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How to Make a Bikeshare Fair and Functional

CitiBike map

No one, to my knowledge, gives out awards for Best Paranoid Transit Rant Of the Year. But if such an award existed, 2013’s would surely go to the Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz, whose fevered monologue on Citi Bike, “Death by Bicycle,” was gifted to the internet during the program’s June launch. “We now look at a city whose best neighborhoods are absolutely . . . begrimed, is the word, by these blazing blue Citibank bikes. All of the finest, most picturesque neighborhoods.”

Which neighborhoods was Rabinowitz talking about? Citi Bike docks stretch from 59th Street to the lower tip of Manhattan, and in Brooklyn, they stick to the city’s northern neighborhoods, never going south of Barclay’s Center or east of Nostrand Avenue. Sure, you can find them in a few nicely brownstoned parts of the city, but beautiful Park Slope and Prospect Heights? The historic Upper West or East Sides? Harlem and the rolling hills of Washington Heights? There are no begriming or blazing blue bikes to be found in these neighborhoods.

It’s worth keeping all this in mind as we receive news that Citi Bike is bleeding money by the day, veering dangerously close to bankruptcy, and that its leaders have taken steps to ask the city for help. Rabinowitz got a lot wrong in her rant: No, the program is not an eco-totalitarian trap; no, the majority of New Yorkers did not share her opposition. But it turns out there was something to her suspicion that Citi Bike was never going to work the way Mayor Bloomberg envisioned. This is not to say that Citi Bike can’t work at all. It just means that the program Bloomberg promoted needs do two things as quickly as possible if it’s going to truly serve the city—two things he would have abhorred, namely, cater less to tourists and the wealthy, and think seriously about taking public money.

CitiBike map

A screenshot of New York’s Citi Bike station map. (Click here for full map.)


It’s not that Citi Bike isn’t popular. It’s that the people with whom it’s most popular—New York residents who buy yearlong passes—don’t generate much revenue. Most bikeshare programs are designed to have infrequent users subsidize longer-term ones. As the Washington Post’s Emily Badger notes, short-term users in New York, mostly tourists or visitors who buy twenty-four-hour or week-long passes, take just 12 percent of all Citi Bike trips and provide 69 percent of overage revenue (the revenue generated by the fees riders incur when they exceed the forty-five-minute base period). This still isn’t enough to keep Citi Bike afloat, so it would be natural to assume that the goal should be to get more short-term users on board.

But the city should check this instinct. New York’s bikeshare system, like its public transit system as a whole, is unique for its dizzying density. It averages nearly twenty stations per square mile, compared to Washington, D.C.’s 4.37 and Chicago’s 6.8, according to analysis by NYU’s Rudin Center. Citi Bike contains twice as many bikes as Washington, D.C.’s bikeshare, but covers less than a quarter of its geographic area. And these bikes are packed into parts of the city that are either commercial centers or wealthy residential neighborhoods—places where subways and buses already run in abundance. As it stands, it’s hard to imagine Citi Bike becoming anything other than another of Bloomberg’s trinkets for the wealthy and cosmopolitan—a program that, like his vaunted building boom, looks great until you actually notice which neighborhoods got the goodies.

How could New York do better? New York’s bikeshare program should emulate D.C.’s, whose stations are far more dispersed throughout the city and therefore do a better job serving middle- and low-income communities. A truly multimodal transit system is in the interest of nearly everyone in the city, but in order to really achieve such a system, planners will have to forget the purely superficial notions of “livability”—i.e., “How much would the average Economist reader enjoy visiting my city?”—and focus on actual livability, which entails radical notions such as providing useful goods and services to the majority of your constituents.

As for visitors to New York? The number of short-term Citi Bike memberships, and thus the system’s main revenue stream, will likely rise again with the return of warm weather. But New York is unlikely to ever have the success with these riders that we’ve seen in Washington, D.C., a city with more temperate weather and less chaotic traffic patterns than New York, with a vast green heart that’s perfect for riding. In the context of daily urban life in New York, the biggest appeal of a bikeshare program is that—especially outside the city core—biking from one neighborhood to another can be so much faster than traditional public transit.

The other major factor contributing to Citi Bike’s financial troubles is one that, unlike its reliance on short-term users, is unique to New York: the system was designed to operate entirely with private money. No other bikeshare system in the United States works this way, and it’s not hard to see the connection between Citi Bike’s funding structure and the ideology of the mayor who oversaw the program’s rollout. A central Bloombergian tenet—perhaps the central tenet—was a belief in the unique wisdom of the private sector. This attitude extended from the mayor’s beliefs on social services and philanthropy to his notions about what sorts of people were capable of running the nation’s largest school system. It wasn’t hard for Citi Bike to find a home under the aegis of this worldview.

The problem, of course, is that transit programs never fund themselves. They are inherently money-losing ventures. Trains and buses do not turn a profit. Roads and other forms of driving infrastructure do not pay for themselves, either—in fact, they’re the most shameless offenders of all when it comes to an endless appetite for public subsidy. And so to set profit as the goal of any transit system, whether it’s Citi Bike or long-distance rail, is to fundamentally miss the fact that public transit should be conceived as a public good.

Capital Bikeshare hasn’t gone into a tailspin because the District of Columbia, along with local governments in Maryland and Virginia, cover the gaps when user fees for the system don’t cover operating costs. Meanwhile, last October, Bloomberg expressed hope that once the startup costs were out of the way, Citi Bike would be able to turn a profit, as if that were the point. In a sense, if Citi Bike fails, it’s no skin off New York taxpayers’ backs.

But in situations like this, it can also be helpful to ask the taxpayers themselves how they feel. When you do, the answers are clear. According to Transportation Alternatives, 91 percent favor using public money to fund the system. Even the perpetually cranky Daily News has made its peace with the idea of public money. And as for expanding availability to under-served neighborhoods and outer boroughs, elected officials and ordinary residents of Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn have all said that they both want the program and are willing to pay for it. As of press time, Dorothy Rabinowitz still has yet to weigh in.