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


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.


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