Citi Bike Wants to Turn Docking Stations into Charging Stations … With City Help

The next Mayor of New York City, Borough President Eric Adams, on a Citi Bike e-bike in 2019. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
The next Mayor of New York City, Borough President Eric Adams, on a Citi Bike e-bike in 2019. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
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Electric Citi Bikes may soon be able to juice up at existing docking stations rather than requiring labor-intensive battery swaps — a change that would reduce inequity, decrease emissions, and cut operating costs for the country’s largest bike-share network, Citi Bike honchos say. 

Citi Bike is in talks with ConEd and the city Department of Transportation to figure out a way, and at what cost, to connect Citi Bike docking stations to the city’s electrical grid in order to allow its e-bikes to charge. The current system is costly and inefficient — roughly 100 Citi Bike employees drive all over the city all day to swap out drained batteries.

The Lyft-owned company says it’s launching electrified docking stations as part of a pilot program in its Divvy system in Chicago early next year, and hopes to do the same in the five boroughs — as long as it gets the support of mayor-elect Eric Adams, and from ConEd, to facilitate the connection and help offset the cost with public dollars.

“Electrifying stations provides benefits for everyone: it means riders will have more charged e-bikes available, reduced emissions from battery swapping vehicles, and tangibly decreasing a major operating expense,” said Laura Fox, general manager of Citi Bike at Lyft. “We look forward to bringing our learnings from our electrification pilot in Chicago to NYC and collaborating with city partners to make it happen here.”

Citi Bike declined to say how much of the company’s budget is eaten up by manually swapping batteries, nor could the company put a figure on the cost of electrifying docks in New York. In Chicago, with its much smaller system, Lyft is footing the entire bill, even as it seeks public help in New York City because electrifying the curb is both “complicated and costly,” the company said.

Citi Bike estimates that electrifying just 10 to 15 percent of its 1,500 docking stations — with 46,000 bike slots — would reduce the need for up to 80 percent of the manual battery swaps, according to the company (currently, docks do get some solar power, but it’s not enough to charge the bikes).

Citi Bike currently operates more than 4,000 e-bikes, which make up just 20 percent of its total fleet (capped by city rules), yet are ridden three to four times more per day on average than the classic acoustic bikes, according to a company spokesperson. They are wildly popular and in high-demand, but often hard to find. And, of course, there are no Citi Bikes in Staten Island and in large swaths of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens.

Adding more e-bikes, and having them ready-to-go fully charged, is a matter of equity and accessibility, according to the New York League of Conservation Voters — nearly two-thirds of all rides across bridges or between boroughs take place on e-bikes, and 45 percent of all rides taken by those part of Citi Bike’s low-income reduced fare program — which make up about 8-to-10 percent of all roughly 160,000 members are on e-bikes, the company said. 

“E-bikes can really make the difference, in particular thinking about longer rides over bridges. We are supportive of pushing for more Citi Bike electrification, and as we move across expanding to more communities,” said Julie Tighe, president of New York League of Conservation Voters.

The news follows a letter from Brooklyn Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who will take the helm as the next Brooklyn Borough President come January, urging Adams and his administration to expand access to e-bikes and greenlight dock electrification.

Adams didn’t respond to a request for comment, but he has previously said he’d support setting aside public funding to fuel the growth of bike-share in the city. The idea is also widely popular among New Yorkers — a recent poll showed that 63 percent of voters said they support it.

A ConEd spokesperson told Streetsblog that the utility company is supportive of the initiative.

“Con Edison supports the shift toward electrified transportation and believes micromobility can be good for the environment and the quality of life of New Yorkers,” said spokesperson Karl-Erik Stromsta. “We are aware of Citi Bike’s interest, and we’re always open to learning more about ways we can help reduce the number of miles travelled in vehicles running on fossil fuels.”

For both his four-year terms, Mayor de Blasio has dismissed investing public money into the transformational transportation system that launched in the city in 2013, despite doing so for his own heavily subsidized ferry system, with its city investment of a projected $600 million over the next several years.

Meanwhile, Citi Bike is used by thousands more people a day, but doesn’t get a dime. Instead, the Lyft-owned Citi Bike pays the city for the parking spaces its docks occupy in areas where the city would normally charge via parking meters, Streetsblog has reported. During the height of the pandemic last April, Citi Bike use was was skyrocketing with an average of 23,071 rides per day, while the city-wide ferry service saw just 2,836 passengers per day in the same month, according to the New York Post and a Citi Bike report

And the city is similarly investing resources in car culture — it’s in the midst of a vehicle electrification push, announcing plans to install a whopping 10,000 curbside electric vehicle charging stations by 2030.

Yet Citi Bike’s needs are on the back burner as the de Blasio administration heads to the exit. Recently, after Citi Bike reported an intense need for infill docks in Manhattan, the DOT said on it would allow the installation of just 683 more docks in Manhattan’s Community Board 3, despite admitting that 1,804 were still needed.

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