With Expectation of Profit, Citi Bike May Never Become City Wide

In just a few weeks Citi Bike will be one year old. It’s hard to believe, actually—the ubiquitous blue bikes have become so thoroughly integrated into the city’s urban fabric that it almost feels like they’ve always been here, at least in the parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn where stations are located.

This first year has proven that bike share can work in New York City; in fact, it’s become an indispensible component of Midtown and Lower Manhattan’s transportation infrastructure. Like the yellow of New York City taxi cabs, blue is now a part of the city’s visual landscape, and New York is better for it.

But as bike share in New York enters year two, the question is how to expand the program to reach more neighborhoods and New Yorkers of all income levels.

It seems that the public-private partnership responsible for the program’s rollout is unlikely to deliver a citywide bike share network. The program’s private-sector operator is struggling to turn a profit, complicating plans to expand the bike share network into Upper Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and further into Brooklyn.

The need for private profit has stymied bike share’s public purpose.

Bike share has attracted 102,000 yearly members despite a host of difficulties, including naysayers and NIMBY’s, software glitches, and flood-damage after Hurricane Sandy swamped a warehouse used to store bikes and equipment before the roll-out.

In response Citi Bike’s operator, Alta, is pushing to raise membership rates nearly 50 percent, from $95 a to $140 a year in order to turn a profit.

The assumption has always been that bike share should turn a profit. The program receives virtually no public money, unlike other bike share systems. Instead, most of Citi Bike’s start-up money came from a $40 million, five-year sponsorship from Citibank.

Citibank has certainly gotten its money’s worth. Business Week called the sponsorship “Citibank’s New York Marketing Coup.” For $40 million, the bank’s logo appears on 6,000 Citi Bikes and 330 of stations. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg remarked that Citibank executives “hope that everyone does exactly the same thing I did four or five times: confuse ‘Citi Bike’ with ‘Citibank.’ ”

This gross commercialism is the least commendable part of the city’s bike share program, a point made in the otherwise ridiculous op-ed by film maker Delia Ephron in the New York Times last October. “A Citi Bike sign hangs in front of the handlebars, Citi Bike is printed twice on the frame, and a Citi Bike billboard drapes the rear wheel on both sides. There is no way to see a Citi Bike without thinking Citibank.”

In exchange we’ve gotten a bike share system that caters mostly to white, wealthy males in the most upscale parts of the city. Instead of a public good available to all, we’ve created a luxury product complement Manhattan’s economically stratified neighborhoods.

The bike share program has proven its utility. It’s good for short trips and for bridging “the last mile” between a transit stop and your final destination. It substitutes for the subway during service disruptions. The number of Citi Bike trips jerks upwards when subways are delayed. But this option isn’t available to those trying to get from Elmhurst to Flushing, or Tremont to Washington Heights.

There is no viable plan being discussed to make Citi Bike a city wide system—at least not publicly. By city wide I don’t necessarily propose having bike share in the furthest reaches of the city, but certainly to those neighborhoods that have sufficiently high population densities and employment to warrant bike share stations.

Compare a the population density of Jackson Heights in Queens, which does not have a bike share station, with the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago, which is well-served by that city’s bike share system. Jackson Heights has 90,000 people per square mile while Lincoln Park has just over 20,000. And while Jackson Heights may be a long way from Manhattan, it isn’t very far from job centers in Flushing, La Guardia airport, in Elmhurst, and Woodside. The idea that bike share stations need to be contiguous to be successful is debatable.

As long as the need for profit remains, it is questionable whether private owners will ever elect to expand into less-wealthy neighborhoods in Upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs. That is why public money may ultimately be necessary. But voters should be wary using taxpayer dollars to subsidize the marketing efforts of Citibank.

Expanding Citi Bike will not be cheap. As reported in Capital New York, phase one and two or bike share expansion would cost about $21 million for an additional 4,000 bikes and 270 stations. The third phase, which would “bring 15,000 bikes and 939 stations to all of Upper Manhattan, the south Bronx, and parts of northern Queens and central Brooklyn,” would cost $76.2 million. Then there are the operating costs, which will be substantial.

But given how bike share has become an integral part of the city’s transportation infrastructure, it is unfair to exclude the majority of the city from access to it. The expectation of turning a profit may be unreasonable. The subways don’t make a profit. The World Trade Center never made a profit.

Public goods require public money. Now may not be the right moment, but the discussion must take place about the kind of bike share system New Yorkers want in the future.