Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
(UPDATED 9:55am) There will be no shiny blue Citi Bikes on the streets of New York until March.
"Unfortunately there are software issues" said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg Friday on his radio show on WOR with John Gambling. The mayor said: "One of the newspapers keeps writing, 'you're hiding something.' Yeah, well, nothing. The software doesn't work. Duh. Until it works, we're not going to put it out until it does work."
"We did think there would be a possibility of a partial launch but at this point --
At which point, Gambling interjected: "Next year?"
"The spring," Mayor Bloomberg responded. "Hopefully the software will work by then. We want to make sure that it works. Washington and Boston are pretty good tests." The Mayor added that "mother nature" makes winter a poor time to launch a system.
A press release from the NYC Department of Transportation (full text below) sent out shortly after the Mayor's radio statement clarified the launch date will be "March" for phase 1 of the program, which will include 7,000 bikes at 420 stations. The statement did not specify what neighborhoods, or with what pace the bikes would be deployed.
Chicago also delayed its launch until spring, and before its own system went live, Boston delayed so as not to have the system get going just as a cold, northeast winter was getting under way. Bike share relies on physical activity, and streets clear of snow and ice.
The New York bike share program was to have launched July 31. But that day came and went with city officials tight-lipped about why. Mayor Bloomberg only said the problem had to do with software issues.
"It really is very advanced technology," the Mayor said Friday. "Each station is like a dock, each place you stick in a bike is a computer, and everything runs on solar power so you don't need a lot of wiring and there's no burden on the electrical system. There's an enormous number of transactions you have to communicate in real time to central computers."
With 10,000 bikes at full roll-out New York's system will be, by several orders of magnitude, the largest system in U.S., and the largest in North America. The next largest U.S. system is in Washington, with about 2,000 bikes.
Even before Friday's announcement, there were indications that the initial, breathless announcements may have been overly optimistic. When it named its sponsor, the city let it slip out that launching the system would take 13 months, and that neighborhoods like Park Slope and the Upper West Side wouldn't get bike share until 2013.
That turned out to be because finding a sponsor took so much longer than anticipated, and because of that the vendor who is supplying New York with its bikes, Alta Bicycle Share, didn't have any money in hand to order bikes until months later than planned.
Alta is also preparing large bike shares for San Francisco and Chicago. The Chicago system, set to be 4,000 bikes, is similarly delayed, and the losing vendor in that city has sued, saying the Chicago transportation commissioner, Gabe Klein, had an inappropriate consulting relationship with Alta. A Klein spokesman says there's nothing untoward and that Klein recused himself from Chicago's selection.
Alta is the only vendor in the U.S. who has undertaken large-scale bike share systems, running both the Washington, DC and Boston networks. Those programs are widely deemed to be successful, and both are expanding. They both use a previous version of software, made by a different vendor, than newer Alta bike share systems. Boston's launch was also delayed by several months when it opened with 600 bikes in Summer 2011.
On Thursday, at an unrelated press conference in Coney Island, Brooklyn, the mayor said: “We’re trying to figure out when we can put a date that we’re sure or reasonably sure that it will work."
He said the reason for New York's delay is straightforward. “Look,” he said, “everybody wants to say there’s a secret agenda here. The software doesn’t work. And putting it out when the software doesn’t work, it wouldn’t work. Period.”
He wet on: “The fascinating thing is those people who screamed they didn’t want bicycles are now screaming ‘where are they?’. So I guess we’ve come a long way and [are] going in the right direction. Nobody would put it out quicker than me.”
On Friday, cycling advocates praised the Mayor's edition. " “While we are eager for Citi Bike to begin, it’s more crucial that this ground-breaking transit system be launched correctly, not quickly, " said Paul Steely White, the Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives.
"New York’s public bike share program will not only be the largest bike share system in the Western Hemisphere, it will also be the city’s first brand-new, full-scale form of public transit since the subway’s debut more than 100 years ago—this is not a moment to rush. When bike share launches in 2013, it will transform New York City by giving New Yorkers unprecedented convenience and freedom of mobility. In time, the circumstances of Citi Bike’s launch will be all but forgotten and we’ll all be enjoying a city made safer, healthier and less congested," Steely White added.
The contract inked between Alta Bicycle Share and New York City last September, which Transportation Nation has obtained, stipulated the company was to have least 1,000 bikes on the street on or before July 31.
Thereafter, Alta was supposed to have added at least 75 stations per ten business days, building to 7,000 bikes by September 30.
The announcement came on a summer Friday, typical a time politicians use to announce news they hope will garner little attention.
Bloomberg said Thursday there were no penalties for a delay.
“It’s all private money. And the people who’ve put up the money, particularly the two big sponsors, Citibank and MasterCard, are fully aware of what’s going on and they have been as supportive as you possibly can be. The city loses because we don’t have bicycles, but the city doesn’t lose any money or anything, and we all want to get it done as quickly — but you’ve got to do it right.”
The city’s Department of Transportation and Alta -- which is contractually not allowed to speak without prior DOT approval -- had been ciphers on the delay. Even Citi Bike’s official twitter account has been dark for a week.
But on Friday, the city issued DOT its longest statement in months on bike share.
The New York City Department of Transportation (DOT), bike share operator New York City Bike Share (NYCBS) today announced that the Citi Bike system will launch in March 2013 with an initial phase of 7,000 bikes implemented at 420 stations. The timeline, agreed to by all parties, does not affect the Citi Bike sponsorship structure, which uses $41 million in private funding from Citi to underwrite the system for five years and ensures that NYCBS will split profits with the City.
“New York City demands a world-class bike share system, and we need to ensure that Citi Bike launches as flawlessly as New Yorkers expect on Day One,” said DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. “The enthusiasm for this program continues to grow and we look forward to bringing this affordable new transportation option to New Yorkers without cost to taxpayers.”
“NYCBS continues to be committed to bringing the largest and best solar-powered bike share system in the world to New York City,” said Alison Cohen, President. “We recognize that New Yorkers are eagerly anticipating the launch of the bike share system and we will deliver on that promise.”
NYCBS continues work to conclude manufacture and testing of the high-performance software necessary to operate the new system, which is being tailored for New York City. The system uses new solar power arrays and circuit boards, and engineers will continue to thoroughly test data communications, power management and payment systems to ensure overall system performance. Following the March launch, work will continue to expand the system to 10,000 bikes, covering parts of Manhattan and from Long Island City to parts of Brooklyn.