It might seem that Citi Bike racks — empty or otherwise — have always lined Hell’s Kitchen’s streets, but today the wildly popular urban bike share app celebrates its 10th anniversary, marking a decade of significant change in the way New Yorkers get around.
Originally proposed as an alternative transit service by the Department of Transportation in 2008, Citi Bike officially launched as a public-private partnership with $70 million sponsorship from Citi Bank on May 27, 2013, following years of delays due to software issues and damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The inaugural day yielded just over 6,000 rides, but 10 years later the service has hit a new peak — clocking in 124,000 rides a day according to Streetsblog.
Enthusiasm for the two-wheeled amenity has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic. In the week of March 1, 2020, the service averaged just over 335,000 rides per week, as compared with over 867,000 rides the week of May 7, 2023 (Streetsblog). Last week’s record-breaking rides are up 30 percent from the same period in May 2022 (Curbed), but while some riders have only recently embraced Citi Bike as a socially-distanced, sustainable alternative to the city’s inconsistent subway and bus service, others hopped on from the very beginning.
“Before Citi Bike came along I would buy bikes from the KMart at Astor Place and they would get stolen about once a year,” City Council Member Erik Bottcher, a frequent Citi Bike user, told W42ST. “I would never pay more than $100 for a bike because I knew that it would eventually get stolen — because I left it on the street and didn’t have room for it in my apartment. When Citi Bike came along, it allowed me to bike around the city without having to go through all of that. On the first day of Citi Bike service I opened an account and took out a bike. I’ll never forget the way people would point at the bike as I rode by. It was all very new and exciting.”
“I was lucky enough to be a Founding Member and knew that this was a one-of-a-kind program that would succeed — and whether people like to admit it or not, it’s a success!” reader Cesar told W42ST, sharing a photo of his founding member keychain with us. “It reshaped my work commute, as it became my primary means of transportation unless the weather forced me to take the train.”
Hell’s Kitchen resident Charlie Todd, also a founding member and frequent cyclist, said he joined Citi Bike “the day that you could sign up in 2013,” adding: “Prior to the program launching, I had very rarely been on a bike in New York, and now I’m a total convert!” In addition to not having to worry about having a bike stolen, the speed and convenience of Citi Bike inspired him to become a daily rider. “I was shocked to see how quickly I could get from the UCB Theater in Chelsea to the East Village — it only took 13 minutes!” said Charlie. “People don’t realize how much longer it takes on the subway or bus in crosstown traffic.”
For Charlie and other frequent riders, Citi Bike’s Bike Angels program has also been a boon. Users who return bikes to empty stations gain extended memberships, which can amount to significant discounts for those who pay $200 a year for unlimited access. “I also get some satisfaction added to the fact that I’m doing my neighbors a favor by returning a bike,” said Charlie. “It’s nice when I return a bike near 9th Avenue and there’s somebody standing there waiting and then they hop on the bike!”
The service has not been without its challenges over a decade in the city. In addition to issues of lesser access granted to socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods, riders who don’t obey rules of traffic and an uneven redistribution of bikes around town, rideshare app Lyft’s 2018 takeover concerned some users as Citi Bike moved from public-private to wholly private ownership. Unlike Citi Bank, which paid a contract fee of $70.5 million in 2014 to retain advertising and naming rights through 2024, Lyft — which also operates bike share services in Denver, Portland, Oregon, Columbus, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington DC — paid $100 million to continually operate and expand the Citi Bike service, adding triple the amount of docks and introducing popular e-bikes to the fleet.
“Though I’ve seen several improvements towards bike infrastructure in the city, there’s still a lot of safety concerns that I hope get addressed,” said Cesar, “not to mention the bad apples that tend to give Citi Bikers and cyclists a bad rep, though I’m optimistic that things will change for the better.”
Lyft has also seen its share of troubles, with co-founders Logan Green and John Zimmer departing the company in April amid operational and financial challenges, leading some New Yorkers to worry that the city could be left without one of its biggest transit alternatives should the startup experience a meltdown. Streetsblog reported that Mayor Eric Adams promised to publicly subsidize Citi Bike during his 2020 campaign, but he has yet to do so. “I think it should be subsidized as vital public transportation — it’s a little scary that it’s owned by Lyft,” said Charlie. “They can raise prices as they see fit, or Lyft could go bankrupt because their car sharing model is unsustainable. I hope long term we can move towards Citi Bike being considered a form of public transportation more than it is now.”
Other transit advocates, like Oonee free bike parking founder Shabazz Stuart, have suggested that Citi Bike integrate its payment options with the MTA’s OMNY program to increase accessibility. “It would be a great option for on-demand riders who don’t have a subscription,” Shabazz told Curbed. “While it wasn’t possible with the MetroCard, Citi Bike–subway transfers are conceptually possible with OMNY.”
But despite its problems, many New Yorkers are happy to have the option to hop on. Shabazz told Curbed, “On my way home one Saturday morning, not too long after the program launched, I realized that my subway line was down. I detest shuttle buses and I didn’t want to spend the money for a cab. Then, I realized that there was a third option. There is nothing quite like cycling through the city in the early dawn.”