EXCLUSIVE: Electric Citi Bikes — Grounded in April — Won’t Return Until After Sept. 21

Citi Bike's electric fleet will not return until the fall at the earliest. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Citi Bike's electric fleet will not return until the fall at the earliest. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

It’s the fall of Citi Bike.

One month after the Lyft-owned company grounded all 1,000 pedal-assist electric bicycles due to brake problems, Citi Bike now says the popular speedsters will return after Sept. 21 — an unprecedented over-five-month outage that raises questions about Citi Bike’s ambitious expansion and electrification plans.

“We expect pedal-assist bikes will return to the Citi Bike system this fall,” the company said in a statement to Streetsblog. “We’re confident that putting rider safety first is always the right decision, and we’re working hard to design a world-class pedal-assist bike that we know our riders will love.”

In February, Lyft promised to put 4,000 e-bikes on the street this year, a key element of Citi Bike’s promise last year to triple the size of its rentable-bike fleet to 40,000 bikes, plus double the Citi Bike footprint, which currently includes a large portion of Manhattan, small parts of Brooklyn and Queens, and not much else. That expansion plan came as Lyft promised $100 million in investments in its bike-share system.

But the grounding of the entire e-bike fleet in New York — plus Lyft e-bikes in San Francisco* and Washington, D.C. — has altered the timeline.

The e-bikes were expected to be a big part of the expansion plan because their electric assist allows for longer, faster commutes. And they have proven far more popular than Citi Bike’s so-called “classic” models, with five times as many trips per bike. Had the pedal-assist e-bikes ever been deployed in neighborhoods such as Jackson Heights, Crown Heights, the South Bronx and other “outer” borough neighborhoods, they could have eliminated thousands of unnecessary car trips. (Citi Bike said it will soon announce the first neighborhoods to benefit from the expanded zone, albeit without electric bikes for now.)

Transportation experts were appalled at the delay in restoring the e-bike fleet.

“It’s hard to understand the extended outage, since the reported problem was the front wheel brake,” said Jon Orcutt, director of advocacy for Bike NY and a former official in the Bloomberg administration DOT. “That should be easy to replace on at least some number of the bikes. It’s possibly a lawyer/liability-driven delay rather than a technical issue.”

Citi Bike obviously put a positive spin on the missing e-bikes, pointing out that the overall fleet size — comprised entirely of classic Citi Bikes — remains large and popular. Even without e-bikes, the bike-share system handled roughly 78,000 rides on Wednesday last week — just short of the record 80,624 rides in a single day.

“Citi Bike remains an integral part of New York City’s transportation network, with near-record ridership this past week,” the company said.

It’s an integral part of the city’s public transit system that does not receive any public funding — unlike public buses and subways, and, of course, the mayor’s heavily subsidized ferry system.

Elected officials have displayed a lack of urgency about the disappearance of the e-bike fleet. Mayor de Blasio declined to comment for this story, and previously said he wasn’t alarmed by the situation. Citi Bike said it has been “in regular contact with city DOT,” but the agency declined to comment on the specifics of that “contact.”

On the other side of City Hall, the City Council has done nothing to hold Lyft accountable for the e-bike flop. There have been no hearings and no requests for information. Transportation Committee Chairman Ydanis Rodriguez declined to comment. And Public Advocate Jumaane Williams did not respond to a request for comment.

Instead, Streetsblog asked Citi Bike for the kinds of details that elected officials should be demanding. We were told that repairs are underway to fix the brake problem that grounded the entire fleet back in April. At issue is Citi Bike’s decision to not install a brake modulator recommended by Shimano — a part that Lyft’s competitor Uber installed on its Jump bikes, which use the same Shimano system.

Citi Bike did not directly explain whether it is now installing the required power modulators, telling Streetsblog that “key parts of the bikes are being redesigned.” The company also said it would unveil a “new and improved” electric bike this fall.

When unveiled earlier this year, the e-bikes carried a $2-per-ride surcharge, which was being waived for members for the first few weeks. The company had said it would create new pricing levels over time, but the grounding of the fleet has changed that timeline. Now Citi Bike said it plans to “share some good news on pricing with members when we bring pedal-assist bikes back into service.”

In addition, “We’re increasing our commitment to the Reduced Fare Bike Share program and will have more to share on equity programming soon,” the company added.

* After initial publication of this story, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that roughly 1,000 Lyft-owned e-bikes would return to Bay Area streets in June. 

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