At Penn Station, the Early Bird Catches the Citi Bike

Near Penn Station, Citi Bike docks frequently run empty long before rush hour is over.

Monday, July 22, 2013 - 02:04 PM


As 10 a.m. approached, Renato Lopes rushed up to the last working Citi Bike at 33rd and 8th Ave oozing haste and gratitude. A bike at this dock at this time was a rare treat. As a WNYC analysis shows, Citi Bike docking stations near Penn Station are regularly emptied of bikes by 8:30 a.m. 

"I'm very lucky to get one today. Yesterday I couldn't, I had to walk two blocks to get one," Lopes said as he adjusted the seat a few notches lower. He commutes from Warren, NJ via New Jersey Transit and Citi Bike to his job at the Brazilian Consulate at 46th Street and 6th Ave. In typical Brazilian fashion he prefers the later half of American rush hour, but by this time, the early risers have already claimed most of the bikes.

"I usually get here around 9:15, 9:30 and no more bikes. So I'm very lucky today," he said. He was behind schedule. "So, let me go," he said politely rolling away pleased that Citi Bike would help him arrive a little less late. He is not alone, many commuters who pass through Penn Station enjoy Citi Bike, too many by some measure. 

The WNYC Data News Team analyzed the average number of bikes in various docking stations around the city by time of day. At Penn Station there is an especially fast depletion of bikes at the several docks surrounding the transit hub that serves commuters from New Jersey, Long Island as well as 6 subway lines. (Article continues below chart). 


The several docks closest to Penn Station have similar usage patterns. They are also large docks with roughly 50 bikes in each. Starting around 6:30 a.m. the number of bikes drops dramatically until it hits empty, usually before 8:30 a.m., meaning, for the most part, bikes are available for commuters trying to get to work in midtown before 9:00 a.m. not not after. 

J.R. Lanteri works at 23rd and Broadway. He comes in via Long Island Rail Road then prefers to take a Citi Bike from Penn Station, if there is one. "During peak hours you can either never find a bike or the bikes are broken... Sometimes I have to wait for bikes to come in. It's like an airport," he said. "I give myself like five minutes. If no one's here I'll walk to another station."

This is a problem of popularity of course. And users we spoke with say they like Citi Bike, they just want more of them. But in crowded midtown, space solutions are neither easy nor cheap.  The first tranche of docking stations already stoked outrage in some quarters And rebalancing the bikes more frequently during rush hour requires driving trucks through traffic that crawls more slowly than a walking pace. 

"For the most part it's OK, but I think they need a lot of support with respect to displacing bikes from crowded areas to empty areas in peak hours."

Docks close to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Grand Central Terminal did not seem to have similar and stark usage patterns as those around Penn Station. 

Citi Bike is growing in popularity serving around 30,000 rides a day.

The company that operates Citi Bike, NYC Bike Share, is "working to identify these developing ridership patterns and continually improve daily bike distribution across the network, providing bikes and docks where and when riders need them," according to a spokesperson at the NYC Department of Transportation. "As we work to expand the the system when resources and funding allow, the number of bikes would increase," he said.  

That would help daily commuters like Lanteri. He walked up to the dock just in time to see Lopes roll off with the last working bike. "I'm going to walk to another station to see if there are any bikes there," he  said, nonplussed. 


Comments [14]


Nobody uses CitiBike anymore, there are never any bikes available.

Jul. 31 2013 02:17 PM

This is so funny. A few months ago people said no one would use the bikes now everyone is complaing that there is too much use.

Jul. 29 2013 12:04 PM

Since this story ran, Citi Bike has published a pretty extensive photo essay of bike rebalancing at Penn Station. Have a look:

Jul. 23 2013 03:12 PM

How about those commuting into WTC ... the closest citi bike stop is 4 blocks away

Jul. 23 2013 12:40 PM
Terence from Bergen County NJ

Hi Alex, you should visit Port Authority more often as the situation there is much worse than Penn Station.

I arrive at PA at 7:15 am to 7:30 am every day and the 4 bike stations nearby are usually empty by then. I often have to walk nearly a mile to 6th Ave 41st St or 43rd St to get a bike. However, there are plenty of bikes available at the 3 stations near Grand Central during the morning rush hours. I have been reporting this problem of uneven distribution daily for over a month, things have yet to improve.

Jul. 23 2013 11:25 AM
Dave from Inwood from New York

I too have an annual pass but no longer use Citibike now that the program has caught on and become too popular for its own good. It is near impossible to get a bike near Columbus Circle after 8:15 am, and even if you do there is no point since there is only one dock serving the enormous office area around 6th Ave and 56th St where I work and I have never found an empty dock after 8:30 am.

The fact that there are typically 3-4 broken docks/bikes that go unreported on the mobile apps only makes the situation more frustrating.

They probably need double the docks and bikes near transit hubs, fringe stations and prime office districts - a very tall order.

Citibike is great, but the binary issue with full and empty docks is a real problem for them, probably more so than in other cities because the usual Manhattan gridlock that makes Citibike so popular here makes it nearly impossible to redistribute bikes by truck.

I've often wondered if Citibike should consider paying, in some form, users to take certain routes to redistribute more efficiently. In other words, if I got a text that I could earn $2 in Citibike credit (or whatever) if I used a dock a couple blocks out of my way, or took a bike in the "wrong" direction, I just might do it. Heck, pay the city's homeless or underemployed to drive bikes back to empty racks -- if people will walk the streets with huge sacks of cans to get 5 cents each, there certainly is a market for such bike jockeys. It might even cost less than paying the unionized crews driving the inefficient redistribution trucks.

Jul. 23 2013 10:55 AM
Rebecca Lieb from Manhattan

The shortage of bikes is acute, but equally so the number of broken kiosks that either won't release bikes, won't accept returns, or both. Both the mobile app and the Citibike website deliver wildly inaccurate information about bike availability - people in my Hell's Kitchen neighborhood swarm around in the mornings, identifiable by their helmets, asking each another, "Anything on 52nd?" "Any bikes on 56th?"

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed a man walking away from a freshly docked bike (the fourth kiosk in my quest to find a bike). He'd left his briefcase in the basket. When I did a, "Hey Mister - you left your bag!" he turned to inform me it was there to reserve _his_ bike and warned me not to "touch my property."

While midtown is devoid of bikes during the day, if you do manage to get one and ride to SoHo or the Village, the downtown kiosks are so full, returning the bike is a challenge. CitiBike says they're waiting for more data, but in this respect the problem is perfectly binary.

I really, really want this to work, and am an annual member. I'm also tracking my success rate in getting a bike when I want one. My failure rate is holding steady at 85% (and I don't commute during rush hours, nor use kiosks near transit hubs such as Penn, GCT or Port Authority).

Bike shortages, software failures, hardware lockouts, and the lack of any sense of community in a highly diverse city all seem to indicate CitiBike is suffering more than "growing pains."

Finally, if you do ride, it's mandatory that you go online and ensure the trips closed out. Mine often don't, even when the returned bike registers the necessary green light. Steep overtime fees kick in unless you call customer service.

Jul. 22 2013 05:05 PM
Dan Ochiva from New York

Chelsea is another area where if you're not out to catch a bike before 9am (the earliest I've been able to drag myself out to check), you will have trouble finding a bike at 22nd/8th, 20th/8th or other close by Citibike stands.
While I've heard that there is unhappiness about taking parking slots, I also wish that some attention be paid to the happiness of bike commuters. Considering how heavily used the bikes already are -- it shows a great need and desire for this method of moving through the city of course -- I think giving priority to this ecological, economic transportation approach makes huge sense.

Jul. 22 2013 01:52 PM
DCN New Jersey

Citi Bike has been a complete disappoint for me, now that I've purchased an annual pass. I arrive at Penn Station at ~8:10 am, and there typically are NO working bicycles at any of the four stations or at B'way & 32nd Street. Spending 10 minutes to locate a bicycle for a 10-minute ride to replace a 20-minute walk is sheer lunacy.

And, at 6 pm, when returning to Penn Station, there typically are NO bicycles at E. 40th & 5th Ave. or at W. 37th & 5th Ave.

Citi Bike management has to acknowledge it has a serious problem at mass transit locations during morning rush hour and in midtown during the evening rush hour, and devote resources to correcting it.

Jul. 22 2013 01:47 PM
M. L. from Croton-on-Hudson, NY

This morning was the first time I couldn't find an available bike at my usual dock outside of Grand Central Terminal. (I commute into the city via Metro-North.) In past weeks, there have usually been about 30 bikes for me to choose from, so I'm not sure what was different today. In the evenings, my Citibike is snatched up as soon as I dock it at Grand Central, I think by people who work in the neighborhood. I'm glad the program's been so popular, but Citibikes needs to get more bikes to high turnover areas as well as fix problems with the docks themselves.

Jul. 22 2013 12:13 PM

PWBNYC - Thanks for that insight. We checked AM rush hours around the NY commuter hubs and other spots we thought might also have "rushes" of some kind. I'll go back and check PM rush around GCT and see what that shows.

Jul. 22 2013 12:13 PM
Albert from Manhattan

It would be easy to double the number of nearby available bikes (or triple or quadruple them) if the Truly All-Powerful Car Lobby weren't loathe to give up, say, 5, 10 or 15 of their breathtakingly cheap parking spaces. Those 5-15 drivers squatting for days on valuable real estate could be replaced by hundreds & hundreds of economy-boosting daily commuters and shoppers.

Jul. 22 2013 09:53 AM
Rob from NY

"But in crowded midtown, space solutions are neither easy nor cheap. The first tranche of docking stations already stoked outrage in some quarters."

Looking at 31st Street near 8th Avenue, there seems to be a lot of on-street parking. Why not add some more Citibike stations on 31st between 8th & 9th, and 31st between 8th & 7th? If you can fit about 10 bikes for one car space, seems like a more efficient use of street.

Jul. 22 2013 09:44 AM

I am surprised by the observation that GCT doesn't show its own stark usage patterns. It is extremely difficult to find a bike near the terminal between 4:30 and 7. I was surprised as I had expected people to bike into the station and then catch metro north trains, but it appears instead people are using the bikes to go from the core of midtown out to the residential sections to the east and west. I think Citibike needs to stage extra bikes near the major rush hour commuting hubs so they can restock much more quickly rather than trying to crawl through rush hour traffic.

Jul. 22 2013 09:18 AM

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