I remember growing up, WABC-TV’s John Johnson had a series called “Into the Belly of the Beast”. And boy, does that summarize my first-ever Citi Bike experience.
It actually wasn’t as horrible as I thought, but only because I had been preparing myself mentally for the absolute, absolute worst.
I started the day by taking the late train in, which leaves my hometown at 8:56 AM. The train was unusually crowded for a week that has a holiday in it. As the train approached the City, I started checking the Citi Bike app. To no surprise, the app showed that there were maybe a handful of bikes available around Penn, which I was sure would be completely gone by the time I got above ground.
I started planning in my head what I’d do if I couldn’t find a bike. The plan was to walk south on 8th, and if I couldn’t find a bike I’d cross eastward and walk up Broadway. Hopefully I’d find a bike before I walked completely to my destination on 50th.
To my absolute shock, when I got above ground I saw a bike available.
Just kidding…this bike had the dreaded “red light” on with the seat turned backwards. I see these all the time which leads me to ask…are these Citi Bikes really breaking down every single day or do they intentionally leave these broken bikes in the dock to take up space? In any case, this is Citi Bike Annoyance #2.
But to my shock and amazement, in the distance I saw…
That’s right–there were actually a bunch of bikes available. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but I realize it’s because I just happened to be there when the bike redistribution guy was there balancing with docks with bikes he himself biked over from somewhere else.
I gave him a appreciative nod, and he nodded back. We need more guys like this.
Undocking the bike was pretty seamless. I stuck my key into the slot (it took me a little while to figure out that the slot is a weird shape because it was designed for both a card and a key fob, but the key fob glides nicely into the bottom of the slot). Then, I lifted the seat until the LED light turned yellow and then green. And just like that, I had a bike to ride in the City.
Adjusting the seat was pretty easy. Like a regular bike, you just flip a lever out, pull the seat up to your desired height (I like it so that my feet just touch the ground), and then flip the lever in to lock it.
The bike was alright in terms of being comfortable. The first thing that struck me is that the handlebars are really, really thick, like Popeye’s arms.
The turning was a little stiffer than my bike at home, but I never felt out of control. Being a private entity associated with the government, of course they felt a need to fill any empty space that didn’t have a Citibank logo with words. Yield to pedestrians. Stay off the sidewalk. Obey traffic lights. Ride with traffic. Trucks have large blind spots. Give them extra room. They forgot to add one: stop reading all these words we put on your bike that you should have learned in third grade and pay attention to the road.
It took me a little while to figure out how to shift gears on a Citi Bike. At first I assumed that the gear was locked into first.
I was to figure out on my ride home that you can shift the gears by spinning the inside end of the handle clockwise or counter-clockwise.
In any case, I was off. I decided to keep it simple by riding up Eighth Avenue to 50th, and then crossing over to Madison on 50th.
I put my computer bag in the convenient holding area up front, which kind of made me feel like I was riding a girl’s bike with a basket in front.
And then so my ride began.
As I suspected, the bike lane on Eighth Avenue had a smattering of pedestrians who decided that they were too good for the sidewalk and wanted to try out this cool new green-colored sidewalk instead. Clueless Pedestrians in the Bike Path = Citi Bike Annoyance #3.
One thing I found very quickly is that pedestrians tend to feel more secure to flaunt the rules of the road when they’re in groups, and so the best way to counteract that is to get together with a group of fellow bikers and reclaim the bike path as a “pack”. Sounds like a bad episode of Game of Thrones, but I guess life is all about forming the right alliances.
A few blocks into my ride, my bag plopped down on the ground. It’s then that I realized that there was an elastic band that I could use to secure it, which I did. A less-than-secure means of securing your bags to your bike would be Citi Bike Annoyance #4.
Still for the first 3-4 blocks, not a bad ride, although another annoyance were bikers biking the WRONG way on the bike path. Grrrr…. (City Bike Annoyance #5)
Things started to get dicey when I reached around 38th Street. If you look at this picture, you’ll see that the bike path was completely blocked by a delivery truck AND a police car AND a dude talking to the guy in the police car, which meant I had to swerve into a fast-moving lane of cars to avoid them and the various delivery men with their hand trucks (Citi Bike Annoyance #6).
Worse, once I entered the area around Port Authority, the bike lane ends (technically, it becomes a “shared” lane as evidenced by a white drawing of the bike in the middle lane, but the cars and taxis weren’t in much of a sharing mood. (Poor Bike Paths = Citi Bike Annoyance #7)
To avoid myself being the next white drawing in the middle lane, I scampered to the leftmost lane and did my best Frogger impersonation to avoid being splattered by turning cars.
For a brief stretch after that, the bike path was amazingly clear again. Emphasis on the word “brief”.
Of course, not knowing how to get out of first gear I couldn’t accelerate to make up for lost time, I just kept pedaling and pedaling like a grandma.
I finally got to 50th Street, when it was time for me to hang a Ralph to make my cross-down ride. As I was crossing the intersection, a dude pulling his street cart suddenly walked in my way, narrowly avoiding me.
Keep in mind that 50th street doesn’t have a bike lane. And judging from the number of buses on the road, it’s pretty much a bus lane.
As you can see, even if I were down to my fighting weight, there’s no way I could squeeze to the right of this bus. Which meant riding on a busy sidewalk (which the bike told me not to do–I read it on the handlebar), riding behind the bus for the whole length and enjoying the intoxicating fumes, or swerving to the left of the bus.
I chose the third option. Problem is, once I got to the right of this bus, I realized I was to the left of another bus–and they were converging (Buses=Citi Bike Annoyance #8). Suddenly, I felt like Luke Skywalker and muttered “we’re all gonna be a lot thinner”. But happily, I managed to navigate my way past both buses.
At long last, I got to my destination to find this:
Every slot in the deck was taken except for two. I quickly grabbed one of them, and about 15 seconds later a young woman got the other one.
So, the next step was trying to figure out how to dock the bike (they spend a lot of time telling you how to get a bike but not a lot telling you how to put it back). I got off the bike and walked it into the dock and I assumed all I had to do was hold it there for a little bit. Nothing. I tried lifting the seat. The LED turned yellow, but I could still pull the bike and and out. Finally, out of desperation I inserted my key. The light turned yellow to green and then the bike locked. You’ll see from tomorrow’s post that yes, you are supposed to just be able to place your bike in the dock, but this dock like many others seems on the verge of dying.
By the way, after I got back to my office, I confirmed from their site that the proper way to return a bike is this:
Push the front wheel of the bike firmly into the bike dock and watch for the green light to blink on. The green light indicates that the bike is properly secured into the dock. If the yellow light on the bike dock stays on or if a red light appears, pull the bike out and try to re-dock into another empty bike dock.
After you dock your bike, wait to make sure the dock displays a green light. This will let you know that your bike is properly docked. Don’t see a green light or want to make sure? Grab the back of the seat and lift up to see if the bike comes back out of the dock. If you can remove the bike from the dock, please try again to dock your bike.
So evidently I did everything right, but for some reason the dock wasn’t cooperating. I did go to the Web site later and confirmed that my bike was indeed returned.
I walked to my office at exactly 9:56 AM, for a door-to-door commute of almost exactly an hour. Mind you that usually when I take the 8:56 AM train, I’m usually at my desk by around 9:40 AM, but that’s because I can hop off the LIRR and onto the E train in a matter of seconds. Here, I had to walk to find the bike station near Penn and walk from the bike station near Rockefeller Center to my office, which took time.
So Citi Bike didn’t save me time–and I was fortunate enough to find a bike at the station I wanted and an empty dock at the station I wanted. I can only imagine how much more time would be added to my commute if I had to search around for a free bike or an empty dock.
Being in the mid-80s outside, I was pretty sweaty (Citi Bike Annoyance #9), but a small fan in my office got me cooler pretty quickly. Luckily I have no meetings today, so if I am stinky I will be so in the comfort of my own office.
Overall, my first Citi Bike experience was pretty much what I expected. It’s not for the faint of heart. If you’re thinking Citi Bike will be a nice leisurely experience where you pop in some headphones and listen to some tunes while taking a peaceful ride up and down town, this is not for you. You have to constantly be on guard for street vendors, pedestrians, other bikes, and cars. Even a dedicated bike lane like the one on Eighth Avenue is riddled with potholes, one of which could easily send you flying. And where there are no dedicated bike lanes, it quickly becomes the Wild West which even the police can’t seem to control.
On the other hand, I have to say I was pretty pleased at how quickly I got a bike and how easily I found a dock (time will tell if either of both of those was just an aberration). And while things were a bit more stressful because it was my first time, I think that should go down as I learn more about the unwritten rules of riding in New York City.
In any case, I’m stuck with it for a year, so I’ll plan on making the most of it.
My Per-Ride Cost: $95
Today’s Stress Value (out of 10): 8
Today’s Aggravation Value (out of 10): 5