Citibike Not Earning Its Keep

New York City’s bikeshare system, while popular, is inching towards bankruptcy and bleeding more money every day. So what the hell is going on? One problem is that it’s popular with local users who get the yearlong passes with a much lower profit margin than the single-use passes intended to fund the system. The idea of visiting New York City and hopping on one of these bikes on a whim does seem like a bit of a stretch.

With, “How to Make a Bikeshare Fair and Functional” Jordan Fraade at the Baffler looks at the bigger picture:

The other major factor contributing to Citi Bike’s financial troubles is one that, unlike its reliance on short-term users, is unique to New York: the system was designed to operate entirely with private money. No other bikeshare system in the United States works this way, and it’s not hard to see the connection between Citi Bike’s funding structure and the ideology of the mayor who oversaw the program’s rollout. A central Bloombergian tenet—perhaps the central tenet—was a belief in the unique wisdom of the private sector. This attitude extended from the mayor’s beliefs on social services and philanthropy to his notions about what sorts of people were capable of running the nation’s largest school system. It wasn’t hard for Citi Bike to find a home under the aegis of this worldview.

The problem, of course, is that transit programs never fund themselves. They are inherently money-losing ventures. Trains and buses do not turn a profit. Roads and other forms of driving infrastructure do not pay for themselves, either—in fact, they’re the most shameless offenders of all when it comes to an endless appetite for public subsidy. And so to set profit as the goal of any transit system, whether it’s Citi Bike or long-distance rail, is to fundamentally miss the fact that public transit should be conceived as a public good.

According to Transportation Alternatives, 91% of taxpayers support using public money to fund the system.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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4 Comments / Post A Comment

E$ (#1,636)

Great article! I hadn’t really thought about how rarely transit makes money and how fast it uses resources (in general).

I wonder if they thought about either raising the price of the year-long passes or putting some Citibike racks in Central Park explicitly aimed at a tourism crowd. My third idea, which like the second would require spending more money to make money, is to create helmet rental kiosks near the Citibike racks most likely to be used by tourists. Not having a helmet is a major factor keeping me from trying Citibike (I know there must be places to rent them, but the logistics of that made my head spin). None of these solve the central problem but they could stop the bleeding a bit, I think.

ATF (#4,229)

Compare and contrast that with Hubway, the bike share program in Boston. There was just a long article in the Globe the other day about peachy its finances were. It’s subscriber only, so I’ll give the highlights.

Basically Mayor Menino (more popular than kittens!) was all “not so sure about this but let’s try” and had the City of Boston split the costs 50-50 with Alta Bicycle Share. Now 4yrs later, Boston will pay Alta for the full operations cost but get all the profits. And I will continue to have an 8-10 minute commute to work 7 months out of the year or so. Everyone wins!

beet hummus (#946)

@ATF
That is awesome.
CMONNNN NEW YORK, FIGURE IT OUT! I <3 Citibike.

danbo (#6,061)

There used to be a Citibike rack on 6th and B that seems to have been removed in the last month or so. I just figured that they figured it was not an efficient location. Today, I cross 2nd and B to find a brand new rack being installed. Private sector wisdom = take dozens of bikes off the street for months to move racks four blocks away.

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