getting around

Citi Bike at Ten: ‘We Were Riding in a City That Simply Hadn’t Existed Just a Few Years Earlier’

Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Citi Bike made its maiden voyage on May 27, 2013, with 6,050 trips fanning out across the city in its first 24 hours. New York City’s bike-share program had been met with skepticism — tabloids predicted a plague of crazed cyclists taking out tourists — but the cobalt-blue, tank-like bikes were an immediate hit. Leo used them. Bill Cunningham photographed them. Stunt-riding YouTubers had memberships alongside Wall Street bankers with their sensibly cuffed pants. Funded by an unprecedented sponsorship deal with Citi, which paid $110 million in naming rights, Citi Bike had momentum, quickly edging out well-established systems like Paris’s Vélib in ridership. (The program hit an all-time record of 138,372 rides on September 8, 2022, even as other transportation modes struggled to reach their pre-pandemic numbers.)

There have undoubtedly been growing pains in Citi Bike’s first ten years: Some of the city’s most transit-dependent communities are still waiting for the bikes to reach their neighborhoods, and New York City has yet to install the necessary infrastructure to keep all riders safe. But it’s impossible to deny that it’s achieved a coup, dramatically changing the city’s streets (and the way people get around) for the better. To commemorate New York City’s first decade of bike share, I spoke to a dozen people — from the city employees who launched it, to the advocates who helped it flourish — about Citi Bike’s past, present, and future.

‘It Was a True Miracle That It Did Launch’

Janette Sadik-Khan, former commissioner, New York City Department of Transportation: In some ways, Citi Bike started in Paris in 2007. I was a few months into being transportation commissioner when Vélib launched in July of that year and I got a note from Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff asking, “What do we think of this?” New York City was a very different place in 2007. There were very few bike lanes and a very male-dominated messenger-bike culture that was more like a death cult. To answer his question, we needed to build a new city.

Jon Orcutt, former NYC DOT policy director: We released the request for proposals for a 10,000-bike system just before Thanksgiving 2010. That was in the depths of New York’s “bike-lash,” when the tabloids would inflate any complaint or misinformation about bike lanes into a story. That we went forward at scale in that moment is a huge testament to the leadership of both Janette Sadik-Khan and Mayor Bloomberg.

Alison Cohen, former Citi Bike director and president of Alta Bicycle Share: The business model was unprecedented globally: a public transit system funded only by two major sponsors, Citi and MasterCard; financing by a major investment bank, Goldman Sachs; with a three-year-old small business, Alta Bicycle Share, in the middle. There was a lot to be nervous about. Everything was brand new.

Jon Orcutt: The main thing was the system’s technology. After winning the New York City bid, the hardware outfit, PBSC, changed the software controlling bike docking, undocking, and subscriber recognition from something that had worked well in other cities to a system that was much shakier and prone to dysfunction. We worried people wouldn’t be able to get the bikes out of the dock.

Janette Sadik-Khan: The scale had never been attempted anywhere in North America and the tech was different than what was used in other cities. Part of our strategy was that each station was freestanding and could be picked up and moved as needed for construction, for special events, which made it unlike other systems, which were wired into street utilities.

Kate Fillin-Yeh, creator and former manager of NYC DOT’s bike-share unit: NYC DOT actually created a testing grounds at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and I and a bunch of wonderful DOT staff rode around docking and undocking bikes to test the software the winter before launch. It was so cold. We all spent that winter testing bikes and freezing.

Alison Cohen: Citi Bike had suffered tremendous losses in Hurricane Sandy the fall before launch — five feet of water had inundated the Navy Yards warehouse full of bikes, docks, and stations that were meant to be deployed in the spring. In order to stay on track for a launch in the spring of 2013, our small team went through the sad and laborious task of inventorying the equipment to assess what was usable.

Peter Hoban, former Citi Bike launch director: We had thousands of bikes — about 3,000 were fully assembled — and docks, hundreds of payment kiosks and solar panels, vehicles, and who knows how many tools and spare parts, in that warehouse. We basically lost everything. We salvaged what we could, but it was just a fraction of what we needed. We had to wait for insurance claims and for new equipment to be ordered, manufactured, and delivered.

Alison Cohen: It was a true miracle that it did launch.

Peter Hoban: I didn’t think it would launch.

Janette Sadik-Khan: We held a big press conference over Memorial Day weekend in 2013. As the crowd was dying down, a few of us decided to take an unplanned spin on the bikes. It turned into a triumphal ride around Manhattan along a network of bike lanes built in just the previous few years, ending in the Times Square plaza we created on Broadway. We were riding in a city that simply hadn’t existed just a few years earlier.

‘Doomsayers Predicted Blood in the Streets’

Doug Gordon, co-host, The War on Cars: There were numerous predictions that no one would use bike share or, if they did, that bike fatalities would double or triple and the streets would run red with the blood of novice cyclists and their pedestrian victims.

Janette Sadik-Khan: Doomsayers predicted blood in the streets, with inexperienced riders getting splattered like bugs on a windshield.

Doug Gordon: I was one of only a small handful of loud voices saying that everything was going to be absolutely fine. Not that I was Nostradamus or anything. I had only the slightest concern that the typical combination of tabloid fear-mongering and general NIMBY-ism might somehow hinder the program.

Kate Fillin-Yeh: The media coverage was predicting a huge fight. But NYC DOT launched the most intensive community-engagement process the city had ever seen: public demonstrations, public meetings, big hands-on workshops where people could look at the maps and tell us where stations would work in their neighborhoods. I remember the first of those workshops: lots of reporters everywhere. The doors open and people start to walk in and sit down and talk; they’re putting stickers down on the map where they’d like to have a bike dock. It just flowed. No fights. We looked at the headlines the next day and one from WNYC was “Calm Reigns at First Planning Meeting.”

Janette Sadik-Khan: Virtually every fear was unfounded. People took to Citi Bike like it was something that had been a part of the city forever. It was four years before a tragic death occurred on the system, the first in 43 million trips.

Jon Orcutt: The overall New York narrative went from from “Hell no, bike lanes” to “Where’s my Citi Bike?” We literally saw newspaper cover stories change from “Bike-Lash” to “Bike City.” The demand for Citi Bike, in terms of usage and for expansion into new neighborhoods, is undeniably strong.

Kate Fillin-Yeh: I don’t think I expected just how much a part of New York City daily life Citi Bike would become: a little kid learning to ride with their parent following on a Citi Bike; a lady in a nice suit and heels biking down Broadway; a construction guy heading home.

Peter Hoban: You can’t watch a TV show or movie based in New York without seeing Citi Bike bikes and stations. The highlight was probably when a Citi Bike was taken out in Sharknado 2.

Doug Gordon: I remember at one point docking a bike on Carmine Street in the West Village when I noticed a couple struggling to take a bike out — you used to need to lift the seat and pull to release a bike, a movement that wasn’t all that intuitive. It was the actor Hugh Jackman and his wife, Deborra Lee-Furness. I offered to help; I can still hear Hugh saying, “Thanks, mate” in his Australian accent. Only in New York, kids, only in New York.

Photo: Ira L. Black - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

‘180 Million Rides Later’

Kate Fillin-Yeh: In many ways, Citi Bike is a great example of a truly functional public-private partnership. Unlike cities where funds for equipment or upgrades have to go through the political process or city budget priorities, because we have a private-sector partner, Citi Bike has grown significantly. We’ve gotten new equipment and upgraded software.

Janette Sadik-Khan: 180 million rides later, without any government funding, Citi Bike has become the nation’s fastest-growing transportation network with daily trips that exceed the bus ridership of many American cities.

Alex Engel, former NYC DOT community coordinator: Citi Bike really opened eyes up as to how bikes can be a means of transportation, not just recreation. I think it’s safe to say that Citi Bike built a lot of political support for more bike lanes, more bike routes, and drove a lot of demand for higher-quality infrastructure.

Janette Sadik-Khan: There are now 1,500 miles of bike lanes. 400,000 people ride a bike in New York City daily, triple the number of vehicles that use the BQE.

Shabazz Stuart, Oonee CEO and board member, StreetsPAC: On my way home one Saturday morning not too long after the program launched, I realized that my subway line was down. I detest shuttle buses and I didn’t want to spend the money for a cab. Then, I realized that there was a third option. There is nothing quite like cycling through the city in the early dawn.

Clarence Eckerson, Streetfilms: Citi Bike affords great flexibility in your day. I might take transit into the city because the weather is horrible but then it clears up and I want to satisfy the impulse to bike home.

Sarah Kaufman, interim executive director of NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation: In the spring of 2020, we saw a spike in Citi Bike rides. It quickly became clear that the program was fulfilling a need for New Yorkers to get out of their apartments — a way to socialize safely. Essential workers used their newly free Citi Bike memberships to get to work.

Shari Brown, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Good Company Bike Club: When we started our rides during the pandemic, we wanted to choose a very centralized area to meet up. We picked the Brooklyn Museum because a few of us went to high school right up the street. There’s a Citi Bike dock right next to the museum and since we created these rides ‘come one, come all’ — not everyone owned a bike — it became very easy for people to grab a Citi Bike and go with us.

Rose Uscianowski, Staten Island and South Brooklyn organizer, Transportation Alternatives: My favorite Citi Bike memory was riding over the then-new Brooklyn Bridge bike lane a few days after it opened. I was riding from my old apartment in Bed-Stuy to the Whitehall Ferry Terminal for a meeting in Staten Island, and my bike was in the shop. I was struck by the enormity of the single lane we had won back from cars. The ability to use bike share on safe, dedicated infrastructure turned what could have been a miserable commute into a great one.

‘Run It Like a Utility’

Kate Fillin-Yeh: There needs to be an emphasis on the operations to make sure that bikes are more quickly maintained and rebalanced. It’s still frustrating when you want a bike and there are none to be found at multiple stations in an area.

Clarence Eckerson: The dock-only system works well, but as it expands further outward to other parts of Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, lower density might require having dockless bikes to make it a real option for people.

Sarah Kaufman: Existentially, New York City must decide whether Citi Bike is a form of public transportation. If it is, the city would subsidize its expansion throughout the five boroughs, adding to access and equity.

Shari Brown: You can’t become a bike city without having bike docks throughout the whole city. I’m thinking about places like Brownsville and Canarsie.

Jim Burke, co-founder, 34th Avenue Open Streets Coalition: We have to speed up the process. Finally, after ten years, the densest neighborhoods in Queens are getting Citi Bikes. Here in Jackson Heights, our buses and subways are packed and so Manhattan centric. Citi Bike is the solution. I can get to Brooklyn much faster and I can take a pedal-assist if it’s a long trip.

Rose Uscianowski: We need better, expanded discounted fare programs.

Alex Engel: I’d also take a close look at pricing and ways to structure pricing that make e-bikes affordable for more trips; the per-minute fees can now start to add up.

Shabazz Stuart: I would figure out how to integrate the system with OMNY. It would be a great option for on-demand riders who don’t have a subscription. While it wasn’t possible with the MetroCard, Citi Bike–subway transfers are conceptually possible with OMNY.

Jon Orcutt: Finding a working, thriving business model for bike share has been a challenge all along, around the world. I’ve never been a fan of the fact that Citi Bike is now owned by a company pushing urban car trips by undercutting transit and traditional taxi services and that continues to lose huge amounts of money as a result. I don’t know if there’s an easy answer.

Doug Gordon: What happens if Lyft goes under or decides that operating Citi Bike doesn’t pencil out? Will another company pick up the slack or will our current mayor or a future one have to municipalize the system?

Jim Burke: Citi Bike is a public good. I would like to see the city run it like a utility so it can receive government funding to go to areas that will not be profitable but useful for the residents.

Sarah Kaufman: We also need the infrastructure to protect and encourage cyclists, like a set of bicycle highways throughout the city — truly separated infrastructure to avoid conflicts between bikes and cars.

Janette Sadik-Khan: Just as we had a revolution in building bike lanes in the last decade, we need a new revolution with more and wider lanes to accommodate the growing number of riders — and allowing for the speed differences between conventional bikes and electric bikes and scooters.

Sarah Kaufman: I want to see more options for riders: cargo bikes for hauling school-aged kids and groceries; adaptive bikes, like handcycles, for people with disabilities; and specialized seats for young children to ride on the back.

Doug Gordon: We’ve layered a lot of technology onto bikes since they were invented in the 1800s, from the derailleur to electric assist, but the fundamental design has remained the same. So this might disappoint, but I doubt we’ll see hoverbikes or anything like that. But at the rate climate change is progressing, perhaps we’ll see people paddling up 8th Avenue in Citi Boats.

‘We Were Riding in a City That Simply Hadn’t Existed’