Conflict Over a “Citi Bike” Illustrates Popularity of a New Mobility Alternative

  • May 31, 2023
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Marc Joffe

In early May, a video showing a physician’s assistant and a group of teenagers arguing over a shared e‑bike in Manhattan went viral. The video gave rise to conflicting narratives about race and gender, but it also has an important transportation policy implication: at least in New York, there is a lot of interest in shared e‑bikes, and we could use more of them.

Micromobility vehicles, usually docked bicycles and undocked electric scooters, are now common in many large cities. According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), US total micromobility ridership rose from 2.4 million in 2011 to 112 million in 2021. In New York City, at least, the ridership surge has continued into 2023: in early May, Citi Bike provided a record 867,838 rides in a single week.

The vehicles are typically owned by private companies, such as Lyft, Lime, and Bird. But micromobility is often a public‐​private partnership, with cities providing public space for docking stations and other infrastructure.

For many intermediate length trips, shared bikes and scooters provide key convenience advantages. Compared to the subway, there is no need to descend into a station and wait for a train, so many trips can be completed faster even though the maximum speed of a bike or scooter is lower. There is also the opportunity to get fresh air and exercise while avoiding the security concerns that come with traveling on mass transit.

For those who don’t want to work up a sweat, electric powered micromobility vehicles are becoming increasingly popular. NACTO found that e‑bike utilization increased thirty‐​fold between 2018 and 2021. E‑bikes are safer to ride than e‑scooters, which pose balance challenges for some riders.

E‑bikes are still not for everyone. Heavier and more senior riders might prefer the greater stability of e‑trikes (three wheeled, electric powered vehicles). These have become available for purchase and may be a good addition to the options currently available at shared mobility docking stations.

But, given what we now know about the so‐​called Citi Bike Karen incident near New York City’s Bellevue Hospital, the supply of shared e‑bikes may not be keeping up with the demand. Media accounts suggest that the teenager was trying to economize on rental costs by limiting his rides to no more than 45 minutes, after which the rental rate goes up. He would then dock the bike for five minutes before starting another 45‐​minute rental.

But when he docked the e‑bike at the Bellevue Hospital Citi Bike facility, it became available for the physician’s assistant to rent on the Citi Bike app. She did so, and then attempted to claim the bike that the teenager was hoping to reuse. Had more e‑bikes been available at the docking area, the conflict would not have been necessary: either party could have rented another bike.

It also may be the case that some e‑bike riders are renting vehicles at below their all‐​in cost, which includes routine maintenance and expected losses from accidents and vandalism. If policymakers see the need to make mobility more affordable to low income and other disadvantaged riders, it may be better to offer these riders vouchers than providing service to all comers at below market rates.

An unfortunate downside of city life is that it sometimes brings people with varying cultural expectations into conflict, and, in the smartphone era, these conflicts can turn into national issues. While that may be a problem without an easy solution, it should not be difficult to dramatically increase the supply of e‑bikes, introduce e‑trikes, and provide other micromobility alternatives. Such investments would undoubtedly be more cost‐​effective than the multi‐​billion‐​dollar, multi‐​year transit projects that are all too popular with urban planners today.

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