Ten Percent of Citi Bike Docks Appear to Fail Each Day

Tuesday, June 11, 2013 - 01:05 PM

Some NYC bike share users are finding the Citi Bike experience deflating. (Collin Campbell)

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."


    Steven Melendez


    Comments [24]

    Greg from New York City

    CitiBike NYC Overcharging Users

    Sep. 06 2013 07:30 PM

    The bikes are shitty and machines do not work properly. I got overcharge 128 doll simply because their machine didnt work properly and didnt give me a day pass. Do. Not use those bikes they gonna rob ur credit card. Shity shitty shitty.

    Jul. 24 2013 09:04 AM
    Fredsky from San Diego

    I have long ago moved to SoCal but I still remember the snow ploughing issues in NYC. Those frigid winter winds, days of rain? Considering the nature of the weather in NY I wonder on what percentage of the days of a year those bikes will be useable at all?

    Jun. 22 2013 05:49 PM
    SKV from NYC

    The fact that Bloomberg & Co were stupid enough to buy a virtually untested new product rather than the proven standard, and install it with insufficient testing, tells us all we need to know about his supposed "business expertise." Any competent systems person knows you don't re-invent the wheel -- but if you do, you test the bejesus out of it BEFORE you go live.

    Unless, of course, you have nothing but contempt for your users.

    And of course, the fact that they're refusing to report the truth about the glitches tells us more than we needed to know about that.

    Can't wait to be rid of this petty little dictator with his Napoleon complex.

    Jun. 19 2013 10:41 AM
    Jeff from Manhattan

    If you had to rely on the station at 46th Street & 11th Avenue, you would probably qualify for writing one of those flaming NY Post articles. Honestly, I'll bet the failure rate is a little higher than 10%. Now I'm starting to see more and more flat tires, broken seats and missing pedals too.

    Jun. 18 2013 06:44 PM
    George G.

    This problem (stations being down) was supposedly fixed late last week. Going out for a ride now so we'll see...

    Jun. 15 2013 03:41 PM

    I love the freedom of the bikes but these software glitches have to be fixed and soon. My first two rides were registered as having lasted 21 and 6 hours each even though I returned both bikes in under 25 minutes and waited until I got the green light when I docked them. The service rep said they wouldn't charge me but ... fingers crossed. Untested software, what were they thinking?!

    Jun. 14 2013 03:26 PM

    Rob from NY - EXACTLY... I don't even use Bikeshare - but I find these complaints to be more annoying than anything. Every single day there is some transportation technology that fails. I still have problems with Metro Cards. This program has been open for 2 weeks with a brand new software.

    Jun. 13 2013 12:49 PM

    I'm still a big supporter, but I've had docking and billing issues myself. I've spent more time on the phone with or emailing Citi Bike than on two wheels.

    Jun. 13 2013 09:13 AM
    James in NYC from Manhattan

    The program is not ready for prime time, because of the frequent outages of entire banks of docking stations. This means you are left wandering from station to station to end your ride. In less than a week of rides, I have encountered a broken pedal and a flat tire, both rendering the bikes inoperable. In addition, I have had a bike which I could not dock, regardless of docking station. I was told - via the help line - to just leave it at the station undocked, as the GPS in the bikes renders it foolhardy to steal them (hope so!).

    All that said, the growing awareness of the program - the bikes themselves on the streets are the best marketing - will undoubtedly lead to increasing usage in the first few months. Whether the bikes evolve into a reliable form of transportation, suitable for commuting, for example, remains to be seen.

    Jun. 12 2013 10:24 PM
    Tony from Manhattan

    Despite the initial problems, CitiBike membership and usage appears to be growing steadily:

    Jun. 12 2013 05:30 PM

    Here's a tip: Go to o'brien's bike share map and click on the station you want. Look at the station activity graph to see if your station has "flat-lined":

    Jun. 12 2013 05:00 PM
    Staack from Manhattan

    Thank you for the "Station Outage Map" it will prove to be quite useful until the software problems are sorted out. I live in Manhattan and started using Bike Share to commute to Brooklyn (DUMBO). I recently figured out my solution to the 10% outage issue.

    Coming off the Manhattan Bridge, there are 3 stations between the Bridge exit in Brooklyn, and my office. Although York Street is not the closest station, it is only a 5-minute walk to 55 Washington Street, so if I see that it works, I will dock it there. If it doesn't work, I know that there are two other stations that I can try that will be closer to the office.

    Although I have experienced 1 or 2 strikes, I have not struck out yet. I am looking forward to going a week with no strikes at all!

    Jun. 12 2013 03:03 PM

    These stations dead within the last hour. They don't show up on your map.

    William and Pine

    Barclay and Church

    River Terrace and North End Ave.

    Jun. 12 2013 02:39 PM
    Patty from Chelsea

    What do you mean "scraping station data"? From Bike Share?

    Jun. 12 2013 02:20 PM
    Jay from 10002

    Hey InnovateNYC -- wouldn't those bikes all be thrown in the East River by vandals, if they're not locked down when not in use?

    Jun. 12 2013 01:59 PM

    It's the future, folks, so all the car-lovers should stop whining. It is inevitable that we will spend a lot more time walking, riding bikes, and using other means of getting around in the future. Maybe rowboats if the oceans rise. The bike programs which are springing up in cities around the country are a terrific start to finding a way to getting people to begin to think of new ways to live. Not to mention the fact that it would be better for all able-bodied people to build exercise into their lives. Good for Bloomberg.

    Jun. 12 2013 12:57 PM

    Oh wow, thanks that station outage map is so useful. Please keep it up and running until Alta get's their systems sorted.

    Direct link for anyone who wants to bookmark:

    Jun. 12 2013 11:04 AM
    Chris Oleary from Brooklyn, NY

    James Thompson, that's some fuzzy math to determine success or failure.

    Citibike is now at 182,000 rides since launch. That's over 12,000 trips per day - close to three trips per bike - in a period that included many rainy days, all the glitches described here, and a week where only annual members could use the system. The bikes have traveled more than half a million miles in just 15 days.

    It's also intellectually disingenuous to use the city's population as a point of comparison, since Citibike's footprint covers only a small portion of the city in both area and population.

    Sunday alone saw over 22,000 rides on Citibike - higher than the daily ridership of all but four MTA bus lines in Manhattan. Would you call the MTA's bus system a folly?

    Finally, it's hard to imagine that the 60,000 people who have purchased a daily, weekly, or annual pass so far are "mostly cycling zealots." The vast majority of people I've spoken with on Citibike rarely rode a bike - or even owned one - before getting on one of these, myself included.

    Jun. 12 2013 10:28 AM
    Rob from NY

    Sure, it is frustrating, but it hasn't been two weeks! I'm looking forward to the glitches being fixed on some of the other transportation systems in the Metro NY area.

    How are the closures every time it rains on the Saw Mill Pkwy in Westchester going? (about 75 years now)
    Why does my EZ-Pass reader seem to stop working every few months, and why is the toll of the car behind me showing up on my bill? (about 20 years now)
    Why does my MetroCard reader still require 3 swipes to work? (about 12 years now)
    Why are all the HOV lanes never enforced for HOV, and just seem to lead to more cars on the road? (about 20 years now)

    Jun. 12 2013 09:30 AM
    James Thompson from Lower Manhattan

    It's on its way to failure now. A mere 170,000 rides per week in a city of 8.3 million - mostly from the cycling zealots? A drop in the bucket.

    Wait till the novelty wears off.

    This will be known a Bloomberg's Folly.

    Jun. 12 2013 07:39 AM

    Chattanooga just upgraded their system Monday (& shut down the whole thing all day while doing so) and has had problems getting all the stations back online. Hope the NYC upgrade goes a little better...

    Jun. 12 2013 12:52 AM
    Chris from Brooklyn, NY

    Enough already, InnovateNYC! You keep spamming every article about bikeshare with a harebrained system that simply wouldn't work on the scale and density of New York. It's great for Hoboken, but not here.

    Jun. 11 2013 11:48 PM

    bikeshare technology is also shifting fast away from the smart-dock used by citibike:

    Jun. 11 2013 09:30 PM

    Leave a Comment

    Email addresses are required but never displayed.

    Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
    We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.