How Not to Use New York's Bike Share

New York 's Transportation Department and Citibank jointly introduced their bike share program Monday, but rather than drool over the shiny blue bikes, journalists focused on the prices, which some thought to be too high, but some of their arguments ignored or undersold the way cities intend people to use the bike share system.

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New York 's Transportation Department and Citibank jointly introduced their bike share program Monday, but rather than drool over the shiny blue bikes, journalists focused on the prices, which some thought to be too high. Critics aptly identified ways one could rack up a huge bill using the program, but some of their arguments ignored or undersold the way cities intend people to use the bike share system.

New York's program will mimic popular bike sharing systems in dozens of other cities, like Washington D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare. Users can pay a daily, monthly, or annual fee to take bikes from electronic racks placed throughout the city and return the bikes to any other rack. Users pay an additional charge after the first 30 minutes that increases as one keeps the bike out longer. New York's prices are higher than those in other cities, and this seemed to be the feature that captivated the coverage. Headlines declared: "New York’s expensive bikeshare" (Reuters) "CitiBike, NYC's Bike Share, Will Cost $77 For A Four-Hour Ride" (Gothamist), and "NYC Bike-Share Program Is Citibank Blue and Pretty Pricey" (New York's Daily Intel).

Here's what you should keep in mind when evaluating the pricing scheme: Bicycles are great for both utility and recreation. Bike shares are great for utility, but terrible for recreation. Bloomberg News reports that the city intends the program to be "a low-cost transit alternative in a city where almost half the workforce lives within 5 miles (8 kilometers) of its place of work." They do not want you to keep the bike out for a long time. The ability to leave the bike at any rack makes it great for commutes and not-so-great for day-long leisure rides.

A few of the articles cited above noted this -- "For short rides the pricing is pretty great, we admit," writes Gothamist -- but only after focusing first on the  way New York's prices quickly rack up when used recreationally. To do this, several writers devised horrible ways one might use CitiBike. Herein, their lessons in how not to use it, and our lessons on how to improve on their plans.

Don't go to Governor's Island: Felix Salmon writes in Reuters: "If you take the bike around Governor’s Island, for instance, and stay there for a couple of hours, you’re likely going to end up in the 3-hour time bracket, which is $49. On top of your $10 daily rental." Don't do that! Salmon laments that the prices for this kind of journey aren't closer to London's. But the prices in other American cities, while lower, work to prohibit this kind of day trip, too. It would cost $45 in D.C. for instance or $43 in Boston. That's less than in New York, but still far more than the price to rent from a more traditional bike rental shop for that length of time.

Instead ... More traditional bike rental places still exist, and if this is your weekend plan, you are indeed better off using one of them. Alternatively, pay the $10 daily fee, bike from your hotel to Central Park and walk around. Then bike home. No extra charge provided you're staying within a 30 minute bike ride.

Don't keep a bike for six hours: Daily Intel's Joe Coscarelli says the program is "more expensive than similar programs in Washington, D.C., and London, where a six-hour bike-riding day would be much less than New York's $131. For a one-off day trip, the subway is a much better deal, and even a taxi could be more cost-effective." That's only if you keep the bike for the full six hours. (A taxi could not be more cost effective for a six hour ride, it would certainly cost you more than $131.)

Instead... Keep your rides under 30 minutes. He means to say that a taxi or the subway would be a better way to get from stop to stop as you visit multiple destinations on your day trip to New York, but this isn't necessarily true. The $10 day pass could be a great way for you to see the sights, depending on your itinerary. If you're trying to do Manhattan in a day you need only replace four subway rides (or one cab ride) with short-ish bike rides to make the price worthwhile. Just leave the bikes in a rack while you hit up a museum or see a show and you won't get charged to take them out again.

Don't race the clock. Annual members get 45 minutes to keep a bike before the start accruing charges. New York Observer's Foster Kamer writes, "That annual rate seems like a bad idea, in so far as Manhattan will have a new (likely inexperienced) segment of bike riders speeding through Manhattan like they’re seasoned couriers so that they can clock in before they hit that 44 minute mark." Indeed, if you are trying to fit an hour long bike commute into 45 minutes even as you actively learn to ride your bike, it's probably time to update the life insurance policy.
Instead... Well, actually, Kamer has a point. After 45 minutes, New York charges $4. Compare that to a $2.50 subway ride and you figure that people with longer commutes would choose the subway. In D.C. you can use the bike for up to an hour and get charged only $2, which is much closer to the price you'd probably pay on the Metro.
So yes, New York's pricing plan could be improved. But we don't think the big take-away from yesterday's news should have been how expensive a six hour rental would be under the pricing scheme. Bike share programs aren't for everyone. They seem best used by tourists who want to stop and visit a lot of Manhattan sights in a short period of time or occasional and spontaneous bike commuters who want the convenience of one-way trips and live reasonably close to their destination. If you can get to and from work on a CitiBike in under 45 minutes, your annual rate would start paying for itself in the form of replaced subway rides after just 19 round trips. Would it be nice if New York lowered its prices? Yes. Should the city continue to track whether the graduated rate excludes commuters from the outer boroughs? Absolutely.  Could CitiBike totally fail if, for instance, they don't place racks strategically or distribute bikes efficiently? Definitely. But if all goes well, it will probably appeal to the kinds of people for whom it was designed, and it might even save them money.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.