The Wall Street Journal last week had a tough article on the financial health of the city's bike share system, revealing that it needs "tens of millions of dollars" to stay afloat. The Daily News then piled on over the weekend, reporting that the company that oversees the program "has been slow to check and clean its bicycles, and to repair broken docking stations." In an editorial coup de grace, the tabloid's editorial page yesterday urged riders to boycott the program unless service improves.
But New Yorkers – including myself – seem to be voting with their feet. Close to 100,000 people have signed up for annual memberships for the program and close to seven million rides have been taken on the bikes since they hit the streets ten months ago. For almost all of September, at least 30,000 daily rides were being taken on the system – with the number at about 10,000 a day in this chilly month.
From a ridership standpoint, the program is clearly a success. Even last month, the average Citi Bike went on 1.5 trips a day. (In September, a bike went on an average of six trips.) The bikes are heavily used – so heavily that the program's operators are sometimes struggling to make sure there are enough spaces or enough bikes in certain docking stations. And as the Daily News noted, there always seems to be a couple of broken bikes languishing in a docking station, stuck there like a popcorn kernel that won't pop.
On the money front, The Wall Street Journal did a great job explaining that while the annual Citi Bike membership numbers are strong, the system is suffering financially because the organizers overestimated how many people would buy 24-hour passes for the bikes; tourists simply aren't using the program enough. (In wintry February, only about 7,000 of the 247,000 trips were taken by people buying weekly or day passes.)
But a program's imperfection isn't necessarily a good argument against it. Citi Bike has done a good job helping tens of thousands of New Yorkers get around on an average day – despite the fact the program is still limited to only about half of Manhattan and a swath of Brooklyn.
The bikes have also helped New York become greener and healthier; I've taken dozens of trips where in the past I would have considered taking a cab because mass transit didn't come that close to my destination. In addition, the safety disaster that some of the naysayers predicted for the program really hasn't come to fruition; not a single Citi Bike rider has been killed since the program was launched.
So what happens if the program continues to operate in the red? Unlike every other city in the country that operates a bike share program, New York's is entirely privately financed. In the end, even if a better money manager takes over the program, it's not clear that it is independently sustainable without some sort of government help or a large rate increase. But that's also the case for every other mass transit system out there from the subway to the bus to the free Staten Island ferry.
Although Mayor de Blasio has initially resisted suggestions that the city help bail out the program, someone should do the math for City Hall. The amount of time, money, and aggravation that it would take to remove the docking stations and end the program would be a colossal waste. Like subways and yellow cabs, the bikes have quickly become part of the city's landscape. It would be wiser to give Citi Bike a helping hand rather than toss the program onto the scrap heap.