blocks from the 14th street/5th ave station. My god my life would be improved dramatically if I could just citibike home whenever. I hate the people who run this city.

    But Mayor de Blasio did not want the next round of bike-share expansion to replace on-street parking spaces, according to one source familiar with the negotiations

    Fuck de Blasio!

  • Vooch

    Whichever Bike share enterprise supports the last mile challenge in Queens-Brooklyn during the L train shutdown will dominate.

    Latent demand for cycling in NYC is off the charts.

    NYC demand for cycling is so yuge, that the market can support many bike share enterprises. 8 million people – half the population of the Netherlands.

  • stairbob

    Such a short-sighted car-head.

  • JK

    While on recent trip to Seattle and SF saw dockless bike share in action. Systems in both cities seem to face a massive rebalancing challenge. (Saw bikes strewn around outlying parks and residential neighborhoods in both cities) I wouldn’t be surprised if the operators cost per trip was more than $1. Before NYC agrees to anything with dockless operators, it should demand to see their operating costs per trip elsewhere. Motivate gets a huge sponsorship fee from Citibank, plus they have they densest neighborhoods, and thus probably highest usage per bike. Not seeing how dockless without any kind of subsidy is financially sustainable in less dense, more residential parts of city. A financially stressed operator is going to cut corners on bike maintenance/safety and provide bad service.

  • van_vlissingen

    Isn’t the main issue the up-front costs? I’m surprised one of the Boro Presidents hasn’t just tried to pay for expansion to/in their boro from their budget.

  • The upfront cost to the city of the Motivate expansion plan was zero though. De Blasio could have gotten a 50% bike-share expansion for free and he didn’t take it.

  • Can someone tell the mayor that bike share stations are parking spaces? The key difference is that a bike share station can serve dozens of people a day as opposed to the one or two people who might use the same amount of space to store a car long term.

  • Vooch

    200 users per day versus 1

  • Vooch

    JK – why do you care ? Let the people putting up their money make the decision.

    You really want the likes of Marty Golden deciding what bikeshsre to allow ?

  • Joe R.

    Easy answer to the question is the same reason why e-bikes aren’t being embraced by the city. Those in charge don’t want people who drive to realize such viable alternatives to driving exist. It would kill the cash cow of those who make money off mass motoring. They just don’t want people to realize that they perhaps may be able to do without a car.

  • ohhleary

    “Will dominate” doesn’t matter if Citibike isn’t given a chance. And dockless is useless to me as an L Train rider if it’s not interoperable with Citibike, as any destination I want to get to from Bushwick is already in Citibike’s service area.

  • ganghiscon

    I’m in the same situation in Queens, about a mile walk from the nearest stations in LIC or Astoria.

  • Fool

    See I don’t think this is it. The fundamental nature of voting in such an exclusionary city as NYC.
    -Single party town
    -1/3 of the city can’t legally vote.
    -Primaries are often not competitive and always under advertised.

    Suddenly a single pissed of voter is a much bigger they to a council members reelection than a large amount of slightly happy voters.

  • Asher Of LA

    Didn’t Motivate only want to expand if it got exclusivity over the new areas?

    Dock based: Spend a few minutes scrounging on each end of your trip for a bike at a dock.
    Dockless: Scan your phone and eventually even your block, for a bike, and ride it precisely to your destination.

    Average dockless trip time savings – 3 to 6+ minutes?

    Which one do you think will induce more ridership…

    It’s important not to conflate technology with contracting method – i.e. open competition vs government procured vs government contracted. Put that aside, and the promise of dockless becomes evident.

    Rochester’s bikeshare prospered when it went dockless. Portland is about test the very same thing, in May. If it does well, and I think it will, I expect Streetsblog et al to change their tune.

  • Vooch

    let a thousands bike shares bloom

    prices will drop
    quality will rise

    it’s a dynamic system

    it you want bike share to be as efficient as the subway – have the city regulate it

    if you want bike share to grow and be a bargain – keep the bureaucrats out of it

  • qrt145

    I don’t know, I kind of like the idea of going to a station versus the easter egg hunt of finding a dockless bike wherever it was dropped by the previous user. But who knows, maybe I’ll change my mind when I try it.

    I also worry about the lack of bike parking in general. Docked bikeshare at least forces the city to confront the need to allocate space to park the bikes.

    What does seem legitimately stupid is having several geographically limited and incompatible bikeshare networks in the same city. Now bikes will also need “transfers”!

  • Isaac B

    These “dockless” providers (bike and scooter). They’re backed by “venture capital”. Who are the parties behind this “venture capital”? Are they out to make money, or just to muck things up for the bigger companies like Motivate?

  • Joe R.

    It’s more like car owners (or those who profit from others owning cars) have a lot more influence than those who don’t own cars. If this city operated by true will of the people, based on car ownership rates we probably would have banned private cars in Manhattan, perhaps in four of the five boroughs, decades ago. Unfortunately, to paraphrase the line “one dollar, one vote”, it seems in this city it’s one car, one vote.

  • ohhleary

    Read the city’s RFI for dockless bike share pilot. Citibike has exclusive rights to their service area until 2029, so it can’t overlap, making it useless to people who live outside Citibike’s service area and work inside it (or vice versa). That ship has sailed. It’s contractual. The free market is out of it. It’s not going to change.

    Besides, “let a thousand bike shares bloom” is absurd — so every time I need a bike I’m going to have to sign up for a different system for whatever bike is closest? For crying out loud, even at $1 a ride that most dockless systems charge in other cities with no regulation, it would be more expensive than an annual Citibike membership for me within 3 months. And in NYC, I’d have to pay that ON TOP of my Citibike membership.

    Not to mention I doubt dockless bike share companies backed by venture capital will be offering discounts on memberships to NYCHA residents.

  • Vooch

    then don‘t use the service

    what is wrong with encouraging bike share in under served areas of the city ?

  • ohhleary

    “then don’t use the service”

    Either you’re being intentionally obtuse or you’re missing my point. The city was offered a chance to expand Citibike to underserved areas and refused. If those underserved areas are the served by dockless, those dockless bikes can’t be locked in Citibike’s service area. The city is interconnected. Life doesn’t stop at the edge of Citibike’s service area for people inside or outside of it.

    I’m all for dockless in areas far outside Citibike’s service area (transit deserts in the Bronx and Eastern Queens, Staten Island), especially as a last-mile solution, but allowing it in Bushwick instead of expanding Citibike and calling it a solution for the L train shutdown is an insult to anyone who understands commuting patterns.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Do the Brooklyn and Queens part please.

  • ohnonononono

    Right, also remember Citi Bike had some major hick-ups when it began and almost went bankrupt and fell apart that one time!

  • ohnonononono

    I assume the city wants the dockless companies to “geo fence” Citi Bike’s catchment area to prevent anyone from leaving a bike there. It’d have to be designed so you’d have to “exit” your bike outside the Citi Bike zone. So there will be a ton of bikes dropped off at the border where people will be no longer allowed to travel.

    It’s all really stupid and all could have been predicted years ago when the contracts for Citi Bike were initially made. The way bike share was set up combines the worst of the private sector and the public sector: it’s not run by the city, so there’s a lot less transparency (remember that whole system meltdown and failure a couple years ago?!) yet it’s been granted sole licensure so it’s not competing on an open market. NYC set up bike share as a privately run monopoly, like cable companies. Everybody knows how much people love cable companies!

  • AnoNYC

    Reminds me of the yellow cab vs green/livery cab situation.

  • Asher Of LA

    Docks havent forced the city to do much in most areas of the city.

    It ceases to be an Easter egg hunt when the volume of bikes is high, which it would be in NYC. One dockless firm’s benchmark is one or more per 100 people, which is about eight plus times the size of Citibike currently.

    And you can have ”hubs’ aka dumb docks, with something as simple as painted lines on the ground, for high trafficked areas.

  • redbike

    Good questions!

    Expanding: where’s the perceived profit?

    It seems it’s not dissimilar to ride-share. The perceived profit isn’t from selling bike rides. It’s from skimming and selling details of customers’ usage.

  • I don’t think car owners per se have more influence. It’s just that people in power mostly drive cars and they pass the laws. The influence is passed along.

  • 200 users per day versus possibly as many as 10. Of course if you average the turnover across all of the parking spaces in NYC it probably is very close to 1.

  • Hugh Shepard

    Flooding dense parts of the city with dockless bikeshare bikes is a recipe for high ridership. The problem is much of Seattle is not very dense, and DC has too few bikes so that you can’t find them wherever you go. Go to Beijing or Shanghai, though, and wherever there are 6 people gathered together there is a dockless bikeshare bike.

  • Vooch

    this has been studied in Manhattan.

    it’s really a 200:1 ratio

    having car storage spaces is horrible for business

    having bike storage spaces is great for business

  • AnoNYC

    Same in the Bronx.

    The best thing about these shared bikes is that I could use them on days the weather is variable. Like precipitation during one half of the trip.

    I would love Citi Bike but it will be years at this rate if ever before it comes my way.

  • I’m not contesting that. I’m agreeing with you. But your numbers are exaggerated somewhat.

  • Knut Torkelson

    I can see that dockless has some advantages over dock based systems in trip time. However, in a city where we already have a massive dock based system, with exclusive rights to bike share in it’s operating areas, I would much rather expand that system. I don’t want to have to have two bike share memberships and a metrocard just to get around. Citibike is here already, it’s proven, it works, and people love it. Let’s expand it into a true city wide network.

  • Asher Of LA

    I somewhat sympathize, but I think expansion comes at the cost of extending the exclusivity period.

    Perhaps an ideal policy would be allowing motivate to cover the entire city but without extending it’s exclusivity period, while also allowing an electric variant from another firm, especially JUMP since it seems to have the best quality and price so far. Trouble is, docks are so costly I’m not sure Motivate would expand without extended exclusivity.

  • qrt145

    My expectations about creating hubs have been soured from reading about all the drama that typically goes into the creation of each puny bike corral. Let’s hope it’s better this time!

  • qrt145

    I thought the same but then realized the bikeshare deal will actually be worse for consumers. At least green cabs can drop you off in yellow cab territory!

  • Vooch



  • iamthepinkylifter

    Maybe if privately-owned bike share platforms didn’t exclude low-income people by design, they could boost their ridership numbers. Plenty of people who would use bikeshare don’t have app-compatible smartphones or credit/debit cards. I don’t think this design is an accident.

    These systems need to be publicly owned so they operate in the public interest and include everyone. When everyone can access them, more people will use them.

  • redbike

    if privately-owned bike share platforms didn’t exclude low-income people by design

    Perhaps you misunderstand.

    Privately-owned bike share platforms aren’t in the business of providing bicycles. They’re in the business of harvesting, monetizing, and selling personally-identifiable user data — from app-compatible smartphones or credit/debit cards.

    Oh. You do understand.

  • iamthepinkylifter

    Bingo – and coincidentally that’s why I, as a not-low-income person who works in tech, will never use them.

  • Batman of Brooklyn

    I don’t think you’ll see it in south Brooklyn unless forced. They’ll cry and gnash their teeth about parking at every community meeting.


Shared bikes in Shanghai. Photo: Mark Gorton

Bike-Share as a Speculative Venture

New York, you may have heard, is about to get invaded by a swarm of bike-share companies - often described as "dockless" bike-share because they use "smart locks," not fixed stations, to secure the bicycles. But dockless systems have been operating in American cities for some time now. The real distinguishing feature of the new arrivals is that they're financed like Silicon Valley start-ups.