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Should NYC Buy Citi Bike?

At a time when New York is about to implement congestion pricing to put pressure on private car use, Citi Bike usage is surging.

Citi Bike launched in 2013 with an initial fleet of 6,000 bicycles — and 46,854 rides were taken in the first week. Two months ago, the bike share program logged 867,840 rides, a record, and now has 30,000 bikes. About 6,000 of them are the new and fast-growing category of e-bikes.

By any measure, Citi Bike is a hit.

Janette Sadik-Khan, the transportation commissioner in the Bloomberg Administration when Citi Bike made its debut, told The New York Times that riding a bike in New York used to be “blood sport, like a Mad Max warrior on a city street.” Indeed, I was a biker in the city long before that, and it was exhilarating — but pretty damned dangerous.

There were 1,525 miles of bike lanes as of 2022. And, there’s a plan in the works to build 250 miles of protected bike lanes by 2025. Transportation Alternatives reports that the city is woefully behind schedule, meeting just 19% of its target of 50 new miles in 2023.

So where does Citi Bike go from here? The Verge reports that more than 114,000 people rode Citi Bike each day in June 2023, and yet Citi Bike is now for sale.

The company that launched Citi Bike’s big flagship program, Motivate, was sold to Lyft in 2018 for a reported $250 million. Logan Green and John Zimmer, Lyft’s founders, have left — and the new CEO immediately fired over 1,000 employees. So Lyft’s troubles in the ride-share business darken the bike-share economy.

And even as New York embraces pedal power, there’s reasons to be wary. The pricing in New York is puzzling, and often a quick ride can end up surprisingly close to the cost of a taxi. Given Lyft’s economic problems, price hikes seem almost inevitable. Curbed reports that the Wheels system run by Lyft in San Francisco has been hit by surprise rate changes, resulting in massive price increases. Portland, also a Lyft city, saw per-minute fees jump as electric bikes replaced the nonelectric fleet.

What’s around the corner? Municipalities are rethinking the profit motives of bikes as they become a larger part of the fabric of public transport. In Austin and Los Angeles, the city bike share systems are managed and part of the public-transit system.

Lyft’s financial problems, and New York’s increasing dependence on bikes as part of public transit, may make it complicated to resolve without a change. Lyft’s stock price has dropped from nearly $80 a share in 2019 to a low near $8 in May, though it recovered somewhat to $11.56 on July 24.

If you think about it, the Lyft bike business is at its core dramatically different than its ride share business. Lyft drivers own and maintain the vehicles. The fleet of Citi Bikes are owned and maintained by Lyft — which is an expensive and complicated logistical challenge. The Wall Street Journal reports that the bike division is looking for either a strategic partner or an exit.

Which brings us to the MTA. New York’s MTA has been making some strides in technology, making bus to subway transfers seamless with use of the OMNY payment app. Bringing bikes into the system could make bike to bus to subway travel hand-offs seamless. And as New Yorkers find themselves more used to embracing bikes, the risk of huge price increases and service reductions could hamper New York’s move toward a healthier and more sustainable city.

Why not make Citi Bike part of the MTA system? Seems like an idea whose time has come.

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