When Jay Walder became CEO of Motivate, the parent company of Citi Bike, in 2014, he overhauled the foundering NYC bike share system and turned it into a well-established, fast-growing alternate mode of transportation. By the end of 2016 Citi Bike will have more than 600 docking stations and 10,000 bikes. In 2015, the bike share program logged over 10,000,000 total rides. Here, Walder discusses how, as a means of transportation, a bike share network better serves 21st century demands for movement around the city, and what needs to be done to make Citi Bike an equitable piece of city infrastructure.
Tell us how you became involved with Citi Bike.
My background is in transportation. I was CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) here in New York, and prior to my work at Motivate, I had been working in Hong Kong heading their mass transit system. At that time, in 2014, I was approached as new investors were taking over the predecessor to Motivate about whether I would be interested in running the bike share company. I have to say that my immediate reaction was, “Wow, that’s a lot smaller than anything I’ve been doing.” The MTA has 70,000 employees. Hong Kong’s system employs 35,000 people. We were talking about a much smaller operation of less than 1,000 people.
I began to realize that, actually, there was something really exciting here. MTA has been operating for 112 years now. You go in and you try to manage that, but it’s pretty well formed. The tracks are there. Bike share offered opportunities to develop a whole different aspect of transit from the ground up. It’s the 21st century model of what we want mobility to be.
In the old idea of public transit, we seek to move a large number of people at the same time and place. In our current world, people move in a variety of different ways and to a variety of places. We are increasingly moving away from being bound by schedules and specific destinations.
Citi Bike is not just a disparate set of bicycles. It’s a critically important part of our transit networks. We are now members of the American Public Transportation Association and International Association of Public Transportation (UITP). These very traditional organizations versed in moving large numbers of people in traditional ways have now embraced the idea that bike share is an integral part of mobility.
Is Citi Bike privately run?
Citi Bike is 100 percent privately funded. Motivate operates in twelve cities. We have different models in different cities. New York, New Jersey, and the Bay Area are one extreme. Those are all privately funded. On the other extreme we operate under contract with governments
We’ve been interviewing some Queens residents about the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway, which was a private venture for a highway. The New York City subway was originally privately owned by different competing companies. We tend to think about transit as public, but it doesn’t have to be that.
The Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is widely recognized as one of the best transit systems in the world — it’s private. It’s on time 99 percent of the time, and has a high level of service. Many airports around the world are private airports even though they are providing a public service. Many roadways are private roadways. We are seeing over the last couple of decades a resurgence of public-private partnerships and the private provision of public services. Citi Bike is being built out and operated using private resources, and it’s deeply committed to the customer service model. Citi Bike knows its success depends on people wanting to be part of the system. We’ve seen a tremendous increase in our renewal rate. We’ve seen a growth in members of about 50 percent in the last year.
The city changes at such a rapid pace. We’ve only built and opened one new subway station in 50 years. Hopefully the Second Avenue Subway will open soon and I’ll be able to revise that statement. But meanwhile, the city has changed phenomenally quickly. One of the beauties of Citi Bike is that it lets people move around in places that are not served by MTA, or are served in different ways. Maybe it’s not about going from Long Island City to Manhattan, but how you move around Long Island City.
I have tremendous sympathy for the challenges MTA faces to restore its infrastructure. Citi Bike is giving us all options. People keep asking, is it for commuters or tourists? My answer is, it’s all of the above. Nobody sets down rules. I grew up here, and I always thought of the city in terms of subway stations. Since I’ve come back to New York and have been riding Citi Bike, I think about the city and its accessibility differently.
We have work in the Bronx and we would like to get there by Citi Bike, so it’s frustrating that there are no stations there. How do you decide when you will bring Citi Bike to the Bronx, or to Eastern Queens, and other further-out parts of the city?
When I walked in the door two years ago, my priority was to fix Citi Bike and make it what people wanted it to be. People told me, make something bigger and better. I said, let’s start by making it better, then make it bigger. From 2015 to 2016 we increased the size of the system by two-thirds and we will increase it again by another 2,000 bikes. That means a total of 12,000 bicycles, which was frankly beyond anyone’s imagination. Is that enough? Clearly not. The Mayor has called for a five-borough expansion of stations. We are proud of the fact that as you look at where Citi Bike is expanding now, we’re in the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side, also Harlem, Red Hook, Crown Heights, Bedford Stuyvesant. We will be going to Astoria next year. Citi Bike now feels like it represents New York City, but there’s more work to be done. We are trying to engage with the city. If we are now in Phase Two, we are asking ourselves, what does Phase Three look like?
It sounds like the possibility for equity is built into the network: anyone can pick up the Citi Bike. It’s the most affordable way to get around and costs a fraction of the MetroCard.
People have given up buying a $116 MetroCard for a $14.95 a month Citi Bike membership. The economics are clear. What we do work on is breaking down barriers in the use of Citi Bike. The idea of biking feels unusual to people who might not be used to it. We run bicycle safety and training workshops. The City of New York gives out free helmets. We’ve been working with the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation in Brooklyn. They’re doing a whole range of grassroots programs to increase Citi Bike use in that community. The bikes are there. The stations are there. We have community leaders organizing Citi Bike rides, telling people, “Try this, see, it works, and saves you money.” Now all the communities around Bed Stuy are using it. Many commuting trips tend to be radial from Brooklyn into to Manhattan. But Citi Bike can make trips around the borough and into other neighborhoods easier and open up new employment opportunities. We recognize that youth are important and have a Citi Bike for youth program to get people on bicycles early as an easy and healthy way to get around. One other program is with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). We offer a special discount membership at $5 per month.
Have you gotten many memberships from NYCHA residents?
We have. If you look at the expansion we are doing this year, many new stations are in Housing Authority areas and we are working with the Housing Authority to build them up.
Much of the NYCHA housing property tends to be filled with parking lots everywhere. Now maybe NYCHA residents will start to use the bike share, need fewer cars, and some of the parking areas can be converted to green spaces.
Bike share can be more effective than taking a car sometimes. Rather than making three connections you are able to take a 10 to 15 minute direct trip to go where you want to go. But bike share doesn’t fit for everything. It’s providing more connective tissue with community and existing transit and making ways of gaining mobility easier. And that’s opening up the possibility for more jobs and opportunities.
How long will it take to get Citi Bike to all five boroughs and to the edges of New York City?
We don’t have a specific timeframe. If we had had this conversation a couple of years ago we wouldn’t even be thinking on these terms. The beauty is that this conversation sounds sane. But I think we will see it in a couple of years. I used the phrase public-private partnership, and we are really working on this hand-in-hand with Department of Transportation and I accept the fact that some of the policy direction comes from the City. The Mayor of New York stands up and says, this is what I would like to see. We facilitate the objectives to make Citi Bike an important part of every neighborhood we are touching. As I go around the city I am constantly having people ask me, “When am I getting Citi Bike?”
What makes Citi Bike work now?
When we took over two years ago, we came to the conclusion that Citi Bike, though a great idea, was broken. We literally ripped out the system — the underlying software system — and shut it down over March 2015. The system was underinvested. We replaced the software, overhauled all the bicycles, and invested in more facilities and people. We also committed ourselves to a program of customer service. We thought about how we could bring innovation and ingenuity to it. Today we run valets and bike corrals in a number of locations. Customers said we need more bicycles in Midtown, or places to park down by Wall Street. We are providing a valet at Penn Station to let people know that they can count on having a bike and a dock. We’ve continued to think about how we make the equipment better. We are assembling the bicycles in the United States, in Detroit, and it’s our own design. The components of the bicycle are also very important. I’m six feet, six inches tall. The first thing I do when I get a Citi Bike is change the seat height. People used to think that if it worked when it came out of the factory that was good enough. Now we think, “Does this work for the 100th, 1000th, 2000th ride?” When you have thousands of rides a day, everyone is adjusting that seat clamp. We are also changing the bells, since we saw they were not as reliable as we wanted. The things that are simple become complex in a bike share, and we are rethinking every element in that way.
I noticed first of all that the new 2.0 series has better gearing. It’s sportier. It’s also more rigid and responsive.
For the new bicycle we hired Ben Serotta, a famous designer who has designed bikes for the Tour de France. He would say this is a custom bicycle made for everyone. The new bicycle is being ridden twice as many times as the old. People grab the new bicycle. My wife and I joke when we go out together that if there’s one new one, she gets it.
As a rider in all kinds of weather I wanted to ask: How does Citi Bike feel about optimization and weather changes seasonally? I ride in the snow and I’m often alone. Does the system still have a utility in lower use or only at its maximum?
It turns out that you are not alone. There are many people that will ride through many types of weather. In February of this year we had 66,000 rides on Citi Bike. I’ll admit that did not include me. But people are using it. I think you’re seeing a twelve-month system.
There’s nothing that says you have to be consistent. You don’t have to use the bike in February. You make the choices. One of the challenges for us is rate. On a bright sunny day like today we will have 65,000 rides. Tomorrow it will rain and it will be dramatically different. Sometimes it’s raining in the morning and sunny in the afternoon. We optimize our algorithms for weather forecasts. If there’s 100 percent chance of rain in the morning that will cause us to distribute bicycles differently than on a nice day. If it rains in the afternoon, then people don’t bring their bikes back, and in the morning people say, where are the bikes?
The reason that running a bike share is so complicated vis a vis a traditional transit system is that the number of places that people are going, and the diversity of uses and the weather are constantly changing. The conditions of the subway don’t change nearly that much.
Let me give you a better example: we now carry roughly the same number of people as the Staten Island Ferry on a daily basis. But everyone using the Staten Island Ferry gets off at Whitehall or Saint George Terminal. There is a large number of people, but there’s only one pattern: back and forth to two places. We have so many combinations and permutations in bike share — not just in the number of stations and destinations, but also in the weather.
There’s a culture that’s been developed around the bike share called karma: instead of taking the first bike they see, people wait for others. There’s a new kind of patience that’s developed. I’m not kidding — I keep hearing people refer to it. There’s an etiquette.
I lived in London when I was helping run the transit system there. There’s this cultural phenomenon of queuing up. This has now happened in New York in regard to bike share. There’s an etiquette — karma, if you want to call it that. It’s New York and we’re in it together. And I love that. Once I was at Grand Central at about 7pm and I didn’t realize that there was a queue to get a bicycle. A person returned a bicycle and I went to get it. Someone corrected me and I thought it was the funniest thing. I went to the back of the line and two minutes later I had a bike. No one was enforcing it. There was a self-developed culture.
In Amersfoort, where I spent a lot of time working on a building project, I saw a bike share come and go. The reason they gave was accountability. People didn’t know where to find the bikes. It sounds like the technology that Citi Bike is now using can fill those gaps, which means that bike share is here to stay.
Bike share is here to stay, no question. The use of data is a great point. When we took over two years ago, there was no function that was called business intelligence. They weren’t using the data to understand what they could be doing better for customers or to better understand what their costs were. We have changed that. Take our Bike Angels program, for example. We are enlisting our membership in helping us to move bicycles to places where we know people want them. We want to get to the point where one person’s endpoint is another’s beginning. We have a pilot program with 300 people using it and receiving rewards. It’s about creating a culture of Citi Bike. We all want this to work. Someone can go a little bit out of their way, but not too much, and help the next person. Data is making it possible to do that. It can tell someone to drop their bike two blocks further than they might have and that may be enough. We are still in the early stage of the Bike Angels and we’re excited about it. We won’t get everything perfect but we have the opportunity to mold it and make it better.