Almost every major city in the U.S that didn’t have a bike share system in 2013 made an announcement or signed a contract to get the wheels rolling. Seattle, Baltimore, Atlanta, Orlando, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego and more have projects on the horizon for 2014/2015. But while Capital Bikeshare, NiceRide, Hubway, Montreal, the many B-cycle cities, and others certainly deserve credit for being bike share’s first adopters in North America, it was Citi Bike that thrust bike sharing into the mainstream.
Before Citi Bike, bike share was a cumbersome concept to explain to people. Describing my line of work to family friends at Thanksgiving in 2012 was much different than 2013. I would say, “It’s similar to ZipCar, but with bikes.” Or, “It’s a public transportation system that uses bikes instead of buses or trains.” They’d nod with a vague grasp of what I was talking about. But after Citi Bike’s launch, I only need to mention “bike share” and these same family and friends say something like, “Oh, I heard they have that in New York now.”
Citi Bike was the first North American bike share system to make international headlines. Since its launch, we’ve seen entertainment stars like Seth Meyers, Lindsay Lohan, Mackelmore, and Leonardo DiCaprio riding Citi Bike. Anthony Weiner made headlines after taking one for a spin. Dorothy Rabinowitz’s Wall Street Journal video begrimed the internet and stoked a response from both the Colbert Report and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It seems that every week there’s a newsworthy item centered around Citi Bike, be it a BMX video, infographic, custom RFID keys, or a Tumblr devoted to Citi Bike. There’s even a blogger who has made it a goal to take a photo with every single Citi Bike. A group of hackers made headlines with their ‘hackathon’ to analyze Citi Bike’s data. And NPR recently examined Citi Bike in their piece “Shifting Gears to Make Bike Share More Accessible.”
The bike share industry has joined Citi Bike on its meteoric rise, which is largely due to the huge aforementioned media attention. The Google Insights chart embedded below shows a correlated spike for both Citi Bike and “Bike Share” around the systems launch. It thrust bike share into America’s popular culture, and is at least partially responsible for 2013’s bike share boom. (It even increased bikeshare.com’s hits by an extra few dozen a day.)
Not only has Citi Bike helped propel bike share into the mainstream, it has also been performing at an unprecedented level compared to other programs in the United States. In terms of size and ridership metrics, it’s the first North American bike share system to compete with European cities like Barcelona and Paris. To date, Citi Bike has logged over 11,220,309 miles and 5,928,622 trips (December 2013). Furthermore, the NYCDOT just announced that Citi Bike accounts for ⅓ of all bike traffic within its service area.
At its launch, Citi Bike became the largest system in North America with 6,000 bikes and 275 docking stations. And according to Oliver O’Brien from the University of London, Citi Bike users account for more usage than Barclays Cycle Hire despite having 2,000 fewer bikes. This amounts to around seven trips per day per Citi Bike bike. Of 25 bike share systems surveyed for a recent report by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), Citi Bike was the only U.S system to join the “High Performance” club which included Paris, Montreal, Rio de Janeiro, Lyon, Barcelona, and Mexico City.
One significant factor contributing to Citi Bike’s monumental impact is the market of New York City. Citi Bike is tapping into a huge latent demand that was magnified by the city’s behind-the-scenes efforts to turn the Big Apple into a much more pedestrian and bike-friendly environment. Janette Sadik-Khan, former Commissioner of NYCDOT, has been catapulted into celebrity-status for her groundbreaking work in New York, adding 285 miles of bike lanes and nearly doubling bike mode share in the city. We’ll let the TED Talk below do the talking–but her ability to move mountains cannot be overestimated when discussing Citi Bike’s success.
Another important thing to consider is New York’s density and land use, which is closer to that of Paris or London than any other U.S. city. Manhattan has the highest population density in the country (over 27,000 people per square mile), and the City that Never Sleeps is often considered the cultural and economic hub of the United States. New York is a member of the select club of large American cities that was firmly established before the automobile, and boasts a robust public transit network. This expansive subway, bus, and commuter rail has a gargantuan ‘first-mile, last-mile’ market that was just waiting for bike share’s arrival.
But what has Citi Bike meant for its big bank sponsor? Well, Citibank’s investment has paid off according to internal estimates and it has proved that bike share has value to the private sector. Nick Summers of BusinessWeek reported on a number of indicators like “favorable impression” and Citi’s perception as an “innovative company,” “socially responsible” and “for people like me” which all jumped dramatically. 2013 saw Citi Bank’s best financial performance since the 2008 crash. This stark before and after was much needed by the multinational bank, considering that Citi Bank was hit hard by the Great Recession and had a PR fiasco with the subprime mortgage wildfire it helped stoke. In the same BusinessWeek article, a former Occupy Wall Street protestor extolled her internal conflict with Citi Bike:
“I have massive problems with Citigroup. They shouldn’t exist. But I love Citi Bike. … I used to be too afraid to bike in the city. Now there are so many people biking because of Citi Bike, it feels safe.”
Citi Bike has also had a significant impact on how other cities have chosen to frame their programs’ business models. While there are other instances of privately-owned bike share–namely DecoBike in Miami Beach and B-cycle’s hometown project in Madison–the sponsorship model has taken hold in several cities across the US. Citibank and Mastercard threw down $44 million over the course of five years to sponsor the bike share system, following the model that Barclays Cycle Hire forged. Before Citi Bike, most American bike share systems were grant-funded through local, state, and federal sources. While some systems like NiceRide and Hubway were partially funded through sponsorship with Blue Cross Blue Shield and New Balance, those systems also rely on public money to remain in operation.
Atlanta, San Diego, Orlando, Tampa, Portland, and more have all pursued similar business models predicated on private investment. However, none of the aforementioned cities have successfully recreated the Citi model. Los Angeles, infamously tried and failed to emulate the private model with Bike Nation who was unable to deliver a promised $16 million bike share system. The company blamed the city’s exclusive outdoor advertising deal with CBS Outdoor, but given LA’s position as the #2 media market in the country there’s no reason why a Citi Bike-esque sponsorship couldn’t be negotiated. Additionally, Barclays Cycle Hire in London is now experiencing similar difficulties. It was recently announced that Barclays had failed to deliver more than half of the 50 million pounds promised and will be withdrawing its sponsorship come 2015 when the contract term ends.
While Citi Bike’s model has proven to be successful in New York City, the #1 media market in the country, it remains to be seen if it can be emulated elsewhere. It is entirely possible that Citi Bike is an exception rather than a norm, with a company battered by the Great Recession who owed Mayor Bloomberg a favor after a half-billion dollar bailout. In our interview with Divvy in Chicago, we asked Scott Kubly what he thought of Citi Bike’s success:
“It’s fantastic New York was able to get Citibank to sponsor Citi Bike, but it has also skewed people’s sense of reality of what it takes to implement bike share. And the process of courting Citibank took a long long time for arguably the best media market in the world. London is also a huge media market–they have Barclays. There’s only so many Londons and New Yorks around. If you’re a small Sunbelt city and you’re trying to do everything on the back of a sponsor, it’s probably going to be pretty tough.”
It is important for other city officials and planners to understand that New York is unique when compared to the rest of the United States and boasts a population density two to three times larger than its closest competitors Divvy and Capital Bike Share. What’s right for New York may not work in a city near you.
In part thanks to Citi Bike, bike share isn’t a planner’s utopian dream; its impact as a form of public transportation is being shown trip after trip, mile after mile. It shows that the bike is a viable alternative the automobile, and exposes the public to the power of bicycling. The most important impact of Citi Bike is that it’s raised the bar of bike share and shown America what it can be if you can connect the right dots. Given 2013’s dramatic growth, we’re looking forward to seeing the exponential curve continue into 2014. And stay tuned, bikeshare.com will be there to cover every twist and turn.