Anatomy of a Debacle: Uber Threw Lyft-Owned Citi Bike Under the Bus

Uber owns Jump and Lyft owns Citi Bike.
Uber owns Jump and Lyft owns Citi Bike.

Does Macy’s tell Gimbels?

In the days since Citi Bike officials hastily pulled all their e-bikes from New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., the Lyft-owned company has been under fire for not fixing the brake problem that has caused an unspecified number of crashes.

But a clearer picture of Brake-gate is emerging — and Lyft increasingly looks like a patsy (albeit an extremely rich patsy) to its bitter rival Uber, which claims it fixed the very same brake problem on its Jump bicycles last year but opted not to tell anyone.

And in the middle of the fight is Shimano, the Japanese bike brake company, which told Streetsblog that Lyft only has itself to blame for its crisis.

That’s a lot to unpack, so let’s go over what we know:

On Sunday, Lyft announced that it would ground its entire fleet of popular e-bikes in the three aforementioned cities “out of an abundance of caution” after some riders reported problems with the front brakes. Soon after, however, Uber revealed that it experienced the same problem with its Shimano front end, but had solved the problem by installing a “power modulator to the braking system,” according to spokesman Josh Gold.

The company added that the repairs were in place before Uber deployed hundreds of Jump bikes in Staten Island and The Bronx in 2018. But if that’s true, it means the company remained silent about the danger of its competitors’ bikes — which used the same Shimano BR-C6000-F front end — even as reports started coming in that people were being injured.

Uber’s silence raises issues of corporate ethics — though it also raises issues of governmental oversight. Lyft, after all, has a monopoly in New York City that mostly freezes out Uber’s Jump system. Lyft’s monopoly gives Uber little incentive to help its competitor maintain its lock over bike share in the nation’s most profitable market, as well as DC and the San Francisco Bay area.

Enter Shimano. On Tuesday, the bike parts company issued a stunning statement to Streetsblog that threw Lyft entirely under the bus:

Shimano provides specification requirements for bicycle manufacturers to refer to when designing bicycles. When designed and assembled to these specifications the brakes perform to global standards. With regards to this specific case, based on the information we have, this is not a Shimano brake issue as the specification requires the use of a power modulator for this brake. It appears this specification was not followed by manufacturers of some of the bicycles in question.

The company made it very clear: “If the hub is not equipped with the power modulator, the braking force may be excessively applied,” it states in its user and dealer manual.

Shimano makes a hub that includes a built-in modulator — but neither Lyft nor Uber used that particular hub. Uber fixed the problem. Lyft did not. It is likely that Lyft didn’t know that Uber had made the fix. Streetsblog asked Shimano if it told Lyft about Uber’s workaround — but Shimano wouldn’t comment.

New York City officials have been in the dark.

“It appears the Department of Transportation was not made aware of any complications with the JUMP bicycles,” spokesman Scott Gastel. “We reached out to the company [on Tuesday] to get more details on the measures they took to address the issue and any related timeline.”

So what have we learned? Mostly what we already know: corporate interests frequently diverge from the public interest:

  • Uber fixed its brake problem, but didn’t tell anyone, risking the lives of riders of its competitors’ bikes.
  • Lyft didn’t fix the brake problem in a timely fashion, and people were injured. But the company did remove all its bikes to prevent more injuries. Then again, the company has a monopoly on service in the city, and now its customers do not have access to popular e-bikes for what could be weeks.
  • Shimano doesn’t follow up — and frankly could it? — if bike companies mix and match components and don’t follow the company’s specs and recs.
  • The Department of Transportation probably should do a better job of overseeing the safety of bike-share equipment.

Stay tuned.

Story was updated to reflect more information that came in after initial publication.

  • Greggzuk

    Because JUMP followed Shimano’s guidelines and Citibike did not, Uber is the bad guy here. Uh huh.

  • Joe R.

    Not that Uber is blameless, but Shimano had a duty to inform anyone who purchases its products of any potential issues, as well as the proper method of installation. Also, Shimano isn’t a “Japanese bike brake company”. It makes a full line of bike parts, not just brakes.

    Lyft still gets most of the blame for failing to follow installation guidelines. I’m assuming installation guidelines came with the part, as is typically the case. If they choose to ignore them to save a little money, it’s on them.

  • crazyvag

    We don’t really know the duration of when Uber found out and completely replaced the bikes. If that duration was more than a day, Uber concluded that risk to users was not worth a recall – something opposite of Lyft’s decision.

  • 8FH

    It’s quite clearly described on page 5 of the manual. If that was the case when the bike was designed, this would seem to be clear negligence on the part of the bike designer.

    HOWEVER, it’s very strange that two major users experienced the same issue. Is it the same frame builder for JUMP and CitiBike? Do we know that the dealers’ manual had this warning when the bikes were initially designed?

    Also, why doesn’t Shimano refuse to sell the brake without the required hub if it’s a safety issue. The whole thing is super strange.

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    Is there any evidence whatsoever that Jump would have even suspected that Citibike had the same problem prior to the brake problems making headlines this week when Citibike pulled the bikes from service?

  • Joe R.

    Good question. It’s not like most companies broadcast their problems out loud so their competitors know about them.

  • Greggzuk

    “Uber revealed that it experienced the same problem with its Shimano front end, but
    had solved the problem by installing a “power modulator to the braking
    system,” according to spokesman Josh Gold.

    The company added that the repairs were in place before Uber deployed
    hundreds of Jump bikes in Staten Island and The Bronx in 2018”

    So we *do* know the duration of when Uber found out in NYC – the modulators were installed before they were even deployed.

  • Arrow E-Bike

    Yes ! Ground them all most of the people on it would pass red lights and act like its tour de france in the city !

  • Obnoxious.

  • I’m a shimano guy, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

  • crazyvag

    I’m in SF where we had the old bikes for a year or so. The transition to new ones was done without any outages, so riders here, were definitely riding on unsafe equipment and were never told about it.

  • @Legitimategolf – Seriously, I don’t see Shimano as having a negative role in this at all.

  • John French

    Seems to me that the brakes on the e-bikes actually worked. That is, if you squeeze the lever fully, the wheel will lock. This is good and proper, and REQUIRED BY LAW in many states (CA requires a brake that can lock a wheel). All bikes have “brake modulators”, in the form of the skill of the rider.

    Maybe bike share customers have become accustomed to the unsafe, weak brakes on the non-electric Motivate bikes. I rode one today (since the electric bikes have been removed from San Francisco) and found that even with both brake levers bottomed out I couldn’t even lock the rear wheel, and needed 30’ to come to a stop from 10mph on a flat. I wouldn’t ride a bike so defective as that down a hill!

  • CJ

    Shimano and brake design problems — AGAIN? Years ago when I was getting certified as a UBI bike mechanic, Shimano’s name was brought up in a case study on bicycle brake design failure. In that case, if I recall correctly, Shimano was in court facing a $5 million dollar lawsuit from a cyclist who had become a para / quadriplegic – due to a bike incident – there are very few bike accidents in the world. Seems that the old-style Shimano cantilever brakes (pre Shimano “V” brakes) all had a short horizontal cable that connected the left & right spring-open brake bosses. There was a central vertical pull cable that was connected under tension to the center of the hanger cable and at the other end to the brake lever. The cyclist decided to remove the front fork reflector bracket, which sat just below the cable hanger. Unfortunately while on a ride, the vertical cable snapped, which caused the spring-loaded brake bosses to open (out away from the fork) and the center hanger wire to cinch down across the tire tread and immediately lock up the tire. The cyclist endo with devastating consequences. Shimano lawyers in court rebutted the claim with the logic that had the cyclist not removed this obvious safety device (reflector bracket), the cable hanger would of been blocked from locking up the wheel. This was perfectly true, you could almost say, case closed! Except the lawyers for the cyclist said that the front reflector bracket was never promoted as an integral part of the front braking system. Shimano lost and paid out. Shimano “V” brakes immediately became the norm; V-brakes can’t fail in this devastating manner.

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  • vitamindevo

    Sounds like both companies put the brakes on any sort of PR disaster…

  • Nicholas L

    Uber evil.

  • thielges

    “All bikes have “brake modulators”, in the form of the skill of the rider.”

    True though any bike rental company should expect that their customers may be unfamiliar with the characteristics of the rental bikes and therefore should shoot for easy handling. I’m an experienced bicyclist yet still crashed while test riding a new bike with extra-grabby front brakes.

  • John French

    That’s true, but it’s also dangerous to go the other direction. The drum brakes on GoBike’s non-e-bikes are so bad that even with the levers bottomed out I can’t get the wheels to skid (which means they’re not legal to ride on the road in California).

  • Mark L

    This is insanity. Company A is not responsible for Company B failing to follow Company X’s instructions.