Citibike hits major snags – will it delay Chicago and SF launches?

It’s been over a week since the nation’s largest bike-share system launched in New York City. That launch was accompanied by a very predictable stream of media – naysayers, doubters, and then the tabloids looking for trouble.

I predicted as much over a year ago when the system details were announced:

With bike share, New York has been following the exact same media
pattern we saw in Boston in 2009-2011. Boston, naturally, was mirrored
in London during the same period. Both of course were simple repeats of
what happened in Washington a year earlier.

It’ll never work! No one will ride them! Only tourists will use them! It
will be a boondoggle! There will be so many accidents, injuries or
deaths!! If people wanted to bike, they’d have their own! There will be
rampant vandalism! It’ll cost too much!

I was right. And as I mentioned last May, those of you reading from those cities with upcoming launches should be noting the same pattern.

It’s absurd, of course, and has been every time. How can a system both have no riders, but also lead thousands of riders to slaughter? If there was to be vandalism, wouldn’t that have been on display in Paris, Mexico City or Rio? Nope. The story is the same every time bike-share launched: a massive success. Indeed, NYC now has around 30,000 members shelling out almost $100 a year.

This crescendo of criticism reached towering new peaks when the Wall Street Journal launched a now infamous video editorial which probably had the staff of the Onion kicking themselves for having been beaten to press. If you haven’t watched the most absurd video of the year, do so HERE. And yes, the car ad that inevitably plays at the beginning is a masterful touch.

What’s interesting is that the Citibike system HAS experienced some very real, and very serious technical issues, and yet the media is too busy making up fake outrage to pay it any attention. Over at the NY Post, they’re too busy pretending that a row of bicycles can impede emergency vehicles in locations formerly occupied by a line of much taller and less permeable cars.

So what’s the real issue?

Citibike is being operated by a company called Alta, the same folks who operate DC and Boston. Alta is not to be confused with the Canadian company who makes the system (Public Bike System) or the branding of the bicycles in Canada which is bixi.

Last year, Alta decided to let their success in winning contracts in DC and Boston go to their head. They quickly signed with NYC, Chicago and SF, and then fired the developer who was responsible for the technical side of the system, and decided to take the programming in-house.

Problem is, we assume the contracts they signed promised a working system, and used Boston and DC as proof that they knew what they were doing. 

It was a big mistake. The change in software caused the NYC system to be delayed a year. Chicago has also been delayed for over a year. Previously, they’d also rewarded Boston with a year long delay in launch, and most recently gave Portland the news that they to were to go through the customary one year wait.

Two weeks after launch and it’s clear their software was not designed properly, and was not thoroughly tested.  Worse, the company has not set up the back end to handle the complaints. Not only is their call center understaffed, but it has been going down repeatedly. And that’s for people who have their keys – for some unknown reason, the company did not start mailing out member keys until a week before launch. Some reported keys were hand-delivered, with the enveloped marked manually. Others are still waiting

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However the real reason people are calling in, is because the software that tracks bikes is broken. People are returning bikes and finding out the next day it was never registered. Others have no problem taking out a second bike, while their online account notes another is on loan.

Some have also arrived at stations to find them completely off, yet other appear on but don’t dispatch bikes. The problem is compounded when the broken stations are at the end of a trip – when you’re at your destination, running out of time, and don’t want to be running around finding a working dock.

The facebook page is a full of horror stories.

Felix Salmon at Reuters has his own report of the many real problems.

A lot of people seem to be encountering “open rides”, where they think
that they returned their bike, but the return isn’t registered in the
system. That’s financially dangerous, of course: if you don’t return
your bike, you’re liable for as much as $1,000. But I fear it’s also
creating broader problems with the bikeshare stations. These can look
fine on the official app, and on the website, showing plenty of open
slots and bikes for rent. But when you get there, you find that you
can’t successfully return a bike to any of the open slots, and you can’t
successfully remove any of the bikes for rent.

On the worst (trip) I encountered four different broken stations (two at
the beginning, and two at the end) before finding stations which were

And how does one get it solved? Through a call-center that can’t handle the volume

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While citibike has classified these as “growing pains”, they come at a critical time. You only get one chance to make a first impression. If that impression includes broken promises, missed appointments  and long delays on the phone, then one isn’t about to recommend the system to others.

Worse, the problems will affect more than NYC.

Chicago is saying they will be launching the same Alta system next month – but the software clearly isn’t ready. San Francisco is also saying they want to launch before the end of summer. Don’t be surprised if you see delays….or more failed launches. Other cities looking at their own bike-share systems might be spooked by the failures.

The established cities aren’t doing so great either. Boston’s “summer 2012!” expansion still hasn’t been fully deployed. Meanwhile, DC’s fall 2012 expansion of 54 stations is still trickling out at about three stations per week, 9 months later.

Meanwhile, users in DC are also reporting major spikes in the number of full or empty stations. Is it possible that Alta pulled people from DC to try and put out fires in NYC? Because the stations in DC are spaced much further than New York, a station being full or empty can cause big headaches.

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Alta need to get their act together before they sour a successful idea. Bike-share sees enough (false) negative press anyway – fueling the fire with real failure is not an option.

And other cities? Maybe take a look at the company’s track record before signing up with the same vendor? Fool me once….

2 Replies to “Citibike hits major snags – will it delay Chicago and SF launches?”

  1. Still, from the online reports I've read, the NYC system seems to be very, very, popular, teething problems or no. Bizarro rants from the WSJ aside, everybody seems to love the system…

    I think the reason for that is that it's a fundamentally solid idea that addresses a real need, with a lot of room for growth, so the details don't actually matter as much as one might think…

    1. Bike share is a very hard concept to screw up. Of the 100+ systems around the world, the only failures have been when the system was way too small (ie, in DC, before capital bikeshare, the ten station smartbike was a failure) and in cities with mandatory helmet laws (australia).

      That being said, Alta is doing their darned best to take a fail-proof concept and hurt it.

      The details matter when they screw up your plans.

      Aha! You say. I will bike to my 11am meeting. But when you arrive at 10:40 (with plenty of time) you find the station isnt working, even though your phone ap said it was. And then the next station isnt either. And the one that is working is full because thats the one people have to dock at. Suddenly, it's 11:10, youre late for your meeting and theyre charging you $3 for going over the time limit.

      Youre not going to be using the service anymore, and you certainly wont be recommending it!

      A lack of perfection isnt the problem – widespread failure is.

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