It’s Not Your Imagination — Something is Seriously Wrong With Citi Bike Right Now

Empty racks like this could be a thing of the past by February. File photo: Ben Kuntzman
Empty racks like this could be a thing of the past by February. File photo: Ben Kuntzman

Where are all the Citi Bikes?

New York’s bike share system, which has been struggling to expand its stated fleet of 12,000 bikes as competitors bay at the window now has a new crisis: In the last two weeks, 21 percent of its blue roadsters have simply disappeared.

According to the Lyft-owned company’s own data, there were only 7,166 Citi Bikes in service on Tuesday, Sept. 25 — down from 9,112 bikes two weeks earlier. That rapid decline makes Citi Bike, which is, arguably, the world’s most popular bike share system, far and away the world’s worst-maintained system.

No other comparable bike-share system comes even close to having 41 percent of its fleet simply unavailable, according to Bike Share Map, which displays live data from over 300 systems worldwide. A spot check on Tuesday showed that Chicago’s Divvy had 69 percent of its 5,800 bikes in racks or on the road, Toronto’s system had 83 percent, and Montreal’s Bixi had 89 percent.

Even before the rapid decline of the last two weeks, Citi Bike had just 72 percent of its stated fleet of 12,000 bikes available.

Caption
The Bike Share Map shows how few of the supposed 12,000 Citi Bikes are available or in use at any given time.

“I am a loyal customer,” said one Citi Bike fan who alerted Streetsblog to the shortfall. “But I am just frustrated that I can’t get a bike any more.”

So what’s happening? Oh, that’s easy: The five-year-old system — which handles close to 80,000 rides on a good day — is breaking down. Even Citi Bike’s parent company, Motivate, admits that.

“Keeping the bike fleet in a state of good repair is a key priority for Citi Bike, and right now we have a backlog of bikes that are due for maintenance and repairs,” a spokesperson for the company told Streetsblog. “We are putting extra resources toward getting these bikes back out on the street and expect fleet levels will improve soon.”

Unlike other forms of public transit, such as the city’s highly supported ferry system, Citi Bike is not subsidized by the city, a deal worked out when Citi Bike was launched with 6,000 bikes in 2013. The contract with the city gives Citi Bike a monopoly on bike share through 2029, though Motivate is required to hit the 12,000 benchmark.

Oliver O’Brien, the creator of the Bike Share Map and a digital cartography researcher at University College London, says he thinks the problem is not maintenance, but fantasy: Citi Bike probably isn’t deploying 12,000 bicycles.

“Almost all bike-share systems exaggerate the number of bikes in the system,” he said. “More likely, the 12,000 number includes those in storage, in the repair workshop, or held by valets to be put out manually for riders during the peak of the morning rush hour (on a busy day) if needed.”

Customers are definitely noticing.

“I am an annual Citi Bike member,” tweeted Samantha Chang. “This bike station at Columbia University is always poorly stocked.”

And “War on Cars” podcast co-host Sarah Goodyear is also on the case.

Motivate declined to provide more information about the cause of the maintenance backlog. City Hall did not return a call for comment. We’ll update if we hear back.

  • Walking NPR

    So….Lyft buys up bike share. Then tanks bike share service, encouraging use of their more expensive car-based service? I’m just saying, sounds awfully familiar…

  • I noticed this on the map as well, but assumed it had to be a mistake because it was such a change.

    One theory: It may have to do with the flaw discovered in Chicago that has resulted in thefts. They might be pulling the bikes in to fix the issue ASAP.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Time for end of season specials on commuter bikes by bike stores. Capture the starving addicts.

  • AMH

    This is very interesting. Stolen bikes are facilitating crime! It sounds like the fix is to the docking mechanism, and not to the bicycle.

    https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/divvy-bike-thefts-chicago-security-hardware-removed/Content?oid=58659144

  • Fool

    “That rapid decline makes Citi Bike,
    which is, arguably, the world’s most popular bike share system, far and
    away the world’s worst-maintained system.”

    Lol, nowhere near it.

  • At the outset of Citibike, some myself included speculated that its implementation would end up encouraging bike ownership and thus benefit the local bike shop market. In retrospect that speculation was way off-base. I’ve seen now three LBS’s close in my neighborhood since Citibike arrived. Seems like the only demand spurred on by Citibike, is demand for more Citibikes, and better quality Citibikes, and now electric-powered Citibikes. Not even joking around, I have a restored vintage Univega for sale since the summer. Not a single response!

  • Val Prism

    I think it’s a different market. Many (most?) Citibikers use them one way or to get to trains faster than walking. Those who own bikes typically live in town and use them for all their commuting/errands.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I see plenty of Citibikes going over the Manhattan Bridge, in both directions. Parking and theft are certainly issues that make bike ownership more difficult, but perhaps if Citibike is having problems more people will figure out how to make that work..

  • meelar2

    Citibike is far more useful to me than my own bike. It frees me from having to worry about theft, storage and maintenance.

  • qrt145

    Just got this message from Citi Bike:

    “We’ve recently seen unusual damage on some of our handlebars, and out of an abundance of caution we’ve removed a part of our fleet from service. We are working to retrofit this part of the fleet with the new handlebar design that we introduced this summer. It is taking us longer than we would like to make these fixes and get the bikes back onto the street, and we apologize that it’s harder than usual to find a bike. We’re devoting extra resources to this issue and expect you will see an improvement in bike availability soon.”

  • Jesse

    Can I just quibble with something in this article?

    Unlike all other forms of public transittransportation, such as the city’s highly supported ferry system and private auto travel, Citi Bike is not subsidized by the citygovernment,

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    While bad news in the short term, and badly timed (isn’t September the top cycling month?), this is nice to hear because I really prefer the new handlebars.

  • AMH

    Yeah, was wondering what “unusual damage” means. I’m also not entirely sure what the new handlebar design is–are those the ones with the larger tray-baskets?

  • Larry Littlefield

    You apparently have to worry about THEIR storage and maintenance, however.

  • Ian Turner

    But CitiBike is subsidized by the government, in the sense that city bikes are driven on government-maintained roads and gets free real estate for docks. It’s not clear to me that private autos are any more subsidized than CitiBike.

  • Ian Turner

    IIRC it has the most trips per bike per day worldwide.

  • Fool

    Ofo alone has over 30 million trips per day.

  • DoctorMemory

    Never attribute to malice that which can be sufficiently explained by incompetence.

  • MatthewEH

    Well, when you consider the nearly-nonexistent wear and tear bikes put on the road, that argument fails to hold water. Not when cars and (especially!) trucks cause appreciable road degradation over time.

  • Ian Turner

    Wear and tear from use is not the only type of government road spending. Even bike paths need maintenance.

  • Ian Turner

    Note that I referenced trips *per bike* per day.

  • Fool

    Ahhh I see. Though kind of a useless metric from a riders perspective. Great perspective from a investor’s ROI point of view.

  • Rider

    That’s a very bad sign. In my neck of the woods, the two stores that I used to rely on have both closed. And we are on the margins of CItibike territory, meaning it is now impractical for me to either use bike share or have any servicing done on my bike locally. And they were always marginal businesses; no matter what happens with bike share, those stores won’t come back. Clearly the city has adopted the destructive Walmart model for cycling: first you kill off the small-business ecosystem by undercutting them, then you shut down the big store and the town dies. We could easily be on our way to cycling perdition if, as does not seem inconceivable at this political moment, the next mayor decides to make bikelash official policy and starts ripping out bike lanes. And it wouldn’t be the first time cycling died in NYC.

  • William Lawson

    Bikeshare systems need an efficient method of stock redistribution in order to equalize the supply of bikes and stations, that much is clear. What I don’t understand is why such crazy figures are quoted to move these bikes, like $3-4 per bike to move them from one station to another. That’s nuts – they need to work on reducing that cost, end of story. I’m pretty sure their “Angel” program does absolutely nothing to equalize distribution – people ride where they need to go, they don’t change their travel plans just to get a couple of extra points for taking a bike to a needy station. I do the Angel thing and I appreciate the points and free weeks, but I’ve never kidded myself that I’m doing anything differently than I would be doing without the program.

  • AMH

    I use Citibike for different kinds of trips–rush-hour and mid-day errands, spontaneous trips, etc–than my own bike. I make more visits to places in the far corners of my neighborhood that were harder to get to before. I wouldn’t drag out my bike for most of these; I mainly use it for weekend trips and commuting in good weather. But most of all, Citibike especially increased my winter biking–I almost never used to ride between November and April but it’s so easy to grab a Citibike and ride in your winter clothes no matter how cold it is, with the benefit that you generate more body heat and spend less time in the wind than you would walking!

    I can’t say this has had any effect on my visits to local bike shops, but I can only speak for myself. I suspect closures have more to do with outrageous rents than with a dramatic loss of business.

  • qrt145

    Some people do see bike angeling as a hobby, or do it for exercise or whatever. See https://www.outsideonline.com/2332671/purest-form-bike-angel

  • William Lawson

    Yeah I see those freaks in the Angels leaderboards. However I think it’s safe to say that they’re a statistical anomaly and aren’t really doing much for the rebalancing problem.

  • These bikes are garbage, plain and simple. And they get stolen, that’s a big reason why they are short on supply. It’s not that hard to Lyft them, I saw a bunch of truant kids by a dock and they kicked all the bikes off the racks and rode off.

    The real sucky thing about these defective blue bikes is that they are putting bike stores out of business.

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