Here’s One Way to Fix Citi Bike So It Doesn’t Only Serve Rich People Who Already Live Near Subways

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams loved the e-Citi Bike when he used it last year — but his borough is suffering from a lack of equity from the bike share system. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams loved the e-Citi Bike when he used it last year — but his borough is suffering from a lack of equity from the bike share system. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Citi Bike serves mostly rich white people. All you need to do is look at the coverage map to see that.

But that shouldn’t be your only takeaway from a new report from New York City Communities for Change, an activist group that is calling on the city to ensure that Citi Bike lives up to its promise of equity when it announces its long-awaited expansion this summer.

Obviously, there are huge gaps in the Citi Bike network.
Obviously, there are huge gaps in the Citi Bike network.

The report [PDF] is not a stinging indictment of Citi Bike — but it is a reminder of how many more low-income, subway-deprived people the supposedly public bike share system could be helping outside the current coverage area in Manhattan and thin slices of gentrified Brooklyn and Queens.

Roughly 20 percent of New Yorkers without access to bike share live in poverty, but that figure drops to 15.9 percent for New Yorkers with Citi Bike, the report said. “Meanwhile, three-quarters of neighborhoods in extreme poverty are located outside the Citi Bike service area,” it added.

So with equity as the focal mission, the report identified roughly 760,000 “disproportionately poor and non-white New Yorkers without good subway access who would benefit from an equity-focused bike sharing network expansion” — most of whom live in The Bronx and Queens.

The report’s proposed expansion zones are an effort to merge two partially independent factors: bringing Citi Bike to “disadvantaged” neighborhoods and using Citi Bike to increase access to transit in neighborhoods where the nearest subway station is a long walk away. To determine the best way to do that, the authors constructed a “vulnerability index” based on an area’s median household income, percentage of the population living in poverty, the percentage of the population which are people of color, and the percentage of the population without a bachelor’s degree.

When it comes to the “vulnerability index,” the zones needing immediate Citi Bike expansion are clear: Adding bike share to four neighborhoods in the Bronx, plus Crown Heights and Brownsville in Brooklyn, would give more than 300,000 vulnerable people access to Citi Bike.

Citi Bike in DUMBO. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Citi Bike in DUMBO. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Looking only at subway access as a metric, the report focuses on five neighborhoods that aren’t exactly transit deserts, but where many residents “do not currently live close enough to a subway station to make daily commuting viable,” according to the report. Those areas are Jackson Heights/Flushing, the Central Bronx, Crown Heights/Brownsville, Jamaica and Bushwick/Ridgewood — and expanding Citi Bike there would also help about 300,000 people (some of whom are the same people in the other study group). [One flaw worth pointing out: Bushwick/Ridgewood made it onto this list even though only 12 percent of the residents in those neighborhoods have long walks to the subway. By comparison, nearly 40 percent of residents in the Jackson Heights/Flushing zone have a long walk to transit.]

Fusing those disparate needs — helping the poor while also boosting access to transit — led to the recommendation of 12 “priority neighborhoods for bike sharing expansion” (see map below):

Here's where Citi Bike should expand, according to a formula that seeks to prioritize help for the less fortunate and maximizing access to transit. Chart: New York Communities for Change.
Here’s where Citi Bike should expand, according to a formula that seeks to prioritize help for the less fortunate and maximizing access to transit. Chart: New York Communities for Change.

Other areas on the map — such as Sunset Park and Upper Manhattan — were included because of their high “vulnerability” on the index, although both areas have relatively few residents with long walks to the subway.

Obviously, there are other factors that the Department of Transportation — which is responsible for choosing where Citi Bike expands — are likely considering before it announces the next zone, which is expected this month. Given that Citi Bike is a subscription service that has to earn a profit, the company might want to prioritize maintaining a contiguous footprint so that new neighborhoods immediately become adopted into the Citi Bike family, if you will.

There’s also the issue of dockless Citi Bike, which are being tested in a small portion of the north Bronx. It is unclear if dockless and docked systems will operate together. Other companies, including Uber’s JUMP and Lime Bike, are operating dockless systems in the Rockaways and part of Staten Island under a DOT pilot. Those pilots might also expand.

And, most important, the Department of Transportation is responsible for building out the network of protected bike lanes. So far, the city has kept Citi Bike’s coverage zone more or less contained to areas with the best and safest bike infrastructure. But, of course, that’s a chicken and egg thing — the DOT could have expanded the bike network into underserved and impoverished communities years ago, paving the way for more Citi Bike equity. If DOT decides to only expand Citi Bike to neighborhoods with the safest bike infrastructure, this will be a slow expansion indeed.

For its part, Citi Bike said that equity is a key goal of the Lyft-owned bike-share system.

“Ensuring that diverse communities have access to Citi Bike is central to our mission,” said company spokeswoman Julie Wood. “And as we expand significantly in the near future, we will reach many more neighborhoods and continue our focus on bike share equity.” (The company says that 3,000 Citi Bike subscribers are taking advantage of the $5-per-month memberships available to residents of public housing or recipients of food stamps. There are 150,000 Citi Bike members overall.)

Streetsblog reached out to the Department of Transportation with specific questions about the future expansion zone, but the queries were ignored in favor of this statement, which we are reproducing in full:

We look forward to the forthcoming expansion of Citi Bike, bringing additional geographic and demographic diversity to its coverage area and ridership. This follows expansion in recent years into communities such Harlem, Bushwick, and Red Hook as well as a dockless bike pilot in the Bronx. Please note when the program launched in NYC for the first time back in 2013 it was operationally important that this occurred in very dense parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

It is worth noting that the term “operationally important” relates to Citi Bike’s ability to function — i.e. make a profit — without any public subsidy — a Bloomberg-era arrangement that many call the original sin of Citi Bike. As such, Citi Bike remains the only form of mass public transit that is not significantly underwritten by the public. Transit systems as diverse as the MTA’s bus network and the mayor’s ferry system do not operate by the profit motive and, therefore, do not choose their coverage areas based solely on what is “operationally important” to the fiscal bottom line.

This was the map drawn up for bike share expansion back in 2009. Source: Department of City Planning
This was the map drawn up for bike share expansion back in 2009. Source: Department of City Planning

Waiting in the wings is the expansion itself. Way back in November, the city announced that Citi Bike’s footprint would double to  65 square miles as the system added 28,000 bikes to the current 12,000-bike fleet over the next five years. That huge announcement was followed by … silence.

“The New York Communities for Change report is all well and good, but the mayor announced that the system is supposed to grow — that policy exists — yet we’ve heard nothing for eight months,” said Jon Orcutt of the advocacy group Bike NY and a former Bloomberg administration transportation official. “At 40,000 bikes, you could have a system with the same density as you do now, but covering the entire city that is currently served by the subway.”

Orcutt also said that the most important factor in expansion is maintaining a contiguous service area.

“Building little pods of isolated bike share is a recipe for failure,” he said.

Orcutt referred Streetsblog readers to a map (right) created by the Department of City Planning in 2009 that offered a different take on Citi Bike expansion, albeit with 49,000 bikes instead of 40,000. Still, the broad coverage area is decidedly different from the one pushed by New York Communities for Change.

“The 2009 map was focused solely on density of people, which is why it basically follows the subway,” Orcutt said.

The lead author of the New York Communities for Change study did not disagree that contiguous zones are helpful — but they’re mostly helpful to bike share companies that need to make a profit.

“The model in New York has been a city-granted monopoly to Citi Bike. If that’s the framework, the economics favor the contiguous zone,” said David Wachsmuth, a professor at the McGill University School of Urban Planning. “But there are other ways to offer the public service of bike share. The city could prioritize what it wants and it can choose to not prioritize contiguous coverage areas.”

Wachsmuth also emphasized that his report was fundamentally focused on a central premise: the most efficient ways to expand bike share to people who need it the most.

“The map from 2009 would be a very good way to do bike sharing, but that has not been the way it has been done,” he said. “We are many years out from when the system opened, but it still serves mostly well-off areas. Even if Citi Bike were to expand as that map suggests, the areas in our expansion zone won’t be served for quite some time.” If at all.

And since equity is the focus, the time is now, according to New York Communities for Change — formerly ACORN.

“Citi Bike needs to look like the city it serves, plain and simple,” said Jonathan Westin, the group’s executive director. “This report shows Citi Bike has failed to bring bike sharing to the parts of the city that can use it most — communities of color, low-income neighborhoods and people living in transit deserts. The city has to take a serious look at what a company that has been operating with a virtual monopoly has been doing and move quickly to fix it.”

Here’s another thing thing to consider: Who funded the New York Communities for Change report? Officially, NY Communities for Change said the report “was commissioned and funded by New York Communities for Change. The authors from the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, are exclusively responsible for all analysis, findings, and conclusions.”

But a Streetsblog source is convinced some funding came from bike and scooter-share companies that are eager to get a piece of New York’s market, but currently cannot operate inside Citi Bike’s monopoly coverage area or anywhere else for that matter unless the city creates a pilot program, as it did in Staten Island and the Rockaways.

Here’s the report. Read it all for yourself:

New York Communities for Change Citi Bike Report by Gersh Kuntzman on Scribd

  • BronxEE2000

    I’m ok with CitBike not being in the Bronx.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Citi Bike serves mostly rich white people. All you need to do is look at the coverage map to see that.”

    Citibike serves people who live in central locations. That may be rich white people today, but it certainly wasn’t in the past. In 1940 Manhattan had the lowest median household income among the boroughs, despite 5th Avenue and Park Avenue being what they are today.

    “The 2009 map was focused solely on density of people, which is why it basically follows the subway,” Orcutt said.

    Right, although the rides would be more likely to replace the bus, or Uber. Beyond that, bike share doesn’t work, because each bike is only used twice per day, to the subway, and from the subway. Rather than multiple times, to multiple destinations, in both directions so no one has to move them from one place to another.

    What does work beyond the subway is personal bikes, and bike parking garages and the end of the subway line, as in the Netherlands.

  • qdpb

    That may be rich white people today, but it certainly wasn’t in the past. In 1940

    Although it seems like a long time ago, Citibike actually only launched in 2013. As it stands now, through the entire history of Citibike, and for a long time prior to it’s launch, Citibike mostly serves rich people.

  • Joe R.

    Pretty much the same thing is true of most of the city’s protected bike lane network.

  • qdpb

    I biked to work all the time in May.

    How am I doing at “say something that seems relevant but isn’t”?

  • Joe R.

    You’re right about that. We could install bike share in non-rich neighborhoods if we wanted to. I’ve even said many times that bike share is potentially more useful in the outer boroughs with no subway service and infrequent bus service. If it were near me, I could use to to go to downtown Flushing or Jamaica, for example, instead of walking. Yes, I walk 3 miles to downtown Flushing because it’s often no slower than taking the bus once you account for waiting time.

  • meelar2

    Bikeshare works just fine in plenty of places that have lower population density than South Brooklyn or the Bronx. Commute trips are far from the most common type, and day-to-day errands can be accomplished by Citibike in neighborhoods across the city, if we expand the network and provide an appropriate level of city subsidy.

  • Austin Busch

    Why expand in pods and not in lines? It’s a station based system, riders tend towards specific linear routes. Expand its reach outwards along those desire lines now, and do infill in the neighborhoods once the membership is there.

    Or, use it to relieve pressure on the most overcrowded bus lines.

  • Altered Beast ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

    this is dumb. Citibike is ONLY a couple of years old and is expanding slowly. Also, A lot of poor zones have the people vandalizing the bikes. Everytime I ride past willoughby in bedstuy I see groups of teens fucking up the citibikes and getting them for free. Citibike will be out of business soon anyway.

  • djx

    “Also, A lot of poor zones have the people vandalizing the bikes.”

    Also they’re full of gangbangers, and people yelling “yo yo yo” with saggy pants – right?

  • r

    How many of the politicians complaining about the inequitable distribution of Citi Bike stations and bike infrastructure are really willing to tell their constituents that in order to get these things and have a fairer transportation system they’ll have to sacrifice parking spaces? I like Eric Adams, but he can’t even get cars off of Borough Hall Plaza.

  • qrt145

    Citi BIke is already six years old.

  • qrt145

    What happened to the old Streetsblog line that for bikeshare to work there must be at least 28 stations per square mile? Something to keep in mind if you want to deploy to all these places seemingly at once.

    There are plenty of non-rich people in housing projects within the current coverage area, and despite practically giving memberships away (one month for less than the price of a round trip in the bus/subway), very few people have signed up. I don’t think this is just a problem of location. Maybe it’s lack of interest, maybe lack of credit cards, maybe something else is at play too.

    I think a contiguous service area is important, too. And I say this despite the fact that I live outside the current service area and dearly wish for it to expand to my neighborhood!

  • Altered Beast ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

    yeah and it’s expanding slowly even though they are losing money. what do you want?

  • 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain

    Eric Adams won’t even get the cars off of Borough Hall Plaza.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Right, no one will be pleased when the poor people end up paying a Citibike time penalty when they find there are no docks near their destination.

    I do wonder why the expansion is not happening. It seems that they had placed their hopes on e-bikes, hit a problem, and are in a freeze until they can solve it.

  • Yes – whether you’re willing to put rental e-bikes in poor neighborhoods or not, there is no excuse not to build some decent bike infrastructure in those neighborhoods. If people end up using it on a Citibike or their own bike or on roller skates for my part is really not that important.

    I have to admit I don’t quite get why they chose e-bikes instead of a normal bike with say 3 hubgears if it’s only meant for the last mile, but that’s a different story.

  • cjstephens

    Streetsblog – and all the other journalistic outlets who reprinted the conclusions of this “report” – appear to have given up any degree of critical thinking. Kudos to Streetsblog, at least, for the one dose of journalism in this article, pointing out that “New York Communities for Change” is nothing more than a rebranding of the thoroughly discredited race-baiting hate-mongering ACORN.

    Does anyone actually think that the people who run CitiBike are racist? Do you really think they’re anything other than idealistic left-leaning do-gooders? This is a bike share operation for crying out loud. Trying to paint them as greedy profit-seeking bad guys is ridiculous. At best they’re trying to break even, not soak the rich and ignore the poor.

    CitiBike has consistently said that the positioning of its stations has been designed to create a dense mesh that is required for the system to function (not profit, but function). Why do I believe them? They didn’t roll out to the rich and white UWS and UES until well after the system launched. You know who had to wait even longer? The even whiter neighborhood of Park Slope. Meanwhile, there were CitiBike stations in front of the housing projects on the LES.

    The promised expansion of the system also covers areas that are less rich and less white. Do you really think the executives at CitiBike are somehow red-lining neighborhoods because they don’t want poorer people of color using their bikes? Really?

    And yet, Streetsblog and every other outlet just reprinted the conclusions of this notorious gang of hucksters without questioning their motives. Try harder, Streetsblog. There’s plenty of real racial disparity in the city (as pointed out elsewhere, just look at where protected bike lanes get installed). That’s a real story. This isn’t.

  • Teofila

    You can easily leave yr less paying 9 am to 5 pm job and then begin with gaining paycheck every month approx 12000$ working on-line. Let’s be real, no matter where you’re working from, you’re still doing simply that: working. While working from home you will have Very flexible daily schedule – you can take rests at any moment, feel absolutely no rush to hang up on your mates when they contact you, and eat meal at any unusual time you like, Forget about crowds and heavy traffic – No stuffing yourself into a rickety transportation tube, having people scuff your brand new shoes, or walking behind agonizingly slow individuals who apparently don’t know what a straight line is, Much more time with loved ones -Take good care of a sick significant other at home, be ready for your children earlier in the daytime, get extra snuggles in with your doggo, or simply get some quiet time to your-self! Try it out, what it is about… nanosecondcodger.fuer-alle.de

  • Matthew

    I’m not. I would love to be able to ditch my bike and no longer have to haul it up and down the stairs every time i want to use it.

  • BronxEE2000

    I’d rather the Bronx not gentrify anymore than it has.

  • It is worth noting that the term “operationally important” relates to Citi Bike’s ability to function — i.e. make a profit — without any public subsidy — a Bloomberg-era arrangement that many call the original sin of Citi Bike. As such, Citi Bike remains the only form of mass public transit that is not significantly underwritten by the public.

    That’s a feature, not a bug. There’s no reason to throw public money at bike share as long as the bike infrastructure environment is so ridiculously behind the times and bike parking is sorely lacking. Putting the money into those areas would be far more useful than trying to subsidize bikes for people to ride on the sidewalk.

  • WodOffPooH

    Usually I would be all behind this article, because it takes into account that everything good in this city is given to white people first. But the problem is citibike isn’t popular in communities of color we really don’t want or need citibike. In almost all categories black and brown folk prefer to have more parking and less blocked streets for citibike. But the city doesn’t care about that. The city will add citibike because the minority of white gentrifiers want citibike…no one cares what people of color actually want.

  • Ok let me say that the only way Citibike would put any stations in Far Rockaway or even Jamaica, Queens is if there were already stations in the surrounding areas, If someone was to say take a bike from Far Rockaway and go to Ozone Park they would have no way in docking the bike thus being charged for each additional 15 min once they’ve exceeded the 30 min time limit, If anything it would have to be dockless bikes until the system actually has stations that far out in Queens. But even dockless bikes would be restricted to where they can operate.

  • New CitiBike locations should not be contiguous to the existing zones. They should be at the termini of subway lines in the outer boroughs. For example, a vast amount of docks should be set up at Parsons/Archer, 179th Street, and Main Street in Queens, with each of those locations serving as the centre of a circle of a radius of at least five miles in which docks would be scattered.

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