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NYC: Success of ‘city-wide’ bike-share program not wide enough

‘Dockless’ bikes using phone app might work; Citi Bike reaches only 20 percent of Brooklyn today

December 18, 2017 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Almost all of the Citi Bikes were checked out of this docking station in Brooklyn Heights Monday morning. Now the city wants to bring in a new type of bike sharing service to the rest of Brooklyn and the other outer boroughs — one that doesn’t require docking stations. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
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The Citi Bike program has been hugely popular in neighborhoods where it operates, with riders taking roughly 14 million trips in 2016. Citi Bike’s gray docking stations are a familiar sight across Manhattan and in a limited number of brownstone neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. But many parts of Brooklyn — about four-fifths of the borough — are not covered.

Now, the city wants to experiment with bringing a new type of bike sharing program to the rest of the city — one that doesn’t require docks. On Friday, the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) released a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) for next-generation dockless public bike-share systems in the outer boroughs.

Dockless bikes can be found and unlocked using a smartphone app, and are inoperable when not in use. The bikes don’t need to be locked to a dock, bike rack or any other fixed object when parked.

“Citi Bike has been an unparalleled success story in providing New Yorkers affordable, safe and green transportation, but as we are learning from around the U.S. and the world, the next generation of bike share in New York City may not even require that the bikes themselves be parked in docks,” DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said in a release.

There are a number of companies competing in the dockless bike market, including LimeBike, Spin and Chinese companies Ofo and Mobike.

Trottenberg said the companies are “anxious to prove their skills in serving our city’s diverse, demanding and lucrative market.” RFEI would allow the city to create different pilots and evaluate what works best.

Dockless systems have lower capital and operating costs than Citi Bike’s model, according to DOT, and could help bring bike-share service to outer borough neighborhoods at a faster rate than is possible under the current model for Citi Bike expansion.

The city will continue to support Citi Bike, Mayor Bill de Blasio assured in the release, but it will “prioritize new systems that complement existing service.” The incoming program would only operate in places outside of the current Citi Bike service area — similar to the way green taxis operate outside of Manhattan — so as to not undermine Citi Bike.

The city gave no indication, however, how the various systems would work together to allow riders to travel wherever they needed to go.

In other American cities with dockless systems, trips are often priced at $1 per 30-minute ride, the city says.

Officials, including Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the Council Committee on Transportation, and Councilmember Ben Kallos, said the move was all about equity for the outer boroughs.

“We have spent years working to get bike sharing in all five boroughs and although we have made a lot of progress some areas don’t have it,” Kallos said in a statement.

Challenges ahead

According to engineering firm Alta, which launched Citi Bike, there are a number of challenges to overcome with dockless bike systems. Operators must rebalance bikes to meet demand, and cities must manage “a clutter of bicycles on sidewalks already under pressure from competing uses.”

The wide, scattered areas of operations also pose problems for bicycle maintenance, economic sustainability and lack of visibility.  Misplacement of dockless bikes can be “a real issue,” Alta said on its website. Several operators, like oBike and LimeBike, have solved the problem by giving credit points for returning to bikes to a designated parking location.

Bike-share programs have been successful in numerous cities, including Vancouver, Portland and San Francisco. In January, however, City Lab published an analysis of the failure in Seattle of dockless bikes operated by a company named Pronto! (initially operated by Motivate, which runs the Citi Bike program).

According to the analysis, problems leading to the system’s downfall included low ridership, delayed expansion, lack of funding and politics.

New York City is asking vendors pitching their services to explain how they will overcome the city’s various challenges. These include explaining how the bikes will not obstruct other street and sidewalk uses, how to keep bicycles within a designated service area, how to rebalance and how to keep the rides affordable.

Citi Bike has had more than 53.5 million trips since its launch in 2013. More than 60,000 Citi Bike trips are taken per day during peak season.  Annual Citi Bike subscriptions stand at over 130,000.


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