Listen up, Citibike!
(...and Capital Bikeshare, if the shoe fits…)
Last month I came to New York for the day, on a train to Penn Station arriving before 11 for a noon appointment. I thought I’d take a Citibike downtown. It’s fun to go faster than the cars, and it’s the lifestyle I want to promote, even if it works out to more than twice the price of the subway, and I can’t claim it’s faster.
Well, there were bike stalls lined up on 8th Ave just outside the station, but they were all empty. I walked a block to the other side of the station. There are four Citibike stations near the four corners around Penn Station, with room for 189 bikes in all. Every one was empty--not a bike to be had.
I walked, I downloaded the Citibike App to try to find the nearest bike, but the app wouldn’t cough up the information until I coughed up a credit card for a monthly pass. But I’m not a New Yorker. I just want to know where I can find a bike...
When it got to be 11:30, I gave up walking and looking, and I got on the subway. 7 minutes to the front door of my downtown destination.
Today I had another New York interview. This one was 11 AM, and I got to Penn Station at 10. Once again, all 189 Citibike stalls were empty. My keen scientific intellect began to discern a pattern. It turns out that this has been a problem at least since 2013.
This time I had scoped out the next nearest station North and East where I was headed. I walked uptown about half a mile, and found plenty of bikes. I paid the $13 daily fee with a smile and set out to weave through the crosstown traffic to my destination, 3rd Ave at 47th St. I had mapped that out the previous night as well: a docking station conveniently located on 48th St, corner of 3rd Ave. But when I got there...yes, you guessed right. 55 docking stalls and every one of them had a bike in it. No place to return my bike. A young man in a Citibike T-shirt directed me to the next nearest station. “Concierge parking” he said. That one was full, too, but there were Citibike employees like him taking return bikes from riders, locking them in chains until a truck could come and port them downtown, or until the morning traffic reversed at the end of the day. I did as he suggested, and 10 minutes later I was walking in for my appointment. But I had walked almost half the distance, and the total time from Penn Station to 747 Third Ave was 32 minutes for 1.5 rectilinear miles--not any faster than I could have walked.
Well, it’s been at least 3 years that Citibike has been working on this program. They’re buying trucks and hiring nice young men in Citibike T-shirts. But I have another idea. Are you listening, Citibike?
The elegant solution to this problem is to reverse the credit card charges if you ride the bike from a station with too many bikes to one without enough. Then the hordes of entrepreneurial young New Yorkers will do the rest. Thousands of kids will take this on as a part-time job. (And in Manhattan, most of them probably already have their own credit cards.)
Here are my proposed rules: If you pick up a bike from a station that is more than 90% full and you drop it at a station that is more than 50% empty, the system credits your account $5. Same $5 if you pick up a bike from a station that is more than 50% full and drop it at a station that is more than 90% empty. And if you port a bike from a station that’s more than 90% full to one that’s more than 90% empty, you can double-up and earn $10.
From what I hear, Citibike is enormously profitable, thank you very much, and can well afford to pay the kids. Their increased ridership will more than pay for an army of 14-year-old bike porters. But if they really need to make more money solving this problem of their own bad planning, they could do it with surcharges. If you take one of the last 5 bikes at a station, there’s a $1 surcharge. If you take one of the last 4, it rises to $2...up to $5 extra for taking the last available bike. Same thing at the other end: If you fill the last empty dock, you are charged an extra $5. Second-last empty dock: $4, etc.This is the direction the economy is moving. Craigslist and Uber and Air-BnB are signs on the wall. It’s not the top-down Corporate Model that Citibank is used to, but hey--we’ve all got to adapt.