Citi Bike Swamped by Unexpected Ridership Surge, Disabled Bikes

Who'd have thought one day these would be TOO popular?
Who'd have thought one day these would be TOO popular?

As Yogi Berra might have said: You can’t ride Citi Bike anymore, it’s too popular.

Citi Bikes are “out of service” at a higher rate than normal, sometimes 50 percent more than last year, according to data reviewed by Streetsblog and the automated Citi Bike Stats Twitter account, which is not affiliated with Citi Bike but uses the bike share system’s open data. It all adds up to one fact: warm weather demand has brought spike in unavailable docks and a smaller amount of available bikes for people to ride.

From June 1-12, the percentage of bikes that were disabled and therefore unavailable to riders were consistently higher in 2022 than last year. How much higher:

  • At 8 a.m., an average of 11.65 percent of Citi Bike’s 24,694 total docked bikes were out of service this year. During the same period in 2021, an average of 7.75 percent of 23,984 docked bikes were disabled.
  • At 2 p.m., 10.56 percent of the docked bikes were disabled, up from 7.47 percent last year.
  • At 5 p.m., 11.79 percent were disabled, up from 8.6 percent last year

The higher share of disabled bikes continued through this past Thursday as well. The raw number of more unusable bikes was roughly 700 or so — not a huge problem in a system with 24,000 or so bikes — but the percentage of disabled bikes did go up 50.3 percent in the morning, 41.4 percent in the afternoon and 37 percent during the evening.

At least one elected official has noticed that more bikes stuck in docks also jams up the rebalancing process, though he didn’t know the extent of the problem. Council Member Erik Bottcher publicly blasted Citi Bike before the Memorial Day holiday over what he said was a combination of both empty docks in one piece of his district and completely full docks in another piece of it.

“In the Village, they’re always full,” Bottcher tweeted on May 24 with a photo of empty Citi Bike docks in Hells Kitchen, the northern piece of his district.

It wasn’t just Bottcher having a bad day. Shortly after the Council member shared his frustration, 3,855 bikes or 15.49 percent of all docked bikes, were disabled and 21,032 bikes were available across the system, including 845 e-bikes. Last year, on May 24 at 10:46 a.m., there were 2,124 total bikes disabled across the system, or 8.99 percent of all docked bikes — which means that the share of unavailable bikes shot up by 72.3 percent from one year to the next.

This isn’t the first uptick in unrideable Citi Bikes in the bike share system’s history. In 2018 for instance, a mysterious issue with the handlebars on the bikes dropped the number of available bikes to ride from 9,112 to 7,166 in just a two-week period.

Citi Bike’s operator, Lyft, says the larger amount of disabled bikes doesn’t necessarily mean more of the big blue bikes are breaking down at the same time. Part of the maintenance process for the bike fleet involves putting bikes on a 45-day rotation for bikes to be taken out of service for a mechanical check.

The bikes are also getting more wear and tear. On June 4, Citi Bike says there were 132,000 rides across the system, which is just short of the current single day ridership record of 135,000 rides in a single day. And through June 13, the company said that there had been 1.5 million rides taken across the system, for a 22 percent increase over last year’s 1.23 million bike rides through the same point that month.

Is Citi Bike becoming a victim of its own popularity? That’s the company line in response to more rides being taken earlier in the year, especially on e-bikes. The Lyft-owned company says that upwards of 96 percent of its classic bikes are usually available to ride, but e-bikes are being ridden much more frequently, with 50 percent of Citi Bike members and 70 percent of non-members opting for an e-bike if one is available. The result, the company says, is a bigger share of the e-bike fleet, which is capped at 20 percent of the total fleet, getting regularly disabled for battery swaps and more complicated repairs.

The @CitiBikeStats Twitter account doesn’t separate out how many e-bikes are specifically disabled, but the tale told by the data does show that over the course of the day, fewer e-bikes are available to ride from the morning to the evening. One June 9 this year for instance, there were 1,756 docked e-bikes available to ride at 8:01 a.m., a number that dropped to 1,226 at 5:01 p.m.

“Citi Bike riders have powered a record-breaking number of trips this year, and e-bikes have become their first choice,” said Lyft spokesperson Colin Wright. “Citi Bike riders took e-bike trips for more than 60 percent of their rides across bridges since the beginning of 2022. We expect to see e-bike availability increase by year’s end as we ramp up the number of our popular next-generation e-bikes, thanks to its larger battery that doubles the range of our original e-bike model.”

Lyft didn’t anticipate a mid-summer level demand in ridership coming in the weeks around Memorial Day, but the company said that in addition to rolling out more of the new e-bikes, which have a 60-mile battery range, it’s brought on 50 percent more battery swapping staff and 25 percent more rebalancing staff in order to deal with more people choosing the two-wheeled life. Citi Bike is operated by Lyft in a public-private partnership, which means its hiring spree will involve no public money, even though every other form of public transportation gets government subsidies. As a candidate for mayor, Eric Adams said that he would subsidize bike share in order to expand it beyond its current planned footprint — but since moving into Gracie Mansion, he’s made no announcements.

Bottcher, for his part, tweeted that he will be “monitoring the situation closely” in his district to see if those moves fixes the problem.

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