Today, New York City comptroller's office released a scathing report about lack of maintenance by Citi Bike, which would come as no surprise to riders frustrated by broken docks or busted bikes. Why is Citi Bike a mess when bike shares in other cities—operated by the same parent company even—are going along swimmingly?
The ultimate reason is, surprise surprise, money, and it all has to do with how Citi Bike was initially set up. Unlike bike shares in other major cities, Citi Bike is meant to pay for itself with corporate sponsorships (that would be the Citi in Citi Bike) and subscription fees from users. Now contrast that to Washington D.C.'s Capital Bike Share—perhaps the most successful one of them all—which has taken advantage of millions in public money from the federal and local transportation departments.
Money is at the root of some of the troubles highlighted in the comptroller's report. In this past November, December, and January, according to the audit, only 28 percent, 34 percent and 38 percent of bikes, respectively, were inspected, when 100 percent of bikes are supposed to be inspected each month. New York City Bike Share, the subsidiary of Alta Bike Share that operates Citi Bike, had laid off 16 maintenance workers in the winter. Even when they were rehired in the spring, bike maintenance levels fell below the requirement.
There's also a bit of a chicken and egg problem. With maintenance problems and cleanliness complaints (another major problem highlighted by the audit), Citi Bike won't easily attract the casual users that would make it profitable. The bike share's pricing structure is set up so members pay one big annual fee that comes out to very little per minute of riding, while casual users like tourists pay much more for short-term rentals.
But change (e.g. more money) may be around the corner. Alta Bike Share is getting an infusion of cash after it was acquired by a group of investors in October. And Citi Bike is planning to raise its annual membership fees from $95 to $149.
Recently, the former head of the MTA was also been brought in to run Citi Bike. At the time of the announcement, my colleague Alissa Walker welcomed it as a step toward treating Citi Bike as a public transit. If Citi Bike can make it on private money alone, great. But if not, perhaps it's time to start funding it like public transit, too. [Gothamist, Washington Post, WSJ]
Top image: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan