Golden Meanie

Citibike 17 Oct 2013

Last week I spent three days in New York for the (excellent by the way) FOWD conference. The weather was good and so I bought a 7-day pass to use the new Citibike system. This turned out to be a fantastic decision.

I’ve used the Boston Hubway bike share system for the last couple months and it’s moved me from skeptical bike snob to an enthusiastic evangelist. Bike shares belong in every first-class city. I was curious to see how much of a factor my familiarity with riding in Boston was in my evaluation. Would I be as psyched in a new city?

I had the good fortune to be staying with some friends in Brooklyn. But this meant a longer commute in to the event each day than those participants staying at the hotel nearby. I made the trip six times (three out and three back) and every one was unique.

  1. Penn Station to Hudson River Greenway across the Brooklyn Bridge to the Dean & 4th bike station.
  2. Back to Manhattan across the Manhattan Bridge, up 1st Ave, past the UN, and on to 59th St.
  3. Midtown back down the greenway and across the Brooklyn Bridge again.
  4. Brooklyn Bridge closed to bikes so back across the Manhattan Bridge and working my way up to Times square.
  5. Midtown “straight” down Broadway and round and round South Manhattan trying to get back on the Brooklyn Bridge again.
  6. Finally a daytime trip across the Brooklyn Bridge and then the scenic tour from Battery Park up the West Side on my way back north to 42nd St.
  7. An (untracked bonus!) last bomb run down 7th to Penn Station to head back home.

I was repeatedly lulled into complacency by the regular grid until I would fall off the edge, where at bike-speed small errors quickly multiplied into WTF am I? But I regret nothing! I saw more of the city than I would have any other way, and understand the relationships between the neighborhoods far better than I did when I arrived.

Between navigation and just straight-up distance. My trips back and forth were typically a little over the 30 minute allotment you get as an out-of-towner. So I racked up some overage charges with a final bill of $40. Even so, it’s a deal. The seven day pass was $25 base price. A year will cost $95. Either is well under the cost of moderate cab use.1 I think my long-haul back and forth from midtown to the southernmost station in Brooklyn are probably unusual. I would have had no trouble fitting into the annual pass 45 minute window.

The NYC bikes are roughly the same as in Boston but with the addition of a bell buried under the left side of the handlebar. As in Boston, using a bell is a mixed bag, sometimes causing more danger with panicking pedestrians than just getting by them before they even know you’re there. What were really new to me were the kiosks. Each rack has a terminal that you can use to get a code (with a five minute lifetime) to unlock a bike. Just dip the card you used to buy your pass and it serves up a code and a safety warning. The Citibike customer support folks are really friendly and helpful. Unfortunately, I found out because I called them five times in seven trips. I think the mag-strip readers in the kiosks are temperamental. I assume wear and tear, but maybe it’s weather too? Three times I needed them to reset(?) the kiosk to let me get a code. Twice more I called, for the same reason, but was unable to get through. This lead to a brief unpleasant contemplation of a system wide outage absorbing all staff. In both cases I rode or walked to another rack to find a working kiosk or a slot for my bike.

I have had zero problems with the key fob on the Hubway, but I have sometimes had to try a new rack to dock after a ride. Next time I go to New York I’ll spring for an annual pass. I would have done it this time but I didn’t have enough lead time to receive it in the mail before my trip.

I do truly love riding in traffic, but in NYC it was rarely necessary to do it for long. They have installed a truly impressive system of protected lanes that got me most places I needed to go. Yes, sometimes they were parked in, but if you are paying attention and moving quickly, it’s easy to duck out into traffic again to route around that stuff.

I’ll say it again, every city should at least look at a bike share.

It takes commitment to put in enough stations, and a certain minimum density for people to feel like it makes sense, but it will open your city to residents and visitors alike in a unique way.

I can’t wait to do it again.

GPS tracks for my trips back and forth between Brooklyn and Manhattan. I had a little trouble navigating.

  1. The train is, of course, a great budget alternative. But as a tourist, you are seeing a much different city that way.