TIPS ON HOW TO NAVIGATE NEW YORK
What happens when two Finweek writers test out the new Citi Bike programme...
Very few people have had the privilege of watching Simon Dingle struggle with what most digital natives consider relatively straightforward new technology. For years, 5fm and Finweek have been duped into giving the ‘tech expert’ coveted air play and column inches dedicated to his gadget reviews, and you must admit, for a man of his age, he has feigned an impressive understanding of the digital age and fooled the masses with remarkable adroitness. But here, right now, on a hot July day in New York’s Meatpacking District, six weeks after the launch of the largest and most ambitious bike-sharing system in the US, Simon Dingle is struggling to get his Citi Bike out of the docking station, and it is hilarious to watch.
In his defense, this appeared to be a problem across the board. Stonewalled by Hurricane Sandy and plagued by software glitches, the $41m Citigroup-sponsored initiative had endured its fair share of birthing pains when it launched back in May. From the beginning, users complained of testy pass systems, faulty key access and unresponsive bike racks. Criticism then shifted to the logistical issue of unequal bike distribution, or ‘dockblocking’ as one website put it, as nine-to-fivers flocked to busy commer- cial hubs during the week, leaving stations either constantly booked up or largely understocked for most of the day. And then of course there was the inevitable not-in-my-backyard (nimby) incursion marshalled by elderly and elite luddites who spent the weeks following the roll-out shouting “Bah, Humbug!” on every city soapbox they could find.
“Do not ask me to enter the mind of the totalitarians running this city,” Wall
Street Journal veteran Dorothy Rabinowitz said quite seriously, during an interview back in May. “Look, I represent the majority of citizens of this city and the majority of these citizens are appalled by what has happened! We now look at a city whose best neigbourhoods are absolutely begrimed by these blazing blue Citibank bikes! It is shocking.”
Please note that Rabinowitz, who I’d wager is well into her 70s and hasn’t used public transport since 1993, does not represent the majority of New Yorkers. Stats show that the real citizens of New York, like Leonardo DiCaprio, Seth Meyers and Kevin Bacon, have completely embraced the new programme. Fast Company reported that that within 10 days of its launch, the Citi Bikes (6 000 of them to be exact) had been used over 100 000 times and covered 270 000 miles of ground. That’s the equivalent of one in 16 Manhattanites circumnavigating the world 11 times over. That’s also 100 000 people who are more qualified to write Simon Dingle’s tech column than Simon Dingle. Within two weeks, over 36 000 of them had signed up for the annual membership, which, at $95 for a year’s worth of unlimited 45-minute rides, is a steal considering that locals pay $112 for a 30-day unlimited subway pass. You sign up online and get an access key that makes it
quicker and easier to unlock a bicycle on the go, bypassing the chance of receiving unwarranted deductions on your credit card further down the line (I got a fairly sour text about it from you-know-who a few weeks later.)
So it seems New Yorkers can’t get enough of these little blue Citigroup billboards. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Ben, 24, a political organiser who has worked on campaigns f or Cory Booker and President Obama. “I have yet to spend a summer in the city with the bikes, but as a large Jew with a propensity for perspiration, I look forward to using the service as a far more efficient and relaxing mode of transportation. At least until [New York mayoral candidate] Bill De Blasio fixes global warming.”
City Notes founder Dan Frommer raved about the programme on the company website: “Since I moved here in 2005, I’ve experienced a few flashbulb moments of unity with other New Yorkers, where it really feels like we’re all in this together. I can’t remember something that’s made so many people so happy here in such a short time since the iPhone launched.”
Two docking stations, three swipes of a credit card, four defunct passwords and 14 expletives later, Simon and I managed to release two bicycles from captivity (hint: you have to lift the seat up to get them out), and, in doing so, joined thousands of New York natives in savouring the city’s first new public transport venture in 75 years, AKA the best thing to happen to New York City since the iPhone. The bikes are truly fantastic. They aren’t as sleek or as pretty as your neighbourhood fixie, but they are robust and reliable and get you quickly from A to B, which is obviously the whole point of the system. Designated bike lanes have made it easier for tourists and nervous commuters to navigate through the city, and as Simon and I veered up from the Highline through the Chelsea streets and deep into the heart of the big smoke, I was momentarily grateful that I wasn’t stuck in a train underground. New York is a city that is meant to be seen.
While Simon politely declined my offer of a second excursion and headed back to Johannesburg to test drive the city’s new luxury taxi service Uber (you can read his review on finweek.com) I stayed on to witness the Citi Bike’s 100day milestone. By that time, riders had clocked in over 3m trips and burned a combined 150m calories. If you’re young and tech-savvy like me, you can check out all the stats, as well as bike availability, route planning, nearby stations and other updates using the Citi Bike app. You can also take great pleasure in knowing that the next time you’re in New York, you could find yourself riding the same seat that Daniel Craig straddled during a leisurely ride to the Barrymore Theatre earlier that day. Alternatively it could be one of the bikes used in Fabrizio Goldstein’s drive to turn the bike stations into free spin class destinations for the homeless. Either way, everyone wins.
Citi Bikes offer a cheaper, alternate, reliable mode of transportation