26 May 2023

Citibike at 10. What’s Its Future

Leonardo di Caprio with Polish model Ela Kawalec

 Citibike—the bike-share program in my hometown, New York—turns ten years old tomorrow.

When it started, journalists, policy-makers and casual observers predicted its rapid demise.  They cited problems, including vandalism, theft, software glitches, in other cities’ bike share programs.  Some complained about docking stations taking up “their” parking spots or detracting from the aesthetics of their buildings and blocks. Oh, and some drivers were simply hostile to the idea of more bikes and cyclists on the streets.

But, as the saying goes, rumors of the program’s death were wildly exaggerated.  Moreover, the blue bikes gained unexpected popularity among people and communities—like the Hasidim—not known for cycling. (An explanation why so many ultra-Orthodox Jews took to them is that many could not keep bikes in their apartments or houses because their large families gave them little space.) And the actual and perceived problems with mass transit—some of which preceded the pandemic—made the bikes and, as they were added to the program, eBikes, real alternatives for commuters.

But now there is a new threat: finances.  

Five years ago, Lyft—the ride-share company—bought Citibike operator Motivate. Like other tech companies, Lyft is experiencing changes in its leadership and has laid off a significant portion of its workforce.  Nobody knows what the company’s new direction might be. 

Even though Citibike is the largest share program, by ridership and revenue, in North America, it’s actually a small part of Lyft’s operations.  So it might be one of the first things to go when shareholders demand that the company become “meaner and leaner.”

One way Citibike differs from other share programs (except for those in China) is that it operates with almost no public funding.  Therefore, some—including Streetsblog contributor David Meyer—have proposed the city or state allocating money or, possibly, making Citibike part of the MTA, DOT or some other city or state agency.  In other words  they’re saying  Citibike should be a city or state service.

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