New Yorkers are freaking out about a Wall Street Journal story today that says Citi Bike is in trouble, "moving quickly to raise tens of millions of dollars" to save the system, which has been devastated by an unusually brutal winter.
The never-ending death march of cold and snow is only partially to blame for the system's problems, according to the article:
Citi Bike has been forced to contend with a number of costly issues, including damage to equipment during superstorm Sandy, software glitches and a difficult 2013-14 winter that discouraged ridership. But advocates said Alta Bicycle Share, the company that operates Citi Bike through a subsidiary, also hadn't done enough to improve the system and adapt to problems as they arose.
One of the biggest issues named by the piece is that people aren't buying the more financially lucrative day passes like they were six months ago. Hmmm, what was happening six months ago? I wonder...
OH YEAH IT WAS SUMMER.
Here's the WSJ chart that everyone's hyperventilating about. This, to me, looks like a chart that represents the behavior of rational human beings. Yes, of course some people ride their bikes in blizzards. But is a casual rider who doesn't have their own bike or a membership—and especially a tourist—really going to pay $10 for a 24-hour pass to ride a bike in two feet of snow? Absolutely not.
Yes, New York City might have had one of the coldest, snowiest winters on record, and that definitely impacted ridership. But look at the chart: The biggest dips correspond with the very worst weeks of the city's weather. And the numbers have started to go up as spring (slowly) makes it way into town.
That's why this quote is so confusing to me: "The bottom line is that New Yorkers deserve better," said Caroline Samponaro, a senior director at Transportation Alternatives told the Wall Street Journal. "The arc should be improving. All signs should be…that the demand, the usage, the attention is leading that arc up."
To me, the arc that matters, the one that shows that people are enthusiastic enough about the service to buy their annual passes even when it's freaking Hoth outside, is improving.
One criticism of the system is that Citi Bike chose not to pack up the system for the winter, which is what happens in other cold-weather cities like Minneapolis and Boston. But this trend is actually changing. Denver, for example, left its system open this winter for the first time and claims that it didn't see a significant drop in ridership. But Denver's system is a few years old and the city didn't have the record snowfall this year that the East Coast did. Chicago's system, which also launched last year and also saw a crazy cold snowy winter, saw a similar drop in day passes.
I personally think the fact that New York left Citi Bike open is extremely smart—especially when it comes to sponsorship. Maybe it wasn't worth it financially this year, but next winter Citi Bike will be more established and have more annual riders to help carry the system. (And hopefully it will not be the snowiest winter in 150 years... again.)
For any new system, there are absolutely going to be some early hiccups when it comes to technology and equipment, and those issues should absolutely be addressed. But these stories that Citi Bike is in trouble are a bit alarmist. It's one of the only systems in the world that's financed privately, and the stakeholders don't have to run it like a city-funded transit agency. If the company needs to raise money, it can, just like a business. Alta didn't comment for the story, but it is also not asking the city for money, according to the article: "The company isn't seeking public money, according to people familiar with the matter."
Only warmer weather will be able to show reliable data about ridership and usage, so let's wait until that information is public before we jump to conclusions. And I think I can speak for all New Yorkers when I say YES WARMER WEATHER OH PLEASE GOD I'VE NEVER BEEN SO SAD HELP US I CAN'T FEEL MY ARMS. [WSJ]
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