Trick, No Treat: Citi Bike ‘Tweaks’ E-Bike Price Structure In Dead Of Night

Heads up: E-bikes are now more expensive. File photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Heads up: E-bikes are now more expensive. File photo: Gersh Kuntzman

It’s a spooky surprise.

Citi Bike customers riding between Brooklyn and Queens on an e-bike found a Halloween trick worse than drug-laced candy this weekend: a new price structure that removes the $3 cap on rides outside of Manhattan.

“Why did you change your e-bike price cap policy to exclude Brooklyn-Queens rides from the cap?” Citi Bike user Adam Fisher-Cox tweeted at the company on Sunday. “No good excuse for this other than greed. You should be encouraging these rides that aren’t well-served by transit.”

A receipt Fisher-Cox shared with Streetsblog showed that his partner was charged more than $8 for a ride on Sunday from Long Island City to Park Slope that lasted 54 minutes, eight days after taking a 35-minute ride Citi Bike ride in Astoria that was capped at $3. Beyond the change in the policy, Fisher-Cox was miffed that there was no announcement from the company on a change that hits users in the wallet.

“This price change discourages using Citi Bike to get between outer boroughs, exactly the type of trips bike share should be encouraging to fill in transportation gaps. This price change should be reversed and should never have gone into effect, but it’s even worse that it just started happening with absolutely no communication about a pricing change that more than doubled the cost of these rides.”

The cap on e-bike costs was originally introduced at the end of 2019 as a $2 cap on rides outside of Manhattan, part of a billing change included with the expansion of the number of e-bikes in the fleet. It was raised to $3 in March 2021, when Citi Bike made tweaks to its billing structure that raised the price on e-bike rides to 12 cents per minute for members and 18 cents per minute for non-members. When the cap was implemented, the language mentioned the 12-cent-per-minute e-bike fee, but added, crucially, “E-bike rides for members are now capped at $3, for 45 minute or less, starting or ending outside of Manhattan.” (Emphasis added.)

Even after Lyft raised the price for a yearly Citi Bike membership to $185 in January, the price website still read, “There is no change on the cap for e-bike rides for members: capped at $3, for 45 minute or less, starting or ending outside of Manhattan.” (Emphasis added.)

But here’s the switcheroo: The website now reads, “There is no change on the cap for e-bike rides for members: capped at $3, for 45 minute or less, entering or exiting Manhattan.” That means that e-bike riders who either start or end outside Manhattan are no longer covered by the cap. (Extra emphasis added.)

Lyft says the language change was made to simply clarify what the company says its policy was always supposed to be.

“We recently discovered a glitch in our backend that was undercharging for some e-bike rides,” said Lyft spokesperson Jordan Levine. “This impacted a small number of riders and has now been corrected.”

According to Lyft, the cap was always meant to facilitate e-bike rides over bridges connected to Manhattan that might otherwise be taken in cars, which is why the cap still exists for trips starting or ending in Manhattan. The billing glitch, as Lyft called it, applied to about 1 percent of all rides taken in 2022, since the average e-bike ride by a Citi Bike member lasts 13 minutes and 36 seconds, under the 20-minute threshold needed to raise the price of an e-bike ride above $3. (Lyft also said that reduced fare members were not affected by the change, since it would take over 45 minutes to hit a $3 charge under the .5 cent per minute e-bike price, the kind of ride in which overage charges kick in anyway.)

However, that number includes all Citi Bike users, encompassing rides taken inside Manhattan with or without e-bikes and all rides taken on traditional human-powered bikes.

But that only highlights why Brooklyn and Queens riders will be so frustrated — and why public control of bike share might again become an issue.

“I’m pissed,” said Angela Stach, who lives in Jackson Heights, where Citi Bike has only just reached the boundary of. ” Just when I finally got some Citi Bike equity in September, this sneaky move makes it pretty useless for me. Citi Bike allowed me to e-bike the 11 miles to see my partner in Brooklyn on days when I was just too tired to get on my analog bike. These are the kind of distances people outside Manhattan ride — and I finally felt part of the club of people who can use Citi Bike. Now this ride would cost me more like $8. That, together with the absolutely atrocious Lyft customer service and the apparent lack of servicing of classic bikes, demonstrates why bike share should not be in the hands of a private company.”

Still, other Twitter users and Citi Bike members on a Reddit page dedicated to Citi Bike were not pleased with the change, especially given the unannounced tweak.

Jon Orcutt, Bike New York’s director of advocacy and a senior Department of Transportation official when Citi Bike rolled out, connected the change to Lyft’s desire to increase the number of e-bikes in the total Citi Bike fleet above its current 20-percent cap.

“[This is] one reason to be very skeptical of the company’s push for a larger share of fleet to become electrified in the name of ‘equity.'”

This weekend’s price tweak is the latest increase in Citi Bike prices, which have gone from $149 for a yearly membership in 2014 to $185 in 2022. However, Citi Bike also remains the only mass transit option in New York City that doesn’t get any type of public subsidy, which has forced Lyft to bear the costs of expanding the number of bikes, number of docks around the city and the physical footprint around the city by itself.

City Council members also seem to have sway over City Hall when they don’t want certain public transit improvements, as Streetsblog reported. In the case of Citi Bike, Council Member Bob Holden objected to docks being placed on roadways because “parking” for cars would be lost (the irony being that advocates see a loss of car parking as a crucial way to discourage driving — along with more Citi Bike availability).