On a recent weekend, I took a Citi Bike preview ride with a small group of cyclists who had volunteered for a photo shoot. The New York City Department of Transportation announced last week that the city’s newest public transit option, comprising 6,000 bikes that can be unlocked from 330 docking stations in Manhattan and Brooklyn, will officially launch on May 27 for members and June 2 for general use.
I’m not sure what was more fun on our excursion: actually riding these substantial blue two-wheelers along Brooklyn bike lanes or observing people’s reactions to our little herd as we rolled through the streets early on a Sunday morning. Motorists leaned out windows at traffic signals. A couple from Europe paused on the sidewalk to share their experiences with bike share in their country. Passersby approached as we stopped to shoot photos to inspect the bikes and ask when they would become available.
After all, Citi Bike has been a long time coming, and so anticipation among many New Yorkers is high. Upon announcement last fall of one in a series of launch delays, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg quipped on a radio show: “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.”
Indeed, despite some more recent fussing about the placement of bike share stations in certain neighborhoods, a majority of New Yorkers favor bike lanes and bike sharing. More than 10,000 people have signed up for annual memberships at this writing.
A Weighty Steed
So, what’s it like to use the system? First, what impressed me on my ride is how well-suited the bikes are to the urban environment.
New York City’s tarmac isn’t exactly runway smooth. Potholes, street plates and miscellaneous obstacles pepper our pavement. So, the bikes are heavy. Weighing in at 45 pounds, they’re built for durability, high volume of use and theft resistance. If you’re looking for a stripped down single-speed or a light and speedy carbon ride, you won’t find it in Citi Bike. Then again, it’s not as though you’ll be pedaling up Route 9W – nor much north of 59th Street in Manhattan, for that matter. Efficiency through turnover is the key to bike sharing. (Members get 45 minutes free, and casual users get 30 minutes free per check-out, within a system that offers 6,000 bikes at 330 docking stations located in Manhattan and Brooklyn.)
Added to the substantial weight — and the beefy tires, which are inflated with nitrogen to help prevent flats — is a low-slung, step-through frame. This makes it a cinch for users to mount a Citi Bike in whatever they happen to be wearing, including a skirt.
To me, it all adds up to a solid, safe feel. And that might entice New Yorkers who haven’t discovered the joys of cycling here to give it a try.
Secondly, as a writer who has devoted plenty of blog inches to reminders about budgeting for gear — lights, locks, baskets — when bike shopping, it’s a pleasure to see a two-wheeler that comes with everything needed for safety and comfort built right in. (By the way, the “fully loaded” city bicycle, already offered by some small companies, is a trend you’re going to see more of from the bigger players as focus shifts increasingly toward transportation cycling.)
Let’s take a closer look at those features and how the system works:
Saddle up: The wide, cushiony saddle on these one-size-fits-all bikes can be adjusted using a lever, as shown above. Seat height increments are marked with numbers on the seatpost, so you can recall yours for the next ride. People who use spin bikes will already be familiar with this.
Pack your bag: The front rack accommodates a variety of bag sizes. I found the bungee meant to secure cargo somewhat unyielding – it’ll be interesting to see if these loosen up with use. Be sure to secure your bag: My slim purse popped off the bike and into the path of truck when I rode one of the test bikes that were sent around to various public events in NYC last fall.
See and be seen: The upright handlebars, not only make it easy to scan the road ahead, but also enable you to take in the sights of the city as you pedal. Front and rear lights are automatically activated whenever the bike is in motion. This aids visibility, even during daylight hours. For night riding, reflectors also help you be seen.
Not splashy: Front and rear fenders protect your clothes from spray when the weather turns messy.
Get into gear: The 3-speed shifter (above) is built into the handlebar on the right side, allowing gear changes with the pivot of your wrist. People with high fitness levels are likely to wish for at least one harder gear, but, in general, these bikes are built for a slower, more leisurely turn of the cranks for a hop across town, or to the movies, or from the subway station to your final destination. A bike bell that emits a resonant dring, situated beneath the left bar (below), is easily strummed with your thumb.
Check it out: The check-out kioks for credit card users and the bike share mobile app are not live yet, so we’ll post about those later. But use of the stick-like, plastic Citi Bike key to unlock a bike is simple. Insert it into the dock, and when the light turns green, you’re good to go.
Lift and separate: When unlocking the bike from the dock, be prepared to give it a good yank with both arms on the handlebars to release it. [Update 5/21: Tip for easier undocking.] This takes some getting used to. Same thing upon return. You’ll need to give the bike a heave to engage the front wheel in the dock. A green light signals success. Lauren Evans at Gothamist shared this good tip: Place your the foot on one pedal and push forward for added leverage/style points.
Just walk away: Then, the best part: You just take your bag off the bike and walk away. No worries about locking up on the street, or maintenance, or lugging the thing up the stairs to your apartment. You’re done with the bike until you unlock another for your next trip.
Dani Simons, marketing director of New York City Bike Share, summed it up this way: “It’s transportation where you need it, when you need it, on your terms, and someone else is taking care of the other details.”
The type of convenience that makes a bicycles accessible to a users of all ages and abilities, is easy to ride — and fun – is what bike sharing is all about.