If the city is seriously considering raising the price of a Citi Bike membership by 50 percent or more, the struggling bike-share program might want to get its app together.
Because, frankly, it’s a mess. We know: Over the course of a week, we counted bikes in six East Village docks between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. on three consecutive days and compared our counts to those reported by Citi Bike’s vaunted smartphone app.
Our findings? Well, we’ll let Tyler Kochanski, 22, of the East Village sum them up.
“The app is garbage,” he fumed as he was returning a bike.
Our count showed that the Citi Bike app consistently underreported the number of bikes in the rack at any time by a factor of one to five bikes. We also found that the bike’s fleet was largely depleted during rush hours. Users we talked with were often frustrated by broken bikes and docks, and a lack of rack space to return their bikes during evening rush.
The last issue has constituted a double whammy for users: In the mornings, they have found more or fewer bikes than the app tells them are at any dock – causing some to forgo a bike when some are actually available, or others to head for a dock when no bikes are there. But, assuming they get a bike at all, they have found their rack full when they try to return their wheels in the evening, even though the app told them there was space.
That’s undoubtedly why the bike service announced two new measures to ease the dock crunch: valet service at the dock at East Seventh Street and Avenue A during evening rush to assure that everyone returning a bike has dock space, and the deployment of three new oversized tricycles to rebalance the number of bikes at all East Village docks all day long.
But while these changes will improve service, they’ll do precisely nothing to make the app more accurate. “It would be nice if the app was accurate about how many bikes were there,” said Ashley Lever, 23, of the East Village.
Prior to the deployment of the new trikes, our count showed bike availability was a real problem during rush hour in the East Village. Bike stocks were at their lowest – sometimes impossible to get at all — during the peak rush hours of 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.
The New York City Department of Transportation chose the private Alta Bicycle Share to run the system in May 2013, aiming to provide commuters with another travel option via 4,000 bikes and 330 docking locations. It now provides more than 40,000 rides a day and at an annual membership cost of $95 – at least until the city hikes the fee. The app itself was ballyhooed as “the perfect co-pilot for all your biking adventures” when it was introduced last year.
But if the app is a “perfect co-pilot,” users may want to assume crash positions, at least during the morning rush when the app is wrong about two-thirds of the time. In our count, it accurately reflected the number of bikes only 29 percent of the time – undercounting by at least three bikes 19 percent of the time.
Part of the discrepancy stems from the way in which broken bikes are accounted for. If a user presses a button on the dock to designate a bike as broken, it will not show up on the app. But users often do not use the button, and the app reports broken bikes as available and ready for use.
Last week, in an update to users, Citi Bike acknowledged, “We’ve heard your calls. We know that our docking points could use some TLC.” The message explained that “sometimes when a dock seems ‘broken,’ it’s really just ‘pinned’ – when a bike is docked too quickly, and the dock’s locking mechanism engages without actually bolting in the bike.”
A spokesman for Citi Bike who refused to be quoted said via email that the app’s developers update their work on a quarterly basis as issues are reported, and acknowledged the challenge of keeping the numbers of bikes balanced among all East Village docks during rush hours. The spokesman did not directly address questions about the app’s inaccuracy.
A Citi Bike maintenance worker who requested anonymity said developers are well aware of the app’s shortcomings. Some users have had better luck using alternate apps such as New York Bike and Street Bike — something frustrated Citi Bike users may want to download to their smartphones.
By Yulong Li, Jordan Sternberg, Riley Wolf and Armen Gulesserian
Yankhaty Aponte, Adriana Ballester, Avery Hoffman, Caroline Joseph, Samara Marcus, Sophie McKeesick, Graham Rapier, Jasmine Roberts, Kristina Samulewski, Kayte Steinmetz and Zoe van den Brink contributed to this report.