Citi Bike is overwhelmingly popular and turning New York into a biking-oriented city. But the side effects aren’t pretty, and they expose the problems that collaborative consumption services will face as they grow.

photo: Citibike

This summer, I made a promise to myself that I would do my best to commute by bike. With my nearest subway line (shout-out, Brooklyn R train!) severing its Manhattan connection for 18 months to make Hurricane Sandy-related repairs, biking seemed like the best way to make my trip as constructive and painless as possible.

But in my days of riding the 12-mile round-trip between the office and my house, I have come to hate something that everyone in New York City is learning to love. I know it has potential and that there is some good in it, but I truly, honestly, deeply hate Citi Bike. And, no matter what it does for the city of New York over time, I believe that it exemplifies the worst characteristics of collaborative consumption and highlights what can happen when people abuse a shared resource.

No equipment

CitibikeOwning a bike in New York City is a point of pride and near-constant worry. After hemming and hawing for months, I chose to thoughtfully purchase my very own bicycle from a local shop. I obsess over the little details of my bike — the bell, the lights, the lock, and, of course, the helmet — because I am convinced that I need them to ride. Stepping out of the house without one of those things in hand seems wrong; it reduces my own sense of safety in a city that is already very difficult to ride in, and I keep everything I need close together so I can feel good about riding my bike on the streets.

While Citi Bike empowers New York residents who otherwise could not afford or would not pay for their own bikes to ride in the city, it hands them potentially dangerous equipment without any safety gear. And, while Citi Bike strongly encourages users to bring their own helmets, this is often not the case.

I understand that it would be quite difficult to acquire and maintain properly fitting helmets for its users — collaborative consumption relies on everyone working with the same basic product, rather than unique items. But that means Citi Bike is flooding the streets with folks who aren’t used to riding bikes and don’t have the tools to protect themselves.

No instruction

Because Citi Bikes are meant to encourage every New York citizen to choose biking instead of cars, cabs or public transport, anyone can pay for a bike and hop on to their destination. That’s fine, but Citi Bike’s good intent is slapped with another problem: its riders are not required to learn the rules of traffic, and often don’t obey any rules while on the bike.

This includes but is not limited to: blowing past red lights in an intersection, riding the wrong way down a one-way street in its bike lane, making unsafe turns and stopping in the middle of the lane.

Of course, experienced riders and bike owners do these things as well — whenever you disobey traffic laws, you put yourself at risk, but some feel like they can “handle” it. But Citi Bike users already don’t have much experience riding in a city as busy as New York, and they’re often in violation of the aforementioned safety issue. And when an obviously inexperienced rider attempts to ride through an intersection against traffic without any protection, my blood pressure begins to rise significantly.

This issue is also not directly Citi Bike’s fault, because it’s the responsibility of the NYPD to crack down on traffic violations. However, Citi Bike can do more to educate and inform its riders. There are some tips on the Citi Bike website, but there isn’t any helpful information available on the app or in the stations themselves. That needs to change, because too many are violating traffic laws and placing themselves or others in real danger.

No concern

CitibikeNYCThe good intentions behind Citi Bike’s desire to tap into the collaborative consumption movement are squandered by not having any systems in place to ensure the people who are riding those bikes also have concern for everyone around them. As an experienced rider on the streets, I am constantly thinking about taking the safest routes possible to my destination, and I have seen riders on Citi Bikes put themselves and others at risk because they are poorly prepared and poorly educated about how to operate the equipment they’ve so easily acquired.

That’s what scares me the most: that too many people who get on a bike and ride around the streets of New York City have no regard for the equipment their riding or the activity at hand. Riding a bike in a major city isn’t a game, and riding a bike down Park Avenue without a helmet while talking on a cell phone is a good way to hurt yourself, the service’s bike, and maybe even a bystander.

This will be the challenge of collaborative consumption in the long run: finding a way to make equipment accessible to people in a way that forces them to care about how they use it. Early adopters may start out with the best intentions, but when such services scale, they wind up attracting the type of people who ruin the party for everyone else with their carelessness for the shared resource.

Citi Bike is obviously in its inaugural year, and hopefully these issues will be addressed in the future. Until then, it’s up to those who choose to use it to make the right choices when they ride with the rest of the bike-commuter population, which means we’re about to find out how well mass-market collaborative consumption works in the petri dish that is New York City.

  1. You think the things that you highlighted here is the realm of only citibike riders? Are you delusional? Open your eyes!! These things so called pro bikers have been doing for years!

    And to make what is rampant about what is essentially NYC bike culture into a rant on collaborative consumption….you need to get off your high bike, and come back to this argument when you have data and not your myopic anecdotes. The idea that a citibike rider comes to this experience like a new born calf struggling to take its first steps is comical.

    Your tone is not inviting to the new citibiker.it is condescending.

  2. You get points for complaining throughly, but you’ve made no direct recommendations for what should be done differently.

    The system is 93 days old and arguably too successful (well oversubscribed). Is everyone following every rule, no. But neither is every driver, and I’ve seen a car blow through the light at 51/Park every single morning while I was walking to work. A biker’s biggest risk is to themselves, while for cars that risk is to others. I’d much rather the NYPD focus on cars breaking laws as they’re much more likely to hurt me than a biker is.

    Have you personally seen any of the other scaled up bike systems in the world? London, Paris, Montreal, Barcelona? They scaled up just fine (Paris is 3x NYC, London 1.8x) and the world didn’t end. If anything, their clout caused a vast expansion of bike lanes and tolerance towards bikers.

    New York will continue. The system will expand greatly over the next 2-5 years, likely to something 2x where Paris is now. There will be accidents, and people will get exercise. Many will wear helmets sometimes, some will never wear them.

    5 million miles have been ridden so far (as the crow flies), and I’ll bet that number is 20+ million for 2014..

    1. Peter is right. Expansion, counter-intuitively, stabilizes biking’s inclusion into a city’s transportation ecosystem. I say this as member of the Capital Bikeshare system in Washington, D.C. since its launch two years ago. Sure there have been growing pains with the addition of thousands of new riders on the streets. But the sudden influx of city riders brought critical mass to the notion that bicycles belong on the road. More bike lanes, increased education and advocacy from Washington Area Bicycle Association (WABA), safer driving amongst all operators as a fleet of 1200 bright red bicycles act as an excellent reminder to check a blind spot before turning or opening a car door into traffic. Natural selection will take care of those too obtuse to wear a helmet.

      Lauren your arguments are egotistical, naive, and intellectually lazy. I apologizing for being so harsh. However, this debate involves the safety of everyone on the road. I think your talents would be more productive elsewhere.

  3. Douglas Finley Sunday, August 25, 2013

    Whenever you buy a bike, any bike…It doesnt come with a helmet. Shoes should come with a helmet but they dont.

  4. Lauren sounds very naive here. The bike share isn’t an independent mode of transport, it’s another part of the combination of parts that work together.

  5. Sorry, there’s no way to increase bike use without bringing in new riders. There’s a learning curve – not CitiBike’s fault, not a failure of collaborative consumption – it’s just a face. Would you care to propose a system that WOULD “ensure people have concern for everyone around them”?

  6. fact. :)

  7. My experience from Seville’s bike sharing program, Sevici, is that the first 6 months to a year is the worst. People beat the bikes up more or maybe they are just left longer without repairing them. Stations are more often empty or completely full and people don’t have a sense of the good routes or etiquette. After this initial period everyone seems to get better and I would guess that new riders will increasingly take cues from people who have been using the system for longer.

    Funnily enough, I was in Seville when they opened their first metro line and there was a learning curve there too. People started off riding in suits (it was a big deal) and there weren’t any soft rules about getting on and off the trains or if you could get in with a bike and if so, through where. Again, with time people learn and establish customs and things get smoother and better.

    Give it some time and you’ll see less idiocy in the system as people take time to figure it out.

  8. I don’t see how running a red light on a bike is any worse than jaywalking. Technically illegal, but in practical terms a red herring.

  9. this article is really just a personal whine session

  10. I’m an NYC bike commuter and CitiBikes are just one more obstacle to avoid on nice days. No worries on crappy rainy days. Streets are all mine then. ;)

    But, it’s hardly just CitiBikes, regular bike commuters & delivery bikes are just as bad (if not worse, sometimes, due to their “bravado”). Nothing more fun than looking up to see a electric-assisted delivery bike coming straight at me on 10th St (one way) on my commute home. I’ve seen “street-wise” fixied hipsters heading north on 5th Ave during 6pm traffic.

    Some learnin’ of some dos and don’ts would be good for everyone on 2 wheels.


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