The Next Mayor Will Subsidize Citi Bike (Well, Depending on Who Gets Elected, Of Course)

Mayoral candidates (clockwise from top left) Eric Adams, Dianne Morales, Scott Stringer and Kathryn Garcia would subsidize Citi Bike.
Mayoral candidates (clockwise from top left) Eric Adams, Dianne Morales, Scott Stringer and Kathryn Garcia would subsidize Citi Bike.

There’s at least a 50/50 chance that the next mayor will boost bikeshare with city money.

Of the eight remaining top Democratic candidates, four have said they would do something Mayor de Blasio hasn’t done for two terms: set aside public funding to fuel the growth of bikeshare in New York City. 

A recent poll showed that 63 percent of voters support the idea — and Eric Adams, Kathryn Garcia, Dianne Morales, and Scott Stringer do, too. Shaun Donovan said that he would “consider it.”

Ray McGuire, Maya Wiley, and Andrew Yang did not respond to our requests for comment. 

Even without public money, Citi Bike has been immensely successful during the pandemic, exceeding its ridership figures from 2019 (the last “normal” full year). Last month, Citi Bike hosted a record 2,044,103 rides — an average of 68,136 every day.

Compare these figures to the heavily subsidized NYC Ferry system, which, at 9,000 trips per day, remains at 65 percent of its 2019 ridership, according to the city’s Economic Development Corporation. The city has allocated $53 million for NYC Ferry this year alone, part of a projected $600 million investment over the next several years.

Citi Bike is still nonexistent in many New York City neighborhoods and the entire borough of Staten Island, a fact that some critics say is proof that a private-partnership is the wrong way to run what is essentially a public transportation system.

In a statement to Streetsblog, Dianne Morales said that as mayor, she would take over the system from Citi Bike.

“This would allow us to move away from our reliance on a corporate program like Citi Bike that is an offshoot of a large, multinational bank,” Morales said. “NYC should have it’s own bikeshare program, that is free for NYC residents and is a completely new public utility.”

Caroline Samponaro, head of transit and micromobility policy at Lyft the rideshare company that owns Citi Bike, disputed the notion that Citi Bike is acting without any public scrutiny. 

“We are accountable to the public. We have service level agreements. We pay liquidated damages when we don’t meet our service level agreements. We have a very robust low-income membership program,” Samponaro said. “I think those comments would make sense if our program wasn’t working.”

Citi Bike now has 21,500 bikes and 1,200 docks, triple the size of the system started by Mayor Bloomberg in 2013; it’s larger than any other bike-share program outside of China — and is on pace to exceed the biggest such systems in China by 2024, when it plans to double its existing fleet with a $100-million expansion from Lyft

Per the city’s contract with Citi Bike, 20 percent of its fleet can be e-bikes. There are 4,300 are pedal-assist bicycles on the streets now that are wildly popular with riders who enjoy slicing up hills like hot butter: e-bikes average nine rides a day compared to 3.5 for “Classic” Citi Bikes.

At a City Council hearing in 2016, then-Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg estimated that it would take roughly 80,000 Citi Bikes to allow all New Yorkers to benefit from the system, and that it costs around $12 million to introduce 2,000 new bikes into the system. A ferry-sized municipal investment could make the system more equitable at a much faster clip (and perhaps prevent staffing cuts for bikeshare — last year Lyft laid of 17 percent of its workforce, including some Citi Bike workers).

“What’s really important is that it can induce demand,” said Cory Epstein, a spokesman for Transportation Alternatives, citing a recent scooter pilot in the Bronx that also came with new bike lanes. “We’re in a bike boom, bikeshare has been extremely resilient. We should not leave communities out of that.”

Below, see how all of the eight candidates responded to Streetsblog’s question: Would your administration allocate funding to bikeshare? 

Eric Adams: “Expanding Citi Bike well beyond more affluent communities by committing City funding” is part of Adams’ recent announcement that he would build 300 miles of bike lanes in his first term.

Kathryn Garcia: “We need to have Citi Bike in all of our neighborhoods, not just some. And if we have to subsidize it, then that’s what we’ll need to do,” Garcia told Streetsblog on Thursday.

Dianne Morales: “A Morales administration would move towards municipal control of a bikeshare program so we can expand services beyond tourist destinations and into working-class neighborhoods of color. This would allow us to move away from our reliance on a corporate program like Citi Bike that is an offshoot of a large, multinational bank. NYC should have it’s own bikeshare program, that is free for NYC residents and is a completely new public utility. Bikeshare stations would be prioritized in transit deserts that have been ignored under the private-public partnership.” 

Scott Stringer:My administration will completely overhaul our public transit system and bring it into the 21st century. We need a wholesale review of the ferry system — the fare subsidy and capital costs are out of control. Any system that has more weekend than weekday riders is not serving the day-to-day needs of New Yorkers.

Biking is more popular than ever and when we implement the ambitious bike plan that I laid out in my transit agenda, ridership stands to more than double in New York City. My administration will provide a deep subsidy for bike-share membership and e-bike purchases for low-income New Yorkers and students, and free bike classes. As mayor, I will build 350 miles over 5 years, keep bike lanes clear, create dozens of miles of “bike priority” streets with restricted car access, double bike parking spaces, and dramatically expand bike share across the five boroughs — including ensuring bike share is launched on Staten Island.”

Shaun Donovan: “It is critical that our city embrace cycling and micromobility as viable modes of transportation. That’s why I am committed to prioritizing the connectivity of the current fragmented network of bike lanes while at the same time making many of these new connections protected to make it safe for bikers to travel about the city. 

“My vision to create 15 minute neighborhoods is a part of this and focuses on increasing accessibility to everything our city has to offer. I believe bikeshares do a great job of helping us to reach that goal, but as it stands, they are not equitably distributed throughout our city. As Mayor, I will consider devoting funding to make bikeshares more equitable, especially four our neighbors who currently live in transit deserts. I will also ensure that we are getting real community input on this issue and others to ensure that we are making change happen ‘for’ and ‘with’ communities, not ‘to’ them.”

Ray McGuire: No response.

Maya Wiley: No response.

Andrew Yang: No response.

Of course, not everyone who supports biking believes that Citi Bike should become a publicly funded transit mode (though all other modes are subsidized by taxpayers). Citi Bike’s success without taxpayer training wheels is precisely why Jon Orcutt, a DOT policy official under Bloomberg, believes that subsidizing bikeshare should be low on the next mayor’s transit priority list.

“What is the problem we’re trying to solve, if we’re shifting a cost burden from a corporation to the government, on a thing that’s actually working?” said Orcutt, currently the director of communications at Bike New York. Orcutt had a laundry list of dire infrastructure necessities that should happen before cutting checks to Citi Bike.

“We have a streets master plan coming into law, and we don’t have the budget for it. We have so-called ‘protected bike lanes’ that totally suck and don’t work. … We are moving at an actual glacial pace to build out greenways which do protect people from cars,” Orcutt said. “Citi Bike expansion is happening now, it’s funded, it’s going. All these other things are not even off the starting blocks.”

Unsurprisingly, Citi Bike disagrees. Samponaro called Orcutt’s take “a false premise.”

“Arguably we wouldn’t have a Citi Bike system if we had followed that logic,” Samponaro said.