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When collaborative consumption doesn’t work: Riding (and surviving) New York City with Citi Bike

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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.

29 Responses to “When collaborative consumption doesn’t work: Riding (and surviving) New York City with Citi Bike”

  1. As a bike owner AND a Citi Bike member, I can safely say that it’s the bike riders who OWN bikes are are the biggest assholes on the streets. Everyone I see with a Citi bike obeys and travels at a slower speed (no doubt bc of the heft of the bike). The hipsters with fixed gear bikes 100% do not. They’re the ones blowing through red lights and its always been the case. I’m not convinced this writer has ever ridden a bike in NYC streets. And what of bike MESSENGERS! I mean come on, they are legend in NYC for riding dirty.

  2. Marianne Doczi

    Just google City of Melbourne and see how easily they solve this problem. Helmets are compulsory and 7-11s etc sell them very cheaply. I don’t think the bad manners or lack of safe behaviour is a Citibike problem: it’s a bikers full stop problem!

  3. addicted4444

    After millions of rides with apparently no concern for safety and no concern for others, where is the data to back up your claims?

    How many citibikers have died? How many have injured others? Forget data. You can’t even point to anecdote of any significant worry.

  4. This isn’t very well-written or expressed, with lots of inaccuracies and downright false statements. But the worst part is you sound like one of those people who think it’s you’re mission to tell everyone else how to live their lives (and that they ought to live their lives like you do). Following the law is a given; but you step over the line when you tell people they ought to do things simply because you want them to (not because it’s mandated by the larger community – i.e., a law).

  5. Alex Knight

    Glad to see a broad rejection of this piece from the vast majority of commenters. Strange and silly to pin these issues solely on Citibike when they run across transportation modes in one form or another. Also, the R train East River tunnel is projected to be down for 14 months, not 18.

  6. Eric Jacobsen

    so much wrong with this editorial that I don’t even know where to start

    “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” Okay, so you’re paranoid and afraid. Great to establish that out the gate.

    Also, no, NYC is not very difficult to ride in at all. You’re just blinding by your own fears.

    “Citi Bikes are meant to encourage every New York citizen to choose biking instead of cars, cabs or public transport” First, Citi Bikes ARE public transport. Second, they are not meant to encourage “every” New York citizen. Nobody thinks the disabled and infirm should be on bikes. Nobody wants to push those who don’t like bicycling to use bikes. They are there for people like you and I who *want* the alternative.

    “And when an obviously inexperienced rider attempts to ride through an intersection against traffic without any protection, my blood pressure begins to rise significantly.” Why? Why do you care so much about what everyone else is doing? Were you one of those kids in school who ratted out fellow students who bent the rules?

    “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.” Yeah, like someone is really going to stop and read through a babysitter pamphlet of instructions… be honest, when was the last time you read the terms and conditions on a website? They only exist for liability purposes, nobody reads them. Nobody.

    “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” Please stop projecting your paranoia on others.

    “Riding a bike in a major city isn’t a game” Everything is a game. There’s a whole science about it.

    All this, and I still don’t see what this has to do with “collaborative consumption.” All your worrying and fretting is equally applicable to normal cyclists, this has nothing to do with shared bicycling.

    Put this into perspective: No fatalities on Citi Bikes since debut. Over a hundred auto fatalities in that same period. You’re panicking over glaciers when the house is on fire.

  7. brianvan

    To correct the author:

    * The bikes come with numerous safety features, including hub-powered lights, a bell, and a locking system with the docks. They also come with capable brakes, and the geometry of the bike sits the rider upright while the weight of the bike is heavy enough to deny the bike from doing an end-over in a collision, the main reason to use a helmet on a road bike. It’s safer than any other bike I’ve ever rode.

    * Consumers have not yet beaten up the bikes to the point where they are unsightly or non-functional. Even non-users can do that to the bikes when they’re in the docks, and regular bikes end up vandalized (non-theft) all the time. Our culture is to blame for abuse of street objects, not CitiBike. For what it’s worth, the bikes are designed to be resilient, which discourages extreme vandalism.

    * Both the bikes and docking stations have a wealth of traffic-law warnings and reminders posted on them. While it is technically true that a rider could buy a pass without being given a thorough lesson in traffic law, it’s to be noted that roads, signals, signs and intersections are designed so that even the most non-literate, learning-disabled person can comprehend their messages and usage well enough. If you wanted to squash the sources of commercialized bike lending to naive and disobedient people, you’d have to go far beyond CitiBike to achieve that goal. There are thousands of bike rentals in the central business districts daily, to say nothing of the tens of thousands of food delivery establishments who will literally hire ANYONE without training or legally-required equipment.

    The Internet can be a petri dish for insufficiently-researched journalism, and this culture is a non-starter.

  8. Frank A NYC

    “..not having any systems in place to ensure the people who are riding those bikes also have concern for everyone around them. ”

    How can any municipality “ensure people have concern for everyone”? I grew up in NYC and no law, rule or app is going to ensure people have concern for others.

  9. Will Bain

    Wow. Ms. Hockenson apparently feels hat CityBike abandoned her somewhere around 3rd grade. Get your own helmet; a shared helmet would be all soaked with someone else’s sweat anyway. Don’t run red lights, and don’t expect CityBike to employ traffic monitors at every intersection, ready to throw themelves in front of scofflaw cyclists. Instead of taking this dire tone of condemnation in front of the reading public, why not just send a helpful note to the CityBike folks, nicely suggesting some opportunities for community outreach regarding cycling safety and maybe a program of new subscriber orientation. The thing is, anyone who signs up for such a program in the first place is probably more responsible than your average citizen. The real danger is automobile drivers in any case, without whom these concerns fade away. How many bicycle-bicycle or bicycle-pedestrian collisions result in serious injury anyway, compared with those involving automobiles? Please try to see the overall benefit to society, instead of focussing on a lawyer-like paranoia about what might happen if we’re all left to our own devices.

    Lifelong bicycle commuter,
    Will Bain

  10. Roland Legiardi-Laura

    Safety is an important and ongoing concern of course. And riders of bicycles who don’t understand the “rules of the road” or the need to practice safe riding for their own sakes, do pose an added threat to all commuters. However, you make your points based completely on unsubstantiated and anecdotal evidence. Hardly a reason for anyone to consider your concerns with anything more than a grain of salt. How many tickets have been given out to “Citibikers’ since the program started? And in the same time period how many tickets have been given out to ‘private’ bikers? How many accidents have occurred that can be ascertained as having been the fault of Citibikers? Again same question about non-Citibikers. Bring some facts to your argument next time and folks might be more willing to listen to your legitimate complaints. Right now all you are offering is a your sense of yourself as a biased and uninformed individual. Frankly Cars, Buses and Trucks are much more lethal. They are flying metal boxes filled with combustibles, hurtling down city street at speeds that can cause death at any minute. Somehow people have figured out how to negotiate our streets without filling the hospitals with victims of such deadly machines. Having said all of this, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for New York City and Citibike to offer classes in safe riding and perhaps that any Citibike member be required to pass a simple, safe biking test before they hop on a bike—Not an easy thing to set up or administer and with New Yorker’s unreasonable fear of the “Nanny State” probably unlikely that it will happen anytime soon. We do require all drivers of motorized vehicles to have licenses–maybe something to consider in the future…But let’s first see some
    statistics which support your rather simplistic argument.

  11. I really don’t see what the difference is between someone buying their own bike for the first time and someone riding a Citibike for the first time. I doubt anyone’s learning to ride on a Citibike, they would have done that someplace else. And as for first time city riders…well, if they bought their own bike they’d be first time city riders too. The scheme is 3 months old and how many fatalities have there been? I’ve only read about one serious accident, which is pretty good considering what the rate for serious car and pedestrian accidents in this city.

  12. Arguments about Citibike made in ignorance of cities with far more established biker culture are a joke.

    Lets take just one point: biking without helmets. Go to Amsterdam or Paris or Copenhagen cities with huge biking computer populations, and tell me what percentage of the bikers wear helmets? (spoiler: practically no one does.). The secret: bike lanes, physically separate from traffic so cars don’t endanger bikers, the lanes aren’t used for parking or taxi un/loading or for pedestrians.

    Before you get the wrong idea, I ride my own bike and never ride without a helmet. But unlike you I have my eyes open, and have spent plenty of time in Paris and Amsterdam.

    The only thing the Citibike program is missing is more physically separated bike lanes and expansion throughout the city.

  13. Tristan Louis

    As someone who has been bike commuting for over half a decade in New York and recently switched from my own bike to a citibike, I can say that the introduction of the bike sharing program had actually INCREASED the number of law abiding riders who stop a red lights and don’t go the wrong way. Sure, there are still people breaking traffic laws but as a percentage of overall ridership, I suspect that the number had dropped.

  14. “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.”

    This is not correct in the slightest. The rules are printed on the stations, on the bikes’ handlebars, on the backs of receipts, and on all member mailings and in emails.

    The app includes a section called “Riding Tips” which has all of the rules of the road.

    Did you do zero research for this piece?

  15. Shameless Driver

    NYers are a tough breed and fast learners. Your complaints will evaporate with time as the program scales and normalizes.

    My concern is for the tourists (no offense to tourists; this city is difficult to handle and requires experience to successfully navigate). Every single time I’ve seen a bona-fide dangerous situation with CitiBike it has been a tourist ‘at the wheel’ (picture middle-aged Norther Europeans wobbling their way down Bowery and across Houston at rush hour, or obviously out of shape people from who knows where cutting across four lanes of Broadway traffic, staring up, moving more slowly than if they were just walking).

    Tourists have a hard time navigating the sidewalks without causing irritation. But letting them on bikes?! It’s a disaster in the making.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. James Cage

    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”?

  19. Peter Drier

    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..

    • Andrew Broyles

      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.

  20. 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 is condescending.