Citi Bike Installs New Software, Laying the Foundation for Better Service

Citi Bike boss Jay Walder says last weekend's software upgrade lays the groundwork for more improvements at the bike-share system. Photo: Stephen Miller
Citi Bike boss Jay Walder said a software upgrade will lead to major improvements for bike-share riders. Photo: Stephen Miller

It’s the beginning of the end for Citi Bike’s software troubles.

After operating for nearly two years with software that drove bike-share users nuts, Motivate, the company that runs Citi Bike, says it has replaced its back-end with a better platform that will lay the foundation for major improvements in reliability and convenience.

Citi Bike shut down abruptly over the weekend to switch out the system’s software, Motivate chief Jay Walder said this morning. In place of the problematic back-end supplied by PBSC Urban Systems, Citi Bike now runs on software from 8D Technologies, the firm that developed the successful plumbing behind bike-share systems in other cities. The weekend work wrapped ahead of schedule on Saturday evening.

The most immediate improvement will be stations that stay online consistently. Walder said that at any given time over the past winter, 20 of the system’s 332 stations shut down after failing to hold a charge and burning through their solar-powered batteries. Today, all 332 stations are operating, Walder said, except for the six that have been removed for road construction or utility work.

The Citi Bike app has also been updated and will display the availability of bikes and docks more accurately, with information updated every 10 seconds. “We now have, for the very first time, accurate, real-time information,” Walder said. “You now can rely on the information that is in the app.”

Additional customer-facing software, including the displays at kiosks themselves, will be upgraded before the busy summer season, with most work taking place overnight, Walder said. The new software will enable other changes, including:

  • Reliable confirmation when a customer successfully docks a bike, including more accurate green lights. Users will also be able to receive email notifications when a bike is returned, so they don’t have to worry about unintentional overage charges.
  • When a customer presses a “wrench” button at the dock to indicate that a bike is broken, Citi Bike will send an email asking what is broken on the bike. This allows customers to offer more input and helps speed up the repair process in the warehouse.
  • Allowing customers who purchase daily, weekly, or annual passes to have a key fob or card dispensed to them instantly at some of the system’s busier stations, instead of relying on access codes or waiting for a fob in the mail.

Citi Bike plans on adding more valet services so customers at busy stations will be able to return bikes even if the docks are full. The company is also adding more satellite locations where it can store bikes, including Long Island City and near the Port Authority Bus Terminal, to more quickly rebalance the system.

Fixing the system’s software became job number one soon after Citi Bike’s parent company, then known as Alta Bicycle Share, was purchased last year by a team of investors who brought in Walder and rechristened the company as Motivate.

“We have a commitment to fundamental change in Citi Bike. We had to replace the software to be able to do that,” Walder said. “There were huge holes in the company… This is a technology-based company that didn’t have anyone to work on technology.” One of Walder’s first acts as CEO was to hire Michael Frumin, who began developing Bus Time while Walder was at the MTA, to head up technology. The company has also added staff to improve product development, shore up its supply chain, and beef up its marketing department.

Citi Bike took a very circuitous path to get its technology platform back on track.

Older systems in Montreal and Washington were developed by PBSC, which focused primarily on hardware, in partnership with 8D Technologies, which focused on software. After a messy corporate divorce right when Citi Bike was supposed to launch, PBSC had new software developed. Its shortcomings left users frustrated and strained the resources of the system’s operator, Alta Bicycle Share.

With the switch over the weekend, 8D’s software is now in place in New York, but Citi Bike still relies on hardware and bicycles developed by PBSC. Walder said that while the software update is compatible with the old bikes, the company is developing a new bicycle that could eventually replace the existing Citi Bike fleet. “We will have more to say on that in a little while,” he said. “I can’t say more about it right now.”

Of the bikes that are on the road today, Walder said 4,253 have received maintenance overhauls, with the full fleet of 6,000 to receive repairs before the summer. Walder said contract negotiations with TWU Local 100, which represents workers at Citi Bike, are ongoing.

The system will expand from its current 332 stations and 6,000 bikes to to over 700 stations and 12,000 bikes by the end of 2017. Walder said the first 92 stations will be installed in parts of Brooklyn and Queens by the end of this year.