NYC Bike-Share Clearly Isn’t Ready to Blanket the City Yet

Bike-share would work well in much of New York, according to a 2009 report from the Department of City Planning. To get there, the system has to be reliable first. (Note: these phases do not represent current plans for the bike-share system.)

Over the weekend, Ted Mann and Josh Barbanel at the Wall Street Journal wrote a great piece about what it will take to expand NYC’s bike-share system to the city’s less affluent neighborhoods, and how the Bloomberg administration’s decision to forgo public funding affected the system map. Then came a silly Ginia Bellafante piece in the Times that completely muddled the issues at play, mixing up free helmet-fittings with bike-share access and misleading readers about why stations were chosen for particular neighborhoods.

Without a doubt, New York should strive for bike-share to reach every neighborhood mapped out in this 2009 report from the Department of City Planning. The question is what’s the best way to get there.

Given the glitchiness that still affects the system software — especially the problem of station outages touched on in the Times today by Matt Flegenheimer — the most pressing issue to ensure that bike-share will become accessible to all New Yorkers is simply for the system operator, Alta Bicycle Share, to work out the kinks. Once the system is as reliable as it should be, it will be in great shape to cover a bigger share of the city.

Right now, New York has a system that people are excited about, and it gets a lot of use considering the launch was barely two weeks ago. We also have a system with a lot of imperfections. Clearly, people are finding Citi Bike functional enough to put ridership on a rapid upward trajectory, but if there’s a chance you might have to spend 10 minutes searching for a working bike dock, bike-share loses some of its on-demand appeal. If the system is passably reliable at the moment, then the grade is a C or C-. Bike-share isn’t going to serve customers as well as it could as long as this is the case.

Other cities also dealt with bugs after launching a newly-developed system. In 2010, Denver launched the first bike-share network using the system made by the company B-Cycle. “What we did in Denver was we were able to test the system,” B-Cycle’s Brent Tongco told Streetsblog. “There were hiccups along the way,” he said, noting that Denver had some initial problems with getting transactions to register over a wireless connection and that stations occasionally had to be manually reset. “It was all hands on deck to monitor the system.”

Over time, the software has been updated and B-Cycle is now operating 20 systems nationwide. New York has a different set of bugs and a much bigger system to manage, but it wouldn’t be the first city to correct glitches on the fly.

The current Citi Bike software was first launched in Chattanooga, and users have encountered problems there, as in New York. “The system was challenging when it was launched,” said Bike Chattanooga’s Philip Pugliese. “It continues to be an evolutionary process.” Yesterday, the Chattanooga system shut down for an update of the 29-station system’s kiosk touch-screen program.

Now imagine bike-share blanketing New York City right off the bat. The technical problems would be harder to manage. And, at the same time, the city would have had to pour a significant amount of public funds into launching at that scale. Setting aside the political hurdle of securing a chunk of the city budget for bike-share before anyone had seen it in action in NYC, it would be a bad idea to commit much in the way of subsidies to a bike-share launch when the system reliability still leaves so much to be desired. Public money should go toward providing bike-share infrastructure, not fixing code.

Get the software right and make Citi Bike a grade A bike-share system. Then blanket the city with it.