26 November 2013

Social Bike Share

Sometimes old-time New Yorkers will refer to the "BMT", "IRT" and "IND".  I still do, sometimes.

They were (and, for some purposes, still are) the three branches of the New York City subway system.  The lines designated by numbers constitute the IRT, while those marked by letters A through H are part of the IND and the remaining letters mark BMT routes.

These divisions came about because of the way in which the system developed.  The first line--which followed the route of today's #1 train from 137th Street to Times Square, cut across Manhattan under 42nd Street (along the path of the current Times Square Shuttle) and continued along the path of today's #4 and 5 trains to the Battery--was built by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, financed by J.P. Morgan.  After other IRT lines were built, another financier (and philanthropist), Jacob Schiff, stepped into the fray and built new lines that became part of his Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit network.  

Later still,  the city began another network--called, ironically enough, the Independent system--to serve areas the IRT and BMT hadn't reached.  Finally, the city took over those two companies and unified the system.

I give you this brief history of the subway system because a similar system may be unfolding with the city's bike share program. Currently, it's run by Citibank (hence the name Citibike).  Currently, it serves a small (geographically) part of the city:  Manhattan south of 59th Street and the Brooklyn neighborhoods closest to that part of Manhattan.  While they are the most densely populated parts of the city, and the areas most visited by tourists and business people, they are more than a 45-minute ride (the current Citibike limit) from most other parts of the city.  Moreover, some parts of Queens like Astoria (where I live) are also commonly visited and full of cyclist--and are even closer than any part of Brooklyn to Manhattan.

Now it looks like another company wants to bring a bikeshare program to parts of the city that don't have it.  Social Bicycle is a three-year-old startup begun by a former city Department of Transportation official. It aims to bring bikeshares to other parts of the city, beginning with Harlem.  

Social Bicycle designer Nick Foley with one of his company's machines.  From the New York Daily News.

But Social won't be Citibike with a different color (green, vs. Citibike's blue).  Social designer Nick Foley has designed a "smart bike" which differs from Citibikes. A user punches in a code to unlock the wheels.  Even more important, though, Social Bikes don't require kiosks, the placement of which has angered residents and business owners who believe Citibike is taking away their parking spaces.

Not surprisingly, Citibike--which currently has a monopoly on the city's bike share program--doesn't like Social.  Apart from the simplicity of Social's system, the threat to Citibike is that Social--which already rents thousands of their bikes in other cities-- is ready to bring their bikes to unserved neighborhoods.  Meanwhile, Citibike says that they are not expanding into Queens, or even Harlem, any time soon.


  1. Citibike is really Alta http://www.altabicycleshare.com which runs bike shares in many cities under different names, including Boston's Hubway.

    The Social-bikes look interesting, and I wonder how well they work in practice. Hubway built out pretty rapidly in the Boston area, after the first partial year, and is now dense and wide enough to be useful, though there are probably spots that are still under served.

    The reports I saw said that Alta had a monopoly contract with NY, so even though they weren't planning to serve many neighbourhoods for a while, they could still block Social-bike. It would be interesting to see how they fared againsteach other, were that not the case.

  2. Ailish--Thank you for pointing out the true identity, as it were, of Citibike. They do indeed have an exclusive contract for the New York's Bike Share program. Although they've done a good job, on the whole, I'd like for them to have competition. Also, I'd like for the program to come to Queens (even if I don't use it myself) as well as other areas of the city.

    Gmail--Thank you! And I hope you, Ailish and all of my other readers have a happy and fulfilling (as well as filling!) Thanksgiving!