By Matthew Friedman
Citi Bike is again encountering issues refilling its docking stations on the Upper West Side after — and sometimes during — the initial morning rush hour. The bike stations, which first came to the neighborhood in 2015, are often empty by 8 or 9 in the morning, when residents need them to commute to work, and are remaining empty for long portions of the day.
The issue has come up in the past, but Motivate, the company that operates Citi Bike, is still having trouble combating the empty docks. According to screenshots of the Citi Bike availability map and witness accounts, the lack of bikes on the Upper West Side has commonly extended into the rest of the day, forcing eager Citi Bike members to find other ways of getting around.
While commuters say they find it easy enough to find a bike before 8 or 8:30 in the morning, once the bikes are initially ridden downtown the neighborhood becomes a Citi Bike desert. “When my wife was looking for a bike to ride downtown to her office this morning just before 9 it wasn’t just our station that was out,” Glenn Mcanamana, who joined Citi Bike earlier this month to ride to work on Christopher Street. “The Upper West Side has enough Citi Bike station density that it would not be a big deal to walk to the next station if one is out of bikes. But when there’s an entire outage that’s basically the equivalent of having the whole subway system out,” he said.
He’s not the only one who’s noticed.
— Sanders (@srednass) August 14, 2017
“Sometimes when you expect there to be bikes you find nothing, but other times when you expect nothing the bikes will all be there,” said Josu Gallastegui, a Citi Bike member, as he docked a bike at the station at West 79th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Despite the lack of consistency in availability of bikes, Gallastegui said, his experience with Citi Bike has been satisfactory.
Riders on the Upper West Side are used to walking some distance to find bikes, but mass outages the likes of which Mcanamana described are rare. Though Richard Brockman observed that “it seems as if the Upper West Side always has a lot of empty docks,” he recalled that he had never been forced to walk more than three stations, or about ten blocks, to find an available bicycle. Brockman, docking a Citi Bike at 89th Street and Columbus Avenue, said that the walk to find a bike has not deterred him from renewing his membership.
Neighborhood cyclists suggested that warm summer weather and recent increases in subway delays are likely to blame for the lack of available bikes this week. August has historically been one of Citi Bike’s busiest months of the year. In 2016, Citi Bike averaged 50,239 trips per day in August, nearly three times the number of trips from February, the lowest month, during which Citi Bike averaged only 17,569 trips per day.
The company is aware of issues with bicycle availability, and says it has taken many steps towards addressing the problems. Citi Bike has a crew of 150 staffers in charge of returning bicycles to empty stations, in a process known as “rebalancing.” Through the use of trucks, bicycle trailers, and valets, Citi Bike rebalanced an average of 4,046 bikes per day in June, the most recent month for which a monthly report is available. In May 2016, as part of its rebalancing effort, Citi Bike launched a program called Bike Angels, which rewards individuals for riding bikes from crowded areas to those in need of bikes.
A spokesperson for Citi Bike said that one hurdle is that, unlike people elsewhere in the city, many Upper West Siders ride the bikes downtown in the morning but do not bring them back to the neighborhood at the end of the day. Close to 300 bikes do not return to the neighborhood each day, the spokesperson said, giving the Upper West Side one of the most lopsided ratios in the city.
“Rebalancing is one of the biggest challenges of any bike share system, especially in a city like New York where residents don’t all work a traditional 9-5 schedule, and though there is a Central Business District, it’s a huge one and people work in a variety of other neighborhoods as well. We continue to use a broad array of tools and expand our efforts to ensure there are bikes where and when they’re needed,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.
New York’s Citi Bike system is currently the only bike rental system in the country that is not at least partially publicly funded. This setup could change though, since a majority of city council members support the devotion of city funds to the program. City Council member Helen Rosenthal, who represents most of the Upper West Side, expressed opposition to city funding for the program last November, but Communications Director Sarah Crean said last week that the councilmember will go into Citi Bike’s contract negotiations at the end of the year “with an open mind — she is interested in looking at all possibilities for bike share programs across the city.”
Citi Bike currently serves 610 stations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Jersey City with a fleet of 10,000 bikes that they aim to expand to 12,000 by the end of the year — these numbers make it the largest system in the country. Despite the issues rebalancing bikes, 71 percent of 900 likely voters polled last November reported that they either “strongly support” or “somewhat support” Citi Bike expansion into more neighborhoods in all five boroughs.