Mayor: I Want to Do Citi Bike on the Cheap (And I’ll Try to Keep Riders Safe)

Citi Bike is the only form of mass transit that does not get a public subsidy. Mayor de Blasio does not want to change that.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz and DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg recently biked to the Citi Bike expansion press conference (note that the bike lane was blocked by trucks). Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz and DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg recently biked to the Citi Bike expansion press conference (note that the bike lane was blocked by trucks). Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Mayor de Blasio confirmed on Wednesday why the just-announced expansion of Citi Bike — one of the city’s most successful and popular forms of public transportation — will take four years to reach only a tiny fraction of the city: He doesn’t want to pay for it.

The mayor’s comments came one day after DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said the slow rollout stemmed from the fact that she only has a team of 12 community outreach workers for the siting of new Citi Bike docking stations — and that only a city investment of $400-$500 million, partly from taxpayers, could create a truly citywide Citi Bike system.

Hizzoner on Wednesday. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Hizzoner on Wednesday. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

The mayor said he won’t beef up Trottenberg’s team — nor will he invest public money into this public transit mode as he has done for his own ferry system, which has cost more than $600 million. Citi Bike is that rarest of forms of mass transit: It gets no public subsidy. In fact, the Lyft-owned Citi Bike pays the city for the parking spaces its docks occupy — in a sense, forcing public transit to subsidize taxpayers, rather than the other way around.

“It’s a great question,” de Blasio started after Streetsblog raised the issue on Wednesday. He then explained why he doesn’t want to pay for a form of transit that could benefit everyone:

One, we’ve had a situation where we weren’t required to invest city money and our goal is to not invest city money where we don’t have to. … We have something that has been a great success and has not required city money, honestly, it is not my impulse to say, “Let’s start putting city money in that.” … I would say to you that there is no way, in my opinion, to start a true citywide waterborne transit system without the city taking the lead. … I believe when you come back in 10 years, people will say actually that was a smart thing because [the ferry system] became a much greater part of our transit system. … So the answer is, fair question, but I stand very comfortably by the notion that certainly up to now not subsidizing it has still allowed us to get the result we needed.

Streetsblog followed up about the parking fees, but the mayor doubled-down: “Again, what we have seen to date is a system that has steadily expanded and not cost the taxpayer money. That’s ideal.”

He added he would “certainly look” at putting some public money into Citi Bike in the future — but this level of mayoral initiative will need more than just a casual glance, but a substantial lift. And this mayor has weak arms for that particular dumbbell: “I do want to emphasize the appeal of Citi Bike is that it did not expose the city financially.”

The mayor could seek support from several elected officials who would be open to bailing him out with public money. Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who chairs the council’s Transportation Committee, has called for a greater public investment in Citi Bike to ensure that the expansion truly meets the needs of the less fortunate. He said on Tuesday that Citi Bike should be eligible for the city’s “Fair Fares” MTA discount program. Currently, NYCHA residents can get Citi Bike memberships for just $60 per year, but only 3,000 people are taking advantage of it. Rodriguez — and other critics — want more.

“I will keep working to expand this program to any community, especially those in transportation deserts,” Rodriguez said.

State Senator Jessica Ramos of Queens also thinks its bizarre that a form of public transportation with roughly 80,000 trips per day is entirely financed by a private, profit-making company.

“I am highly skeptical of corporations in general, and public-private partnerships lend are best used for pilot programs,” she said on Tuesday. “Ultimately, I believe in overall equity and the civilians’ responsibility to each other.”

Of course, other representatives of other neighborhoods aren’t so sure public money should be devoted to a system that currently only covers Manhattan below 131st Street and small slivers of Brooklyn and Queens.

“No subsidy,” said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, a strong believer in Citi Bike who nonetheless wants Lyft to pay for the expansion and the greater equity it will likely bring. “Not until we have [Citi Bike] in the Bronx first.”

And when will that be, exactly? Not before 2020 — and only in part of The Bronx and Upper Manhattan. Trottenberg’s team said the first phase of the 2019-2023 expansion would start this fall with “six to nine months” of community outreach in the South Bronx and Manhattan — even though the expansion zone map covers far more territory.

The problem? Trottenberg’s “team” is small. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, she claims.

“We are as going as quickly as we can possibly can,” Trottenberg said on Tuesday. “We have a team of about 12 people. I have tasked the team with doing this as fast as it possibly can. I would love to be doing work in all four boroughs if possible.”

Citi Bike expansion zone, 2019-2023.
Citi Bike expansion zone, 2019-2023.

If she would, indeed, love it, she hasn’t successfully communicated that to the mayor.

And it is unclear if she has forcefully argued for the $400- to $500-million investment that the city and Lyft could make right now to bring Citi Bike to the entire city. In fact, Trottenberg heralded the 2019-2023 expansion as one that would raise New York City’s bike-share system from eighth-largest in the world to “the second- or third-biggest in the world,” she said. (Funny, but “We’re number 2! We’re number 2!” is not something most sports fans would enjoy chanting.)

Even beyond the pace or area of expansion, Citi Bike is plagued by the greatest challenge of the de Blasio administration: keeping Citi Bike riders safe. Fifteen cyclists have been killed this year, up from 10 all of last year, and the mayor has charged Trottenberg with creating a new “bicycle safety plan” that is expected to be released next week.

But there’s no magic wand — there’s a stronger commitment to building out the bike network with protected, not mere painted, lanes. But here the mayor is inconsistent: In 2017, the DOT identified 10 community boards as “priority bicycle districts,” meaning that all 10 would get special attention from the city. In eight of the districts, cyclist injuries have actually gone up, as Dave Colon reported in Streetsblog this week.

Awkward.

De Blasio promised more Vision Zero efforts, and more enforcement against reckless drivers. And Trottenberg also said that Citi Bike and better bike infrastructure go hand in hand.

“It’s no secret this has not been a good year for us,” she said, referring obliquely to the Colon report. “But as we expand Citi Bike, it dovetails very nicely with areas where we are going to focus our infrastructure efforts.” She continued:

When you look at this map, it dovetails nicely with what we announced would be our cycling priority areas. … We are seeing cycling increase in those areas, but we know we need more cycling infrastructure to make sure that it’s safe. And we found that, for example, in Brooklyn, on Fourth Avenue. That redesign project did not originally have a protected bike lane, but as Citi Bike came to Park slope and it became obvious that it would eventually continue to Sunset Park, it was clear that this kind of a major corridor needed protected bike infrastructure and we got consensus on that pretty quickly. It’s a fair challenge for us … but have to make sure as we build out the system, we have to build that infrastructure. But we also find that as we build out the system, it also creates a lot of support for that infrastructure.

That’s also a slow process, Streetsblog told Trottenberg, citing massive holes in the current infrastructure even before next year’s beginning of the slow Citi Bike rollout: Bike paths on the Queensboro and Brooklyn bridges are already overcrowded; the city removed a protected bike lane on Dyckman Street almost a year ago at the behest of some local pols and has not yet restored it; the First and Second avenue protected bike lanes are so crowded that at any given time, there are more humans crammed into a seven-foot-wide bike lane than there are in all the cars on the rest of the 60-foot-wide street; and there are countless streets that could simply be closed to cars to create safe routes for cyclists.

And it doesn’t take Rand McNally to see that the 2019-2023 expansion map is heading Citi Bike into neighborhoods with not a single protected bike lane on a street (photo montage below). That’s cause for alarm, said Tom DeVito, senior director of advocacy for Transportation Alternatives.

Remember: Green lines are protected bike lanes. Anything else is just paint. (Clockwise from top left: a portion of the central Bronx, Washington Heights, Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Corona and Elmhurst.
Remember: Green lines are protected bike lanes. Anything else is just paint. (Clockwise from top left: a portion of the central Bronx, Washington Heights, Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Corona and Elmhurst.

“I was a very young organizer when Citi Bike launched and I remember there was no consensus that this was a program that was going to work,” he said. “But we knew that if you provide people with an affordable, safe way to get around, with bikes, people will do it. Citi Bike lowered the bar of entry for a form of transportation that is reliable and green — and ultimately we need to be doing more to foster it. … Our fight is not over. We need to make sure that safe bike infrastructure is expanding along with it. Bike share and protected bike lanes must go hand in hand for this system to be successful.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    Mayor DeBlasio has been fortunate not to have to make any hard choices. That may be about to change.

    Don’t expect infrastructure to be a priority. There is a crisis in the homeless population, which is going up, and demand for more and more education money, despite school enrollment going down, and DeBlasio is counting on UFT/NYSUT support in the Florida primary. We have not yet begun to pay for all the past retroactive pension increases, and their cost will go up quickly if the stock market ever corrects to normal (or slowly if interest rates and dividend yields stay rock bottom). Then there is NYCHA, which was left to rot after the federal government cut capital funding.

    So DeBlasio is trying to avoid commitments to anything that isn’t providing lots of resources for his Presidential campaign. But we may be about to find out who he really is.

    I can tell you what went up. What goes down?

  • Taxpayer

    “…honestly, it is not my impulse to say, ‘Let’s start putting city money in that.'”

    This would be news to anyone who’s watched the city budget explode under de Blasio’s watch and tons of money wasted on vaporware initiatives like the BQX and the ThriveNYC program

  • Larry Littlefield

    I might add that if it covers its costs, it will be harder to take it away from us. We may be lucky there isn’t a $100 per year Citibike tax for every member.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The Mayor could say that the budget increased no more than total personal income over the cycle, if OMB estimates of 2019 personal income are correct. But only because so many working young people flowed in, and didn’t get public services. They may be flowing out now.

    https://larrylittlefield.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/chart3.jpg

    Total city spending increased the same amount as personal income.

  • brookey87@aol.com

    Keep CitiBike private! A public subsidy would only add to the detractors and bike backlash in this city. Get the city gov’t and MTA financiers involved and in a decade it’ll be in the same mess as the subway. Streetsblog, please don’t ruin one of the best things going for NYC.

  • Joe R.

    It’s going to be very interesting seeing what the city does when the shit hits the fan. They can’t raise taxes by much without creating a mass exodus of the people for whom leaving will be the easiest, namely the wealthy and the upper middle classes. Those are the only two groups on whom taxes can be raised significantly without causing undue hardship. Try to have a tax increase which also hits the poor or middle class, as Dinkins did with his two income tax surcharges, and you’ll be voted out of office next election.

    This means the next Mayor is going to have to prioritize things. Not funding basic city services isn’t an option or even the middle class will leave. I really think those retroactive pension increases will have to rolled back, along with pension deductions to try to get back some of the increase which was already paid out. Since a lot of this cohort has already left the city for Florida, doing this might not be a big negative politically since these people can’t vote him/her out of office. After that you’ll really need to look at the DOE and NYPD since that’s where a lot of the past spending increased faster than inflation. You’ll probably need to scrap pre-K. You’ll probably need to go back to requiring kids in grade and middle schools to attend their neighborhood school in order to save on busing.

    If that’s still not enough, we’ll need to look at defaulting on some debt. I think the MTA should do exactly that. It’ll make up for the massive shortfall in federal and state subsidies.

  • Joe R.

    I agree with this, even though it likely means I’ll never see Citibike in my neck of the woods. By keeping Citibike private, it means they have complete operational flexibility. The minute the city gives them money, it will come with strings attached. Maybe they’ll have to use only union workers. Maybe they’ll start with the job description nonsense, which will result in a bloated labor force. Maybe they’ll have to have service to all parts of the city, even places where the bikes are rarely used and get vandalized. Getting government funding almost always opens a Pandora’s box of unforeseen problems.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “I really think those retroactive pension increases will have to rolled back.”

    Won’t happen. They’ll be more.

    Look what they did in the 1970s. If they go back to deferred maintenance, will anyone blow the whistle this time?

  • Blwndrpwrmlk

    What’s your data source?

    This guy is spending like crazy for DOE, DHS, and CUNY, with mediocre results at best. I think DOE is high because of Universal Pre-K, but mainly the failed Renewal Program. It was hemorrhaging the City money. And the CUNY Board of Trustees raised the tuition regardless, effective Fall 2019 semester.

    Not to mention NYCHA, but DOT, Parks, DOH, DEP, forget about PlaNYC and millionTrees from the Bloomberg era. ThriveNYC and the opioid epidemic, the DDC backlog, I could be here all night.

    De Blasio was never big on details, and that’s pretty much the “canary in the coalmine” when comparing with Bloomberg. I would say the Amazon deal was his big chance at redemption, and he royally blew it. It’s all a matter now of riding this out and assessing the damage after he leaves.

  • 1soReal

    Good points. If the city doesn’t want to subsidize it then I think they should allow some competition..more than some tiny pilot zones that have little functional benefit for most people.

  • Larry Littlefield

    City budget documents — in this case.

  • Larry Littlefield

    It’s a natural monopoly. More competitors take more public space without anyone being any more able to access a bike — unless they end up subscribing to all of them.

  • crazytrainmatt

    From that map, it looks like you will almost be able to citibike to LGA but you will have to walk across the GCP and through the service ramps to get to the terminals. I know it’s a first world problem, but walking and biking to the airport along the harbor bike trail is pretty nice in San Diego!

    Regarding the lack of good bike lanes, note that the map in the Bronx is bordered by the Mosholu and Bronx River Greenways, which are pretty much the only decent routes in that area. There’s a pretty complete network of sharrows and striped lanes, but in general the area is awful to bike through and full of fumes, double parking, and aggressive driving. The Grand Concourse project in particular sorely needs to be accelerated all the way to Mosholu.

    Finally, the problem with expanding outside that map is going to be the one-way commute demand to and from train stations. Even that proposed map will need rebalancing to the uphill stations in upper Manhattan and the west Bronx or the northerly stations on Roosevelt Island.

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    One alternative proposed by Citibike themselves is to change the advertising terms so they can bring in more revenue on their own.

  • Forget about the BQX, which he’s barely spent any actual money on, and look instead at the amount of city money he’s willingly put into the stupid ferry system.

  • WodOffPooH

    I love riding my bike. I hate all citibike riders. They’re dumb, novice, and a menace. They think like pedestrians, ride bikes like 2nd graders. Most Citi bike riders can’t hold the handle bars steady as they ride. They give bikers a bad name.

  • BOB_B

    Keeping them safe is a tall order. I was at a bus stop on Broadway downtown. Traffic was terrible. It was 5:15PM. A family of 3 on bikes was riding on the sidewalk. They were all very shaky; they passed me almost colliding with people on the bus line, as they got into the street.
    What makes us think that we can rent bikes to tourists who have not ridden a bike in 10 years and what makes them think they have the skill to navigate Broadway traffic at 5:00 !!
    I remarked to no one in particular these people are going to get killed. Several people laughed. The score could very easily have been TOURISTS -3 VISION 0

  • Ishamgirl

    Perhaps bike riders can obey the rules of the road. You know, the simple things – stop at red lights and stop signs, let pedestrians cross the street without trying to mow them down, not ride on the sidewalk.

    As a Bronxite – do NOT want CitiBike. Because. That’s why.

  • Ishamgirl

    A gaggle of tourists came down 58th St. to 6th Ave. the other evening, not giving a shit that they had a red light and people were crossing the street. I yelled out to them that they had a red effing light. No consideration at all – everyone get out of their way.

  • Ishamgirl

    They also don’t know what stop signs and red lights are.

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