On Finally Testing a Citibike

Citibikes at Grand Central

This will be old news to many people, reading about someone testing out the New York City bike share system. It’s been around for a few years but the last time I was here I was staying on the Upper East Side, which had not yet been begrimed with Citibikes, as Dorothy Rabinowitz so famously put it. So I finally got to try it out, on an expedition from my hotel on 42nd street to the Cooper Hewitt Museum up at 91st and 5th, to see two wonderful shows that will be the subject of another post.

bikes upper east

Not too many Citibikes begriming the Upper East Side/Screen capture

Before I left I went online and studied the Citibike website to figure out how it worked, and where the stations were. I walked to the nearest one on 43rd and wandered about for a few minutes trying to figure out where you even put in your credit card; if you approach from the bike side you don't see it. I asked a guy picking up a bike and he didn't know either; he had a dongle. I assumed that some stations didn't have full service and walked four blocks to 45th and 3rd to find another station which I approached from the sidewalk side, and there it was. Talk about feeling like a rube in New York.

citibike terminal

Lloyd Alter/ reading instructions/CC BY 2.0

If you follow directions properly (which I rarely do) it actually works well. Tap your credit card and they give you a 5 digit code that should be relatively easy to remember, but there is also a printout option that I availed myself of.

123 press

Lloyd Alter/ 12-123/CC BY 2.0

Yes, I even tried to put my credit card in this slot. I still don't know what it is for. Instead you used this pad to punch in the 5 digits (composed entirely of 1, 2 and 3) and pull out your bike, adjust your seat and you are off.

Most of my Manhattan biking has been south of 34th street and there are lots of bike lanes. It's different in Midtown, and I found myself on very busy streets where everyone is double parking those big black suburbans, forcing cyclists to weave in and out of what is often the middle lane. It gets scary fast. I tried to stop for every red light but there are a lot of cross streets in New York City and they appear to by synched for taxis going 50 MPH. Clearly they are designed to go red in the face of every cyclist. I can see why most cyclists slow down to see if there is traffic coming on the side street and if there isn't, they just go through. The rest just don't even slow down.


Lloyd Alter going Mad/CC BY 2.0

I decided on Madison Avenue as my route, which was in the middle of being repaved. There are no lines painted, holes and manholes everywhere, buses and more big armoured Suburbans all around me, I felt like I was in Beirut or Nairobi. I got off at 89th and pulled out my phone to find out where to park, only to learn that the Upper East Side is not begrimed with Citibikes above 84th Street, so I biked down 5th, across 84th to Park and ditched the bike, and then walked to the museum.

central park

Lloyd Alter/ Citibike station just south of the Met/CC BY 2.0

But then, when I picked up a bike just south of the Metropolitan Museum to go south, the magic really started. Just tap your card and it recognizes you (I had paid $9.95 for a day's riding), and you can pick up another bike and go.

Apple Shrine

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

When I wanted stop anywhere, such as to worship at the Apple shrine, I could just park the bike, go in and pray, and then tap my card again and be on my way with another bike. They are solid, three-speed (not really necessary) capable. But more importantly, I never felt threatened by drivers the way I often do at home; New York drivers seem to acknowledge that bikes exist and move around them magically. Perhaps that's why there have been so few serious accidents with Citibikes.

lst drop of the bike

Last stop with the bike at 43rd and 5th/CC BY 2.0

When you start using the bike this way, a bunch of different bikes for a lot of short hops, it becomes a very different cycling experience. It becomes an appliance for getting from A to B and it works very well, saving a lot of time and money over climbing up and down into the subway. There are no worries about your own bike being stolen, and you can go multimodal as I will tonight for dinner, cycling downtown but subwaying or taxiing home.

When I got my first bike, I was surprised at the 30 minute limit for free cycling, knowing that I had a couple of places to go and thinking that I would need it for longer. Then you realize the genius of it- you are not renting a bike, you are using a system where you might, as I did, have five different bikes in the course of a trip. In the same kind of journey with my own bike, I might spend a lot of time looking for a place to chain up my bike; here, you just pick one up and put it back within 30 minutes and then grab another. It is a different way of using it, of thinking about it, and it makes a lot of sense.