Ten Percent of Citi Bike Docks Appear to Fail Each Day

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Some NYC bike share users are finding the Citi Bike experience deflating.

Ten months ago, when Mayor Bloomberg announced Citi Bike would be delayed, he explained why: "The software doesn't work. Duh," he said on his weekly radio show. "Until it works, we're not going to put it out until it does work." Two weeks after the system launched, complaints of software failures are rife. And though the city refuses to release specific information on outages, a WNYC analysis indicates on any given day, about ten percent of docks have been failing.

Moreover, the city had ample warning the software was buggy -- and launched anyway.

To be sure, our analysis isn't perfect. But by scraping station data, the WNYC Data News Team found that, in the last week, an average of 35 stations -- ten percent of the program's 330 stations -- had no activity for four or more hours during the day, indicating no bikes were checked out or returned.

It's possible some of the docks simply weren't used. But many of the stations that didn't show activity for long periods include those near some of the most popular docks. The dock at Broadway and 55th Street was out for long stretches. So were the docks at Broadway and 39th Street, Ninth Avenue and West 18th Street, and Fifth Avenue and 29th Street.

We didn't use data from the Friday's heavy rain so as not to skew the results, and only counted stations listed as "in service" but appeared unused for long stretches between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

We did this analysis because the city has outright refused to answer our questions about the number of down stations, customer complaints, call wait times, and other indicators of system problems. Instead, we received this emailed statement from the city's transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan. "Every new bike share system has had an adjustment period as people learn how to use it and technicians troubleshoot the thousands of moving and virtual parts, and the scale in New York is like nowhere else. The good news is that there are fewer and fewer kinks even as we’re seeing more and more riders."

But that's not what we've experienced, what other journalists have seen, what riders are telling us, or what the numbers show.  (Story continues below)

A look at tweets and posts on Citi Bike's Facebook page center on a number of recurring themes about software glitches, docking problems, and lengthy waits for a customer service representative. The tweets tend to read like this:

  • Had a terrible experience this morning with a lot of stations offline. (1)
  • I'm staring at at an interminable yellow light at a dock. (2)
  • None of these bikes will check out. What's up with that? (3)
  • Looked like a nice day to use CitiBike. 4 stations, 6 failed codes, 2 very long phone calls and 90 mins later I decided to go drink instead. (4)

Now, many of these early riders love the system anyway. They're thrilled to be able to pick up and drop off bikes, and are willing to put up with some glitches at this early stage.  But there are a lot of complaints.

Citi Bike users might be forgiven for thinking they're being gaslighted. (Tweet from Crain's New York reporter Matt Chaban: Getting in a cab again because of a @CitibikeNYC malfunction. Is it me? Starting to think it's me.)

Matt, it's not you. 

In fact, it turns out the nation's largest bike share is beta testing the entire software system. Other than in Chattanooga, Tennessee (31 stations, 300 bikes), the software system used in New York has never been used anywhere. Even in Chattanooga, where the system launch was also delayed, the system isn't perfect, ten months after that city's launch. "Our system has been working satisfactorily," Philip Pugliese, the Chattanooga bicycle coordinator said. But he added "we see it as evolutionary."

New York's bikes look just like the ones in Boston, Minneapolis, Washington, DC, and London. Those cities -- which used the same software developed for Montreal, North America's first large-scale bike share -- did not experience the kind of software issues New York is having. "We did not experience that problem at all," Chris Holben, the director of the bike share system for the District DOT in Washington told us. By the time Washington, DC, launched, the software had been tried out in several other cities.

But New York's bike share underwent a brain transplant before it came to the Big Apple.

It's not clear to what extent New York City officials were aware when they signed the contract with Citibank that they'd be getting an entirely new system. Again, no one is talking. But right before New York announced the sponsorship in May 2012, two things happened. The company that wrote the original software -- 8D -- sued Public Bike Share Company, the supplier for New York's system, for $26 million. PBSC had dumped 8D, saying it could develop its own software from scratch.

Also, that April Chattanooga delayed its bike share launch because of software problems. 

In Tennessee, the break between 8D and PSBC caught officials off-guard. "That was not clear to us when the initial contract was awarded," Pugliese said. "It became clear to us prior to the installation. We made the conscious decision to move forward anyway."

None of this was apparent when Mayor Bloomberg announced on a May morning last year that bike share would launch in July of 2012, and that Citibank would sponsor it. That event that was all sunny optimism: no one let on there would be trouble.

But then, bikeshare didn't launch in July, as scheduled. By August, it was clear that the software wasn't working. "It really is very advanced technology," the mayor said then. "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."

Over the fall and winter, the city worked on testing the system at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Sandy flooded bikes and docks there, delaying the system even more. But even during the testing, sources say, there were problems.

And Chattanooga still wasn't perfect.

Two other cities, Chicago and San Francisco, are slated to use the same software as New York. On Wednesday, Chicago said it would delay its launch by two weeks for "more extensive testing."  Karen Schkolnick, who runs San Francisco bike share, said no specific launch date had been set there.

Right now, Citi Bike users are enthusiastic early adopters, and many are willing to forgive the system's flaws. Some will even wait patiently on hold while the city adds customer service agents and gets them up to speed. 

Citi Bike member Graham Lawlor seemed to speak for a number of users in one of many emails to TN. "In general," he wrote, "I'm a huge, huge fan. There do seem to be a few recurring glitches though."

Lawlor ticked off what he was seeing, which can be summed up in three words: persistent docking problems. He said several stations had no available spaces to return bikes -- despite guidance from the official app. "It kept showing open docks even though there was none," he wrote. He also described a problem many of us at WNYC are experiencing: often, the green light signaling a successful bike return doesn't come on. "You're trapped," said Lawlor. "You wonder if you'll be fined $1,000 for the loss of the bike, if it never shows up as having been returned." And more: "sometimes after returning a bike you don't seem to be able to take out another bike for some time. Twice I returned a bike, tried to take another one but got a red light. I checked my profile on the website and it showed the bike was still checked out. An hour or so later, it registered the bike was returned (and did show the correct timestamp, so I didn't get charged overage). But in the meantime, I couldn't check out another bike."

Another user wrote TN to say she and her partner had bought day passes on Sunday -- but they "received codes that didn't work. Often times, we had to apply for a new code about 3-4 times before being able to ride. We had 30 min. intervals to ride the bike. A bulk of the time was spent riding around looking for empty docking stations to park our bikes because most were full. I received numerous overcharges" as a result.

Despite such stories, the city is refusing to give any indication of the depth of the problem, or say what it's doing to resolve the problem.

Last week, Citi Bike's customer service phone number went down numerous times. Following the line's restoration, the company said on its Facebook page and in emails to bikeshare members that it had "more than doubled the capacity in our Customer Service Center to answer your calls and respond to your e-mails more quickly."

To which one Facebook fan responded: "I wish the docks worked. Then you wouldn't need to staff up customer service."