Saturday, June 7, 2014

Citibike - first impressions

I received my Citibike key last week and have been using it moderately. I have bikes of my own, and, being an athletic bike rider, it's not exactly my style, but it's useful at times, so I plan to use it from time to time.

What is the bike like?

If I were tasked with designing a bike that hundreds of thousands of people would use and told to design for the lowest common denominator rider, I might come up with a similar design. To be durable, they are heavy, i.e. about 50 pounds (23 kg). To be easy to ride, the rider position is upright. The handling is similar to that on a French moped: turn the handlebars, hardly leaning the bike at all. To be possible to pedal all that weight with a not-all-that-strong physique, provide three very low gears.

All of that combines to make a very slow bike. When I try to pedal it hard, it punishes me. I barely get any extra speed, but I create a whole lot more sweat. I get the most out of the bike when I pedal very gently.

All the gears are extremely low. But it's not insane, given the design requirements. I call them 3. slow, 2. super-slow, and 1. oh-forget-it. Since the bike is heavy, I almost always start from a standing stop in 2nd gear and then immediately shift to 3rd. I can't imagine using 1st myself, but some people will find it useful. At least they can't complain there isn't a low enough gear. Choice of a three-speed internally geared rear hub is another smart choice for reliability and durability.

The brakes are barely adequate. The brakes drum brakes, internal to the wheel hubs and are, I presume, chosen for durability and reliability, and I don't blame them. Unfortunately, I have to squeeze them pretty darned hard to get some good power. I have large and strong hands! And the levers are straight out in front of the handlebars, which seems pretty stupid to me. Maybe that's better for short people whose shoulders are level with the handlebars, but then how can they operate the brakes with their smaller hands? Probably by not letting the bike coast fast down a hill.

The seat is heavily padded but doesn't support me very well. Well, there's no such thing as a bike seat that everyone can like, and perhaps this will do the job.

Tires are heavy and ride harshly, given their fat size. Again, I'm sure they're chosen for their durability and reliability, which is wise.

Lights are barely adequate. The headlight and tail light both flash. They are powered by a dynamo integral to the front hub. They don't light the path, but they are not designed to. The use of a dynamo is very wise. There is no battery to charge or run down, and the system is extremely reliable.

The bell is barely adequate. I use it a lot, and pedestrians hear it. I'm not sure, but some motorists probably hear it, sometimes. It basically says, "I'm here, and I'm coming," but it does not say, "Oh my God, you better watch out!" I've found that it works better when I turn the wheel bell by pushing it with my thumb, not pulling it. Again, the weak sound might be the result of a compromise between sound and durability. If so, then they chose wisely.

The upright riding position makes for a slow ride, but it is excellent at making it easy for the rider to look around and feel confident. The combination of this position and the heavy, sturdy ride make it feel very safe. I can careen over extremely rough surfaces and potholes and know that I won't fall. This is probably the best feature of the bike.

I never thought I would be saying this, but one big annoyance for me is the gear shifter. It's a twist shift, and this is largely a matter of taste. I strongly prefer trigger shifters over twist shifters. But that's my problem, right? Well, worse than that, you twist backwards to shift up and forwards to shift down. I don't know why this bothers me so much, but it does. Maybe one gets used to this, but I'm amazed at how uncomfortable I find this to be.


With all of the emphasis on durability, how are the bikes faring? I'd say pretty well, after a year of very heavy use. I got one bike yesterday whose rear wheel was rubbing on the frame with every revolution. I should have left a note on it for the mechanics. When a bike isn't working, the convention is to leave the seat positioned backwards. This is a signal to users that the bike is not fit to ride and to the mechanics, too. If I had done so, I wonder how long before it was fixed. The bike was not unrideable, but the wheel needed truing at the very least. Another bike I used didn't like to stay in 3rd gear unless I shifted very hard. Not a big problem, but bikes need maintenance, no matter what, even when they're this sturdy.

Finding and docking a bike

One of the great things about using Citibike instead of one's own bike is that you pretty much know where you can pick up a bike, and you know where you can drop one off. This saves time in preparing the bike for use and bringing it out of your home. No need to lock it up to a signpost or rack, no need to carry a lock. Great, but it's not perfect. Sometimes, when you want a bike, your nearest docking station has no (working) bikes left. And sometimes, when you want to dock a bike, your nearest docking station is full. These things are likely to happen if you are following the population's usage pattern, so this happens fairly often. Last night, I was six blocks from home on foot, and I saw a station full of bikes. Just for fun, I decided to ride it to the next docking station, three blocks away, on the way home. I planned to dock it there and then walk the other three blocks home. But that station was full, and so were three others I visited. I ended up riding about a mile and walking a half mile. I wasn't in a hurry, so it was just a silly adventure for me, but this illustrates the problem a bit. The managing company does its best to balance the stations. They take bikes from full stations and transport them to empty stations. It's a big job, and they will never be able to completely catch up. They do this with both trucks and bikes. The trucks can hold about 20 bikes. The bikes tow trailers that carry four bikes each. They use bikes because they slip through traffic better than trucks do.

Areas of service

I hear there are plans to expand the coverage area, which will involve installing docking stations at more locations and probably adding bikes. The next area planned is the upper east side, which is a good choice. I don't need to ride there often, but many people would use it there. I need to ride to the upper west side often, so I can't use Citibike for that. I live in the West Village and go to many places in the service area. I'm lucky. If you live or work outside the service area, Citibike isn't very useful.

Finance and cost

I do hope the financing of the system can be addressed. Citibike started with a big grant from Citibank. They have little incentive to keep funding it, now that their name is on so many bikes. The city doesn't want to fund it. The annual membership fee is $95, which is a terrific value. You could say it's too low, because finding an organization willing to pay the remaining costs looks hard. There's no way it costs that little to let me ride these bikes for a year for $95. And since the low cost is a reason for people not to ride their bikes, bike shops are hurting badly. I'm not happy about that.


Citibike doesn't provide helmets, and I prefer to wear one while cycling, so I usually carry one when I expect to use it. A couple of times I used it without planning to, so I rode helmetless. One interesting side effect is that I now see people walking in the streets wearing helmets, because they are about to ride a Citibike or have just ridden one. And I have joined these people. We don't get stared at, because it's not unusual.


Overall, I'd say the bike is a good design for the job, and the system works fairly well. There is a smartphone app that shows you where the docking stations are and how many bikes and open slots they have. It doesn't work perfectly and sometimes does not state the truth. But given the huge task of the system, it's very good. I give it an A- grade overall.