By MATT FLEGENHEIMER
Published: August 14, 2013
In its opening months, New York City’s bike share system has found itself locked in a perpetual race against its riders — to remove bikes from fully occupied stations, and to refill stations before the supply runs dry.
It is a tricky juggling act, performed across the city’s densest neighborhoods, that officials are still struggling to master.
In the morning, commuters flood Midtown, often leaving residential pockets of the East Village and northwestern Brooklyn bare. Bikes beside transit hubs like Penn Station can disappear almost as quickly as they arrive.
But after confronting software problems that dogged the system at its inception, officials are turning increased attention to the art of “rebalancing.”
The city relies primarily on a fleet of box trucks, hauling bikes by the dozens when cyclists cannot find a way to share effectively.
Directions come from Sunset Park, Brooklyn, delivered by dispatchers with an interactive station map and an evolving sense of traffic patterns. Crews travel in pairs. Loading a truck can take 45 minutes, to say nothing of replenishing a station nearby.
Cyclists tend to work more quickly.
“If we bring 37 bikes,” one worker said beside an Eighth Avenue station last week, “by the time we’re gone there’s two left.”
To combat this problem, the program has leased three spaces as staging areas for bikes that can be brought to nearby stations that tend to empty quickly: an office building beside Penn Station; Pier 40, along the Hudson River; and a lot at Delancey Street on the Lower East Side. The plan follows a model tested at other international hubs, like Waterloo Station in London.
New York will also introduce “bike trailers,” bikes that can haul a small number of other bikes attached to them, to negotiate congested areas in which trucks can become snarled in traffic.
The number of trucks, still the workhorses of the distribution plan, will increase, too: A spokesman for the Transportation Department said that three large box trucks would be added by the end of the month, bringing the total to six. (The number of smaller trucks will be reduced to five, from eight.) There are now 50 people charged with balancing bikes; there were 15 when the program began.
Given the program’s history of software trouble, an unbalanced bike stock, as the Bloomberg administration takes care to point out, is not the worst problem to have.
“The challenges are related to the success of the system itself,” Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s transportation commissioner, said. “The numbers are so big you really have to take a ‘Star Trek’ transporter just to keep up with the demand.”
Less than three months after the program was introduced, more than 70,000 people have become annual members. Between those cyclists and others who buy temporary passes, riders have taken more than 40,000 trips on some of the system’s busiest days — about seven for each bike in circulation.
But distribution challenges have unquestionably curbed the system’s ridership, leaving some commuters with a daily uncertainty: Will a bike be waiting?
“That’s my biggest anxiety every morning,” said Anthony Mauceri, 50, a Long Island Rail Road commuter, standing beside a subway entrance on West 33rd Street last week. “I come out of here and look.”
On the program’s Facebook page, where riders still bemoan customer service response time and unreliable updates on the system’s app for station information, members frequently appeal for more bikes in their neighborhoods.
One user suggested a megastation on East 14th Street, stretching from First Avenue to Avenue C. Others have surrendered altogether.
“Citi Bike, I love you,” Keith Edwards, 28, from the East Village, wrote on the page on July 30, “but I give up for now.”
Mr. Edwards, who stopped using the bikes for his commute to Midtown but hopes to continue riding for recreation, likened his annual membership to a troubled romance. “You know it’s not good for you,” he said. “But it’s going to be around on the weekends.”
Some New Yorkers have been more patient. Around 5:30 p.m. on a recent weekday, Alex Bertles, 23, sat astride his bike near West 31st Street and Eighth Avenue, where a full station prevented him from parking for several minutes.
As a man approached a bike, reaching for the handlebars, Mr. Bertles made his move. “This is my guy,” he said, racing toward the soon-to-be-vacant spot.
At a neighboring station, on West 33rd Street, a code of etiquette seemed to have developed among the waiting. The next available bike dock went to the next in line, not the nearest to the spot, distinguishing cyclists from the less altruistic drivers who often angle for parking spaces.
Around 6:30 p.m., a crew arrived in a box truck to ease the strain. The workers were taking 40 bikes, according to orders, clearing over half the station and, for about 40 minutes, holding forth as de facto program ambassadors for passing New Yorkers.
They were asked how to dock a bike (shove it really hard), where to apply for bike share jobs (check the Web site), what happened to the bikes in the rain (nothing), whether they were interested in a $20 men’s perfume (they were not), and, in one brazen exchange, whether they could give away a bike.
Just one, the man said to a worker. He would never say a word.
But the supply, the worker suggested, was already stretched too thin.
“If I give out a bike,” he said, hauling a half dozen into the back of the truck, “I’ll have to kill you.”