The Beauty of New York Is That It Is Not Homogeneous
Even before it launched in 2013, Citi Bike struggled. Hurricane Sandy majorly damaged the brand-new bicycle fleet, software glitches set back its start date and Citi Bike’s parent company scrambled to find new investors. That all turned around in late 2014, when former MTA Chair Jay Walder was brought on as the new CEO. Today, membership is on the rise and New Yorkers have pedaled over 48 million miles on Citi Bikes. Reclaim sat down with Walder, a Queens native, to talk about the heart and soul of bike share in New York.
In the past year, Citi Bike has improved service, accelerated station rollout and righted the financial ship. What’s next on the horizon?
We’re working on making Citi Bike even bigger and better. We will be expanding in 2016 to the rest of the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side, Harlem, Red Hook, Gowanus, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill, a huge cross-section of the city. We are working to make our product better as well. We’ve done a new release of the app recently and we’re continuing to work on app development, which we find to be hugely valuable to our members. There is a whole program of ambassadors that we’re going to start to roll out in many locations across the city. They’re going to be able to help people, sign up members, work with tourists, and just continue to make Citi Bike more and more part of the fabric of New York.
What does success look like from your perspective?
What we saw last year and at the beginning of this year is an unbelievable measure of success. If you step back three years, Citi Bike is a completely untested, unproven proposition. The question as to whether or not you are creating something that will matter to New Yorkers was unknown. There were people who believed in it, Reclaim readers would be a large number of those people, but no one could look at it and say, “This will work in New York.”
Roll that forward and see that in the space of literally one year, you had ten million riders. I look at that and say, “We did it. We accomplished what everybody wanted to accomplish.”
Can it continue to get bigger? Absolutely. But if one of the questions of success was, “Are we putting in place something that people are going to use and enjoy and make part of their life?” I think we are answering that question.
Speaking of bigger, what will it take to bring Citi Bike to the Bronx and Staten Island?
As we’re doing the expansion now, we’re proving that we can take the vision beyond the small area south of 59th Street into a much bigger part of the city. We have a mayor now who has made it very, very clear that he has a five borough aspiration for Citi Bike, which I love. Now we just have to figure out how to build on success.
A year ago, when people asked me this question, my answer was that I can’t even think about it; my only job walking in the door was to try and fix the darn thing. Now we’re at a point where we should be engaging that question and figuring out how to do it. And how we do it in ways that doesn’t just get bikes out to communities, but that make them a true part of the community. Every time we expand, we make that the measure of success. This is not a technology project, it’s not a street project, it’s a project that is a success when people say, “This is an important part of my community.” That’s what we really want it to be.
Expansion will require new Citi Bike members. What’s your strategy?
When we took over, frankly, the membership rates were falling. We stemmed that tide in the middle of last year with improvements to Citi Bike, and then we grew it by 18 percent. We’re up to 97,000 annual members now.
First, you have to have the right product, and you have to be sure, not just in the technology and the bike, but in your operations: you want the bikes to be in good repair, you want an app that’s easy to use and you can rely on. Second is communication, reaching out to people to make sure they know how to use Citi Bike, that it’s accessible.
The third lesson is really about engaging the community. One of the things I am proudest of that we did last year is that we didn’t just put bikes into Bed-Stuy, we actually worked together with the Bed-Stuy Restoration Corporation to build up the presence of Citi Bike in the community. We worked last year to restructure a program we had with the New York City Housing Authority, so now people can sign up for $5 a month. And we’re working with the Housing Authority to publicize that, so it’s more than something we point to in the fine print.
The beauty of New York is that it’s not homogeneous; it has wonderful diversity and communities that are different. As we expand Citi Bike, we are trying to have an active presence with the people in every one of those communities. We’re tailoring our messages, tailoring our programs, engaging in local activities and breaking down the barriers to bring people in. You have to have creativity, perseverance and stamina in doing that, and you have to be willing to try different things.
Do you think Citi Bike has a role to play in safer streets?
Absolutely. Bike infrastructure is a huge part of what we’re supportive of. I would give the City of New York tremendous credit for the strides that they’ve made in bike infrastructure, and I love that they’re continuing to make strides. I don’t think any of us should be satisfied with where we are today. Do we have a role in advocacy for doing that? Certainly. Does it make biking better and safer? Certainly, and we feel strongly about that.
We’re also looking for ways we can contribute beyond new bike lanes. We are testing now in one of our cities new reflective coating for bicycles, so they’ll be more visible in the nighttime. One of the benefits of Motivate as the parent company of Citi Bike is that we can test in another city, learn from that, and then we can bring it to New York where we buy 3,000 bicycles a year. Think about the impact that we can have very quickly. Citi Bike is by far the largest bike share program in the country, but Motivate operates in 12 cities around the world. The innovations from different places can make their way back here.
The last time you sat down with Reclaim, you were in charge of a less-beloved public transit system. How is Citi Bike different than managing the MTA?
It’s more fun! I have to tell you, I love bike share. Last night, I rode over the Brooklyn Bridge and up the west side of Manhattan, passing person after person on a Citi Bike, and was really struck by the fact that they looked so happy. People love Citi Bike. It’s a real kick, that people are enjoying it.
An amazing number of people who I don’t know come up to me and proudly show me their Citi Bike key. It happens all the time. Even people I meet outside New York City reach in their pocket and take out a Citi Bike key to show me that they’re Citi Bike members. People are just enormously charged and energized by it, and it’s great. I really enjoy that about this job.
No one ever did that to you with their MetroCard, I bet.
[Laughs.] I probably shouldn’t go any further in the comparison. But, that is true.
Citi Bike is New York’s only transportation system not subsidized by taxpayers. Will you push for public funding in the future?
I don’t think we should be opposed. We should think broadly about it. The beauty of where we are today is that we’re having this discussion from a point of success. I have people coming up to me all the time saying, “When is Citi Bike coming to my neighborhood?” The fact of the matter is that we have something that people want to use. What we have to figure out with the City, and it is a partnership, is how we achieve that.
Last question: We’ve heard of Citi Bikes washed up in the East River and ridden all the way to L.A. Do you have a favorite story?
A little while after I started here, Stephen Colbert was taking over the Late Show, doing this in the Ed Sullivan Theater, and trying to think of a symbol for New York. This is the world’s greatest city, right? It doesn’t have any shortage of symbols, right? We could, in a matter of seconds, come up with a ton of symbols of New York. So, what does he choose? He doesn’t choose the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building or Grand Central Terminal. He chooses a Citi Bike. And I just thought it was so cool.
That goes to show what’s so neat about Citi Bike, how much it is a part of the city. It’s easy for Jay Walder to say this; it’s what I do. It would be easy for Transportation Alternatives to say it, because we’re aligned on this. But now you see, this is not Transportation Alternatives, or Jay Walder, it’s Stephen Colbert, who wants to send a message to the United States of America that he’s doing a show in New York and he chooses the Citi Bike. How cool is that?
It is very cool!
Stories just keep coming. People take their engagement photos on Citi Bike. I think that’s the coolest thing. Last year when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages, there were profiles about how companies across the country were supporting Pride. The symbol that Citibank, the fourth largest bank in the United States, used was a Citi Bike that we had wrapped for Pride.
No one believed that Citi Bike would feel like it is the symbol of New York in such that way. The New York subway opened in 1904. It’s been around for 112 years. When we talk about the institutions of New York, they’ve been here and established themselves. With Citi Bike, we’re talking about two years. That’s how fast this has occurred.
In a city where there’s so much going on that you’ve got to light off fireworks to get attention and even the fireworks don’t get attention, how is it that bicycles became this important in that space of time? The people, and Transportation Alternatives was a huge part of this, who saw this potential and realized that it was possible were so right. And I’m happy that we’re probably exceeding the vision that they had.
I look forward in the coming months to celebrating our 100,000th member and our 10,000th bicycle. Every time we open up a neighborhood to Citi Bike, it’s a really special day. In the summertime, every time we open up a new station, we ring a bell in the office, and it means something to us. When we’re really cruising, you’ll hear that bell go off five, six, seven time a day, and it’s great.
Photos by Konstantin Sergeyev.