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The Daily News Has Some Advice for Citi Bike

March 31, 2014

A week after The Daily News first asked Citi Bike users to vent their frustrations on Twitter, few have heeded the call.

Less than a week since it last took Citi Bike’s management to task, the Daily News is back with another editorial excorciating the bike share system and suggesting a series of fixes.

Although it is written in response to this tough but thoughtful editorial from Transportation Alternatives executive director Paul Steely White, the News’ take amps up the fake outrage as only they can do.

Fearing that the blue bicycles could wind up permanently locked in their stanchions, city transportation officials and bicycling advocates are for the first time talking publicly about the failings of NYC Bike Share.

Until now, they had engaged in relentless cheerleading while painting anyone who questioned the program’s financial viability or quality of service as anti-bike.

The Daily News has a knack for painting bike boosters with a broad brush, but then claiming offense that anyone might paint the Daily News with an opposite, but equally broad brush.

As I’ve said before, prior to the May 2013 Citi Bike launch most tabloid predictions were not related to the financial viability of bike sharing, were rather about whether such a program would lead to carnage, congestion, and scores of citizens unable to access their own apartments. When people did make predictions about membership, it wasn’t to cast doubt about Alta’s business plan, but to denigrate bicycle riding as just for tourists and not something that any self-respecting “real” New Yorker would seriously pursue. (If only that prediction had come true, Citi Bike might not be in the red today.)

Look, when institutions are as habitually incorrect as the New York City tabloids generally have been about bicycles, they tend to lose not just credibility but also the right to even pretend to be offended by the suggestion that they they may be anti-bike.

But, hey, here we go again. This is some ripe concern-trolling:

Riders must serve notice that they will refuse to renew annual memberships as they come up in May.

It’s as if the Daily News, which  last week encouraged Citi Bike members to take up their pitchforks and torches, is back again to ask, “Why hasn’t anyone taken up their pitchforks and torches?” Besides, how does one “serve notice that they will refuse to renew annual memberships” when the time comes? Stage a protest at a docking station? Burn a pile of Citi Bike fobs in a bonfire of blue plastic? If you’re not happy with Citi Bike but you’ve paid through the end of May or June, perhaps the best strategy is to just wait and, say, let your membership expire.

It seems the Daily News, in their haste to stoke outrage, failed to consider an important fact. While Citi Bike debuted on May 27th with nearly 20,000 members, it wasn’t until just recently that it signed its 100,000th annual subscriber. That means that renewals will be rolling, giving NYC Bike Share LLC — or whatever company winds up running Citi Bike — ample time to iron out the system’s problems. So while we might be able to read some tea leaves in the early renewal rates, it will take some time to measure overall customer satisfaction.

There is also the fact that after a particularly brutal winter, the spring weather will undoubtedly lure more people into paying for a bike share subscription. Indeed, there were eight days in March where Citi Bike signed up more than 100 new members. (On two of those days, new sign-ups topped 150.) That’s an encouraging sign. So if there is any drop-off in renewals from dissatisfied customers, it will likely be offset by an uptick in new subscriptions as the mercury rises.

So, what does the Daily News suggest be done at the institutional level? First, it has this odd demand:

Mayor de Blasio must confirm that he ruled out a bailout when he said, “At this point, city budget money is not on the table.”

If Mayor de Blasio had completely ruled out a bailout, he probably wouldn’t have qualified his statement with this telling phrase: “At this point.” But I can see what the Daily News is doing here. Essentially, in order to be outraged at some point in the future should de Blasio determine that a public subsidy is finally appropriate, the Daily News must create an alternate universe where the mayor’s very reasonable wait-and-see statement translates to taking city budget money of the table permanently. It’s how the fake-outrage sausage is made.

The News then takes the radical stand that Citi Bike should get a new manager, calling for a “tough, seasoned New York professional who is well versed in management, finance, transportation, customer service and rough-and-tumble politics.” (Note to Citi Bike general manager applicants: feel free to crib that line and put it on your resume under “Summary.”)

Joe Lhota is one suggested candidate, but given that he just took a new gig at NYU-Langone, I doubt he has much interest in working for Alta, which the News describes as “a two-bit outfit from Portland.”

He or she must also have the smarts to set a pricing structure that raises revenue while maintaining memberships and attracting use by tourists, as well as to raise sponsorship funding. The mission must be to make bike sharing both flawless and self-sustaining — without taxpayer help.

The Daily News never articulates why bike sharing can not receive taxpayer help, except to say that it must not receive it. Plus, “flawless” is a pretty high bar, one that no other transportation system ever meets.

The new leader must accomplish all of that, perhaps by reconfiguring or shrinking the program, or shut it down.

Reconfigure the program? That’s what most people, including TA’s Paul Steely White, have been arguing for weeks. (A cynic might say that by throwing out such an obvious suggestion, the Daily News is setting the stage to take credit for something that’s already in the works.)

Shrink it? That’s probably not the best strategy if you want to increase revenue, maintain memberships, attract use by tourists, and raise sponsorship funding.

But shut it down? Now we know which audience the Daily News is speaking to. The tabloids smell blood in the bike lane, and the sudden outbreak of concern for bike share’s fortunes seem to have one simple motivation. And that’s sowing the seeds of outrage among an audience the tabloids respect even less than Citi Bike members: their own readers.

One Comment
  1. March 31, 2014 4:00 pm

    Very nice post mr. Gordon. Ben

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