Inside Lyft

Flood, Sweat, and Gears: The Tumultuous, Triumphant History of Citi Bike

Vanessa Quirk - May 31, 2023
Illustration of collage of images, including a Lyft e-bike, a hand holding a phone with a map of Citi Bike stations, two people walking their bikes together, and a person riding a bike over the Brooklyn Bridge.
Illustration by María Jesús Contreras

“It’s hard to imagine New York today without Citi Bike. It really has become part of the city. But you could not say that ten years ago at all.”

— Will Bissell, early Citi Bike employee

Today, Citi Bike is part of New York. The bike-share system, which turned ten this month, has become as iconic as the Greek diner coffee cup, the hot dog vendor, the brownstone. Its 1,800 stations dot boroughs and neighborhoods, and its 30,000 bikes have enabled over 180 million rides. 

So it’s striking to realize how many times in its history the entire system came close to collapse. 

There was the time, before Citi Bike had even launched, that Hurricane Sandy took out a huge chunk of the bike fleet. There were seminude protests, clothed protests, and op-eds decrying the “totalitarian” takeover of the “all-powerful” bike lobby. There were tech glitches that simultaneously shorted stations across the city. There was the time the system almost ran out of funds. 

Citi Bike survived — and thrived — only through the collective efforts of many dedicated people willing to work, night and day, to make their vision a reality. 

This is their story. It’s the story of Citi Bike, yes, but also of New York. 

And it begins with one woman.

I. “What do we think of this?”

“Putting bikes in Midtown Manhattan in 2007 was as inconceivable as putting a man on Mars.”

— Janette Sadik-Khan

Just a few months into her tenure as commissioner for New York’s Department of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan walked into her office and found a clipping from the Financial Times describing the launch of Vélib’, Paris’s new bike-share system — a city-wide collection of docked bikes, at a scale that had never been attempted before. A note from Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff was attached. It read, simply, “What do we think of this?”

“The short answer was that it’s a great idea,” Sadik-Khan says. “But the longer answer was that, in 2007, putting bikes in Midtown Manhattan was about as inconceivable as putting a man on Mars.”

The challenge wasn’t just technical, but social. “For most of the last 50 years, transportation departments didn’t really build new transportation systems. They spent most of their time and money managing and repairing what was already there,” Sadik-Khan says. “So after building the city around the car, transportation departments saw their job as moving cars as fast as possible from point A to point B.” That made cycling in New York’s car-choked streets “like being in Mad Max.

Vélib’ suggested a different path: transforming streets into places where people can get around easily — in cars, on bikes, or on foot. And it was popular. In its first year, the system saw 20 million rides — including from many who had never considered cycling before. 

A Vélib' bike station on rue Vieille du Temple in Paris on April 2013 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Sadik-Khan was intrigued. Could bike share ever work in New York? And if so, how? 

The answer, in her mind, came down to one word: infrastructure.

While the city had installed its first separated bike lanes under Mayor Edward Koch in the 1980s, a number were subsequently “removed amid fierce opposition.” In 2006, there were fewer than 30 miles of bike lanes. That wasn’t just a safety issue but a threat to any bike-share program’s success. “You’re not going to wish people on a bike,” says Sadik-Khan. “You have to create the protected infrastructure that makes them feel comfortable getting around.” 

So Sadik-Khan’s team got to work on an ambitious goal: installing 400 new miles of bike lanes in six years.

II. Cutting edge — not bleeding edge

“We were really lucky that we were on the cutting edge and not the bleeding edge. We were able to benefit from the experience of those that have gone before.”

— Janette Sadik-Khan

Today, Kate Fillin-Yeh, the strategy director at the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), is a big deal in the transportation world.

But in 2009, she was a lowly planner at the Department of City Planning, when her bosses — inspired by Paris’s innovative new system — asked her to pen a feasibility study for a bike-share system for New York City. Fillin-Yeh had studied Vélib’, of course, as well as systems in Barcelona, Toulouse, Montreal, and a “tiny” one in Washington, D.C. Now, she was exploring how New York City could take the best of what was out there already and adapt it to its own particular context.

For example, Paris had decided to hardwire its Vélib’ docks; for each one, “they literally had to dig a hole in the ground, run a whole bunch of electrical wires, and pour a whole bunch of concrete.” Montreal, however, because of its snowy weather, had taken a modular approach, where stations could be installed — and removed — more easily. By following the Montreal model, New York could save time and money.

Fillin-Yeh did recommend that New York mimic Paris in two important ways. First, Vélib’ launched with around 14,500 bikes in its system. Systems that had launched with limited reach struggled to attract riders. She recommended that New York similarly go big. Second, the station spacing: to make the system as convenient as Paris’s, New Yorkers should never have to walk more than five minutes between stations.

Fillin-Yeh’s ambitious proposal drew the attention of Sadik-Khan, who brought her over to the Department of Transportation to try to turn bike share into a reality. She recommended launching with a system of at least 300 stations, across dozens of neighborhoods, and expanding over time. 

But figuring out where to install those docks would require talking to New Yorkers. A lot of them.

III. 300 stations, 300-plus conversations

“There were 8.4 million New Yorkers, and there were about 8.5 million opinions about this program.”

— Janette Sadik-Khan

In September 2011, Commissioner Sadik-Khan announced the plan for New York’s bike-share system, along with its newly appointed operator: Portland, Oregon–based Alta Bicycle Share, which already ran bike-share programs in Boston, D.C., and Melbourne. 

The New York Times reported on the announcement with tentative optimism but was quick to point out that “the most contentious” facet of the program was to come: choosing station locations. 

To get ahead of the inevitable controversy, NYC DOT pursued a many-layered approach: First, they identified and measured thousands of “technically viable” locations (i.e., no manhole covers, wide enough sidewalks, enough distance between trees, etc.) and simultaneously created an online portal where New Yorkers could nominate station locations. They received more than 10,000 responses, which staff members cross-referenced with the “technically viable” list in order to whittle potential sites down to just over 2,800. Then there were public meetings, 159 of them, where staff members and residents pored over maps to determine the best sites. To make sure stations were never more than five minutes walking distance away from each other, Fillin-Yeh and her colleagues divided up neighborhoods into 1,000 grid squares. Residents were then asked to pick among three different location options for each square. “This changed how people reacted,” Sadik-Khan says, “from the defensive, like, ‘I don’t want this location,’ to ‘which of these options works best for me?’ ” 

It turned out, New Yorkers had a lot of intel to share. “There’s a lot of weird stuff that happens in New York. I had no idea,” says Fillin-Yeh. “Like the tile shop that gets a late-night delivery once a week. Unless you happen to be on a certain intersection at Tuesday at 9:53 p.m., you’d never know.”

New Yorkers didn’t just provide amusing tidbits, however. In Fillin-Yeh’s estimation, “those conversations fundamentally built how the system works.”

The plan was starting to take shape. NYC DOT and Alta started hosting temporary station demonstrations around the city, so people could get a sense of how bike share would work and what it would be like. What this nascent system needed now was a sponsor.

An Alta Bicycle Share demonstration bike station at a press conference in Manhattan, September 2011. (Image credit: NYC DOT)

IV. The birth of Citi Bike

“[They] put together a really innovative, compelling business case for what on paper looked totally insane.”

— Jon Sellman

Part of Fillin-Yeh’s initial study investigated the size of the market — and thus, revenue potential — for a bike-share system in New York. She found a recent Department of Health survey that concluded that half a million New Yorkers bike regularly. Fillin-Yeh crunched the numbers: If just one percent of those riders would try bike share, “there’s actually a way to make this financially viable.”

But New York City was adamant that — unlike Paris — no public dollars could go toward the system. They would need a private sponsor to get it off the ground and onto the streets. In 2010, London had launched its own bike-share system, sponsored by Barclays Bank. It got people thinking, including a small, passionate team at Citibank.

At the time, Jon Sellman was brand new to the company, a young associate with a background in experiential marketing. He remembers getting pulled into a meeting where he first heard the idea for Citi to sponsor the bike-share program.  

“This is not your normal sponsorship. It’s not a baseball stadium or a tennis tournament or a film festival. Putting 10,000 bikes on the streets was new and for not a small price tag. So how do you justify that from a business perspective?” he says. “That team put together a really innovative, compelling business case for what on paper looked totally insane.” 

The argument went like this: Instead of paying for billboards, finance a system of bikes and stations that serve as mini-billboards canvassing the city. In the wake of the financial crisis, public sentiment around banks — including Citi — was at an all-time low. The company didn’t just want to improve its brand image, it wanted to do something specifically for its hometown. “The more we looked into it, the more sense it made,” Sellman reflects.

The pitch landed. Then the real work began. 

“This was not my job, right? I had a job where I was responsible for advertising,” remembers Sellman. “So I would come in on nights and weekends and work on this. At some point, I just threw myself all into it.” 

Sellman, his colleagues, and his agency partners at Publicis, an advertising agency, began creating the identity of Citi Bike: designing the logo, deciding on station art, and — of course — picking the right color. From the beginning, the Citi team insisted that the bikes be blue. 

“The city asked us if we would consider other colors, and we said sure,” Sellman says. He pulled out two swatches, each a slight shade away from the original color. “They weren’t gonna be red, they weren’t gonna be yellow. And that was very, very important to us … to create something that was iconic, that would stand out.”

With the branding complete and the financial dealings dealt, it was time, in 2012, to go public. Sellman recalls: “We made a big announcement with the mayor and the commissioner and the then-CEO of Citi.” It was official: Citi Bike would launch in fall of 2012. 

“Then Hurricane Sandy hit.”

V. In Sandy’s wake

“We were like, ‘Oh, god.’ It was just bad. It was just bad.”

— Kate Fillin-Yeh

On October 29, 2012, about 7,000 brand-new, bluely branded Citi bikes, hundreds of stations, and a few trucks were being stored at a warehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard — at sea level — when Superstorm Sandy hit. 

After the storm passed, Fillin-Yeh and her colleagues at the NYC DOT cycled down to the Yard to survey the damage. “And we were like, ‘Oh, god.’ ” The equipment was submerged in salty, brackish water. One thousand of the bikes, most of the stations, and all of the trucks were totally destroyed. “It was just bad. It was just bad.”

Flooded Alta warehouse in Brooklyn Navy Yard post Hurricane Sandy, October 2012. (Image courtesy of Kate Fillin-Yeh)

The storm could not have hit at a worse time. The launch had already been delayed by Alta Bike Share, the designated operator, who (due to technical issues with the bike-share software) kept missing deadlines. (In fact, the bikes were being stored in the Navy Yard while waiting for a software bug to be fixed.) Then, Sandy wiped out most of the fleet before they’d even had the chance to generate revenue. Alta was forced to lay off about 30 people, almost all of its staff. Then its president quit. 

“It was at that moment where we really questioned whether the program could move forward,” remembers Citi’s Sellman. To boost morale within Citi, Sellman came up with a plan: He asked some compatriots to help him get some bikes over to the Long Island City office on the executive floors. “I positioned them in the foyer, in the vestibule. And then I started doing Friday bike outings with our legal department, with executive assistants of senior leaders, with senior leaders themselves. It was the greatest experiential marketing I’ve ever done in my life because, almost to the person, you get on a bike, you ring the bell, you smile, you do a figure eight, and then everybody’s back on board.” 

The move helped, but it was a band-aid. The program needed a complete overhaul and a new leader willing to put the pieces together again — fast.

VI. Five months to launch

“It was just pandemonium. I can’t think of a better word. I think I got my first gray hairs during that period.”

— Justin Ginsburgh

In late 2012, Justin Ginsburgh was acting as the chief of staff for New York State’s Economic Development Agency when he got a call. Would he be interested in becoming Citi Bike’s first general manager?

“It was a turnaround and a start-up. So those are two of the most difficult situations for a business leader — and they were happening concurrently.”

Ginsburgh, a bike fan and not one to back down from a challenge, accepted the role. He started in January 2013. The mission: install 332 stations by launch day, May 27. That would be a challenge under the best of circumstances, but the system’s finances were in shambles (“basically running on fumes,” Ginsburgh says), and its staff was down to a “skeletal” six. 

The crew included Dani Simons, a NYC DOT and Transportation Alternatives alum. Simons recalls months of intense all-hours, all-hands-on-deck work: “We used to just look at each other and say, ‘It’s just bikes, man,’ and then we would crack up and fall on the floor laughing.”

Ginsburgh agrees. “It was just pandemonium. I can’t think of a better word. I think I got my first gray hairs during that period.”

Will Bissell was a recent arrival to New York from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, when he took what he thought would be a one-month contract gig with Citi Bike for the month of May. 

“It was chaos from day one,” Bissell recounts. “It was a race to get stations on the ground. One of our main jobs was running interference so that the operations crew could put the stations down without disruption. There was a lot of onlookers, a lot of questions, generally positive, some negative. What is this? What are you doing? What’s going on? But generally, just inquisitive. What’s happening?”

Tweet from Janette Sadik-Khan commemorating the first Citi Bike station installation at Fulton St. and Grand Ave. in Brooklyn on May 27, 2013. (Image credit: Janette Sadik-Khan)

As launch day loomed closer, Simons realized she would need press kits and photographs of the bikes in action. “We were so scrappy because we had no budget for anything. And so I remember calling up friends and people I knew from the bike community.”

“It was the first time that these people had ever been on a Citi Bike. And we biked over the Manhattan Bridge. We ran into other cyclists on the bridge who were like, ‘Oh, my god. It’s Citi Bike. Where did you guys get those? Is this really happening?’ You just felt like a celebrity.”

But while the bikes looked great in the photos, their performance was far from perfect. The weekend before launch, the software was still consistently glitchy. Ginsburgh says, “There was this belief that if we delayed it again, it’d be really difficult to launch as the weather turned. Plus, that was Bloomberg’s last year before an election. It was really now or never.”

Two days before launch, The New Yorker put Citi Bikes on the cover. “That was an acknowledgment that this was something really, really, really big,” Sellman remembers thinking. “It was going to change the face of the city — or the city was going to wipe it off the face of the earth.”

VII. Ready (enough) to launch

“Man, this is either gonna be like the greatest thing ever or I’m gonna need to find a new job.”

— Jon Sellman

The day arrived: May 27, 2013. “We all woke up at three in the morning,” remembers Fillin-Yeh, the writer of the feasibility study who had gone to NYC DOT to make bike share a reality. “We had all gotten a route at midnight to make sure everything worked [for the next morning]. So we were probably very over-caffeinated, and we’re rolling down through the city, checking all the stations” on the way to City Hall, at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.

It was a beautiful, sunny spring day. Chairs had been set up for a press conference. By the time Sellman arrived “there was a big honking crowd” of journalists and bike-share enthusiasts. Fillin-Yeh was handing out Citi Bike–branded bicycle bells. “Instead of clapping, we would all ring the little bells,” recalls Inbar Kishoni, who worked for the Department of Transportation at the time. There was excitement and — for the bike-share crew — palpable anxiety in the air.

The plan for the conference was for Commissioner Sadik-Khan and Mayor Bloomberg to speak — and then for the mayor to ceremonially check out the first Citi Bike. 

Ginsburgh was holding his breath. “At the time, maybe 10 or 20% of the time you tried to check out a bike, you would get a red light, and it wouldn’t release. When he went to check out that bike, there was a little bit of a lag. I think my heart actually stopped.” 

Fillin-Yeh was right there with him: “The hope was, please, God, let the software work.”

A few pregnant seconds later, the light clicked green. The bike-share team, running on caffeine and adrenaline, breathed a sigh of relief. 

The mayor, commissioner, and others on the team got on the bikes for the first official ride, Fillin-Yeh recalls. “And off into the world we went.”

VIII. Bikelash

“Any new thing in New York City goes through a hazing process.”

— Caroline Samponaro

At first, New Yorkers were not impressed. Dani Simons was deluged with angry phone calls. Caroline Samponaro, who was then at the nonprofit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, had seen this kind of reaction play out before: “Any new thing in New York City goes through a hazing process, where you’re gonna go through incredible skepticism, you’re gonna face tons of opposition.”

“It was like trench warfare around every single station,” Ginsburgh recalls. “Primarily around parking.”

For example, as the New York Post gleefully covered, Jacques Capsouto, a restaurant owner concerned that the loss of public parking spaces would impact his business, led a one-man “sit in” to try to prevent the installation. The protest (despite the media coverage) was short-lived. 

“You had people who were anti-corporate or anti-Citi and just didn’t like the idea that there was going to be this kind of moving billboard all over the city,” Simons recalls. 

Citi’s Jon Sellman: “There was a lot of hate towards Citi around hardships people had to endure as a result of the financial crisis. But there was also a piece of the corporatization of New York that wasn’t about us. It would’ve been any brand.”

Some graffitied their displeasure. Others posted signs on the kiosks. Others … went further. Like the SoHo artist who hosted seminude drawing classes at a docking station. 

“The level of passion was extraordinary,” Sellman says. They worked really hard to protest what they felt was an encroachment on the city that they loved.”

There were the folks concerned about gentrification, who thought Citi Bike would incur development and bring too much wealth into their neighborhoods.

There were the concerned property owners, who thought Citi Bike would devalue their homes and take too much wealth away from their neighborhoods. 

There were those who raised the alarm about safety. 

“There was a whole line of critique in the papers from people who were like, ‘This is going to cause mass casualties or mass fatalities. New York is not ready for this,’ ” remembers Simons.

“There were people saying, ‘You don’t have enough bike lanes built. How can you put this thing out? It’s irresponsible of you,’ ” Samponaro recalls. 

And then, as every single person interviewed for this piece recalled, there was an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

IX. How the tide turned

“We now look at a city whose best neighborhoods are absolutely begrimed, [that] is the word, by these blazing blue Citi bank bikes.”

— Dorothy Rabinowitz, Wall Street Journal Editorial Board Member

On May 31, 2013, the Wall Street Journal published a video segment titled “Death by Bicycle.” Editorial Board Member Dorothy Rabinowitz called Citi Bike a dangerous, ugly abomination, rolled out ruthlessly by the “all-powerful” bike lobby within the “totalitarian” Bloomberg administration.

“The bikes will ‘begrime’ New York City,” chuckled Fillin-Yeh in recollection. “Still my single favorite word ever.”

The outrage was so overstated that it drew the attention of Jon Stewart. The Daily Show “just skewered her and the general backlash and NIMBYism,” recalls Ginsburgh. “That helped shine a light on just how parochial and backwards a lot of this opposition was.”

Simons agrees: “At that point, people thought like, ‘OK, are we going to be with people like her? Or are we going to be with people who are maybe more open-minded and excited about something new coming to the city that could potentially be really helpful?’ ” 

Sadik-Khan considers it one of the defining moments of Citi Bike history. “It was then I knew that Citi Bike had won, and there was going to be no going back. Hating bikes in 2013 was like hating rock music in the ’60s.” 

“Another thing that really helped,” says Simons, “was you just started to see all sorts of celebrities doing it.” 

“You saw Leo out there, Seth Meyers out there,” recalls Sadik-Khan. “Brooke Shields dressed up as a Citi Bike station for Halloween.”

“We had a wall of fame at Citi Bike,” remembers Simons, “and every time we found a new one on the internet, we would print out a picture, put it in a crummy $2 frame, and hang it up on the wall.”

Citi’s Sellman was overjoyed: “What really helped us and what continues to help us every day, is just the way that pop culture and the zeitgeist took to it. God bless you, Leonardo DiCaprio. God bless you, Jonas Brothers.”

As more celebrities took to the blue bikes, so too did regular New Yorkers. More than the system could handle.

X. Too popular too fast

“We were just pedaling our legs as fast as we could.”

— Dani Simons

Five months into the program, New Yorkers had taken five million trips of ten million miles. Over 400,000 people had purchased daily or annual passes. 

But, Simons explained, there was a problem. “We weren’t actually ready for that kind of surge.” Especially because, back then, Citi Bike members used physical keys to unlock bikes. 

Citi Bike ambassador Will Bissell found himself spending most of his time mailing keys. Lots and lots of keys. “We were shipping out three, four, five thousand keys a day. I’d load up as many envelopes as I could, commandeer a van, drive to the post office before it closed, and then go back and do another round so that we were ready for the next day.”

Rider inserts key into the docking system to unlock a Citi Bike, July 2013. (Image credit: Getty Images)

“Phones were ringing off the hook. ‘Where’s my key?’ So any downtime was spent stuffing keys in envelopes.”

But customers weren’t only complaining about the lack of keys, Bissell explained. Back then, if you didn’t have a key, a member could receive an unlock code by swiping their credit card at a station kiosk — but for the first couple of months, these codes worked “about 50% of the time.” The quickest way to fix the glitch was to manually reboot the stations.

“There were weeks where I was just biking all day, every day,” remembers Bissell. “I knew the preferred public bathrooms — hotel lobbies, Barnes & Noble, select restaurants — where I could cool down for a second, refresh, and get back out there.”

“My roommates at the time, they were sitting at a desk all day. And they’d come home and say, ‘What’d you do?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, I biked 15 miles, 30 miles,’ just resetting stations.”

Fillin-Yeh remembers a particularly “dicey week where every time a station’s computer needed to be rebooted, it unlocked all its bicycles. That was unfortunate. So we were just wandering around, corralling bicycles and trying to protect them.”

Even worse, Citi Bike’s billing software still couldn’t process transactions automatically. People like Bissell had to sit in front of a computer and press “bill” for each purchase. Simons reflects: “We were just sticking our fingers in the cracks in this dam so that it didn’t break and bring down the entire system. We really did whatever it took that first year to try to make this work.”

XI. The night we saved Citi Bike

“I need you guys to come to Greenpoint tonight. I can’t tell you why, but if you want to help Citi Bike, now’s the night.”

— Dani Simons

One night in June, only a few weeks after launch, the tech issues came to a head. 

Ginsburgh remembers it well. “Basically, the deputy mayor said, ‘Clearly the system isn’t working. We can’t keep it open.’ ” He gave Ginsburgh and his team 48 hours. “ ‘Fix it, or we’re going to have to shut the system down.’ ”

Ginsburgh reached out to the software suppliers in Montreal, who disagreed internally about the root cause of the issues. “One team came up with a patch thinking it was a kiosk hardware issue, and another team came up with a patch saying that these were software issues, and they were arguing with each other on all the calls in French. We couldn’t follow what was going on.” 

Ultimately, though, Ginsburgh just had to choose one and pray. That was only the start of the saga.

“The night before the deadline, we had a software patch, but there was no way to update the kiosks using the cellular network. So we had to shut down the system overnight, and we had to ride to every station and swap out these little tiny SD cards.”

“So I was biking around that evening to every store I could think of to find these micro SD cards.” He was at a video and camera equipment store when Simons happened to call. Ginsburgh explained the dire situation. 

“He said, ‘I’m at B&H. I am buying 300 SIM cards,’ ” Simons recalls. “I said, ‘What do you need me to do?’ And he said, ‘I need you to go buy headlamps, because some parking inspectors will help us overnight but only if we buy them headlamps so that they can see.’ 

And I said, ‘Do we have enough people?’ And he said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Do you need me to call some of my friends?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you might want to start calling people. But you definitely need to go and buy headlamps.’ ”

So Simons went to several big-box stores to buy out their inventory of headlamps, all while calling and emailing friends for help.  

“I still have the email: ‘I need you guys to come to Greenpoint tonight. I can’t tell you why, but if you want to help Citi Bike, now’s the night.’ ”

The appeal worked. Before daybreak, the staff and their friends had swapped out the SD cards at all 300-plus stations. 

Then, Ginsburgh recalls, it was time for the moment of truth. “The system was shut down overnight. So that morning around 6 a.m., we turned it back on and had no idea if the whole system was going to crash.”

It worked. Simons couldn’t believe it. “We had lived to see another day.”

XII. Heading toward a financial cliff

“We were bleeding money.”

— Justin Ginsburgh

Behind the scenes, Ginsburgh continued to pore over the company’s finances. And things weren’t looking good. 

Members’ rides were costing more than they were bringing in. “We were bleeding money. It was pretty clear that we would run out by that winter.” So, that fall, Ginsburgh took on a new responsibility: fundraising. “I went out to the VC community and the investor community and started to pitch them. We had incredible membership and ridership metrics, but our software problems prevented us from monetizing. If we could fix it, we would have a winning business model.” 

Ginsburgh lined up a few key capital investors, most notably from the real estate firm Related. “By the spring, we had a commitment to buy the company, invest a lot of capital, and expand it.”

There was just one wrinkle. The operator, Alta, didn’t want to sell. At the same time, the Department of Transportation had lost its patience with Alta and gave them an ultimatum. “The system was in such noncompliance with the requirements of the NYC DOT contract that NYC DOT threatened to default the owners and shut down the system. That really left them with very few options.”

Alta finally stood down. “The company ownership was rebranded as Motivate,” explains Ginsburgh. “A lot of capital was invested in the software and in expanding the fleet,” which doubled from 6,000 to 12,000 bikes. “That really created the foundation for the success story we have today.”

XIII. A bike system grows in Brooklyn 

“There was no monolithic response from the community. It was a cacophony. We had to tackle it in a multipronged way.”

— Tracey Capers

In 2012, Tracey Capers — a seasoned expert in economic development — was serving as executive vice president at Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the nation’s first nonprofit community development corporation. Since its founding in 1967, the nonprofit has invested more than $500 million into Central Brooklyn’s infrastructure, housing, and businesses and has found jobs for over 20,000 residents. 

When Fillin-Yeh met with her to discuss bike share, and how it would soon be coming to the neighborhood, Capers’s gears started turning. At Restoration, she had been working to improve the health and economic mobility of her community. Bike share, she thought, could be leveraged to help her accomplish both goals at once. 

But she also knew that introducing this new mode of transportation wouldn’t be easy. 

“We were the first predominantly Black community to have bike share, and there was widespread misunderstanding and confusion and upset about it coming. There was no monolithic response from the community: Some people were afraid to ride, some people didn’t have a credit card, some people didn’t have helmets, others were worried about gentrification or parking spots going away. It wasn’t one thing; it was a cacophony. We had to tackle it in a multipronged way.” 

Capers and her colleagues at Restoration launched a variety of efforts: They released multiple surveys to understand people’s concerns; they organized community events, block parties, and bike rides to get people familiar with the bikes; they launched pilots, like “Bike Share for Youth” and a “Prescribe a Bike” program, and a helmet giveaway; and they approached employers to see if they would offer discounted or free memberships to their employees.

Perhaps most importantly, Capers decided to leverage some grant funding she’d received to form a coalition. Made up of Citi Bike, the Department of Health, and the NYC DOT, the Better Bike Share Partnership was formed to increase the number of low-income, Black, and brown people utilizing bike share across Brooklyn. She, and Bed Stuy Restoration, were at the helm. “It was important to me to put an organization of color at the front.”

Capers began leading monthly meetings. From day one, she saw that each party had different objectives and agendas. “I was not just a champion, but a questioner and critic. There were a lot of things we didn’t agree with. But we built trust and respect for each other over time.”

Capers pushed the Partnership toward more open discussions of race and equity. When some of their surveys revealed that a portion of their community was significantly worried about racial profiling while riding, Capers suggested they create a committee to liaise with the police department. She also brought in experts for a convening where they coalesced on a definition of equity — and clarified how they would each strive toward it in their work. 

As she raised grant money for the Partnership, Capers shared funding with other local organizations, so they could help spread the word to their constituents. As they’d work together, Capers would bring these new members into the Partnership, too.

It was during this time that she met Shaquana Boykin. 

Boykin was on the first day of her new job at Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project when her boss pulled her into a meeting led by Restoration. “The one question was, ‘How is your audience using bike share?’ ” Boykin remembers being puzzled and raising her hand. “I was like, ‘Wait, so those bikes are not for tourists?’”

A Citi Bike representative assured her that they were for New Yorkers like her. But when Boykin, a student then living in public housing, learned that bike share then cost $60 a year for NYCHA public housing residents (and $149 a year without a discount), she knew it would be out of reach for many of her neighbors. “It may be for everyday New Yorkers,” Boykin remembers saying, “but the price point doesn’t feel like it’s for everyday New Yorkers.”

The Partnership worked with Citi Bike to come up with a plan: Rather than a yearly fee, NYCHA residents could pay $5 a month. Boykin was thrilled; almost overnight, she became a committed bike sharer, using Citi Bike for all her daily trips. And, as part of her work, she became a bike-share evangelist, promoting the system at NYCHA buildings and throughout her neighborhood, where she soon became known as “The Bike Lady.”

At the same time, Citi Bike, cognizant that the money Capers had raised would soon come to an end, started seeking a sponsor who would allow them to continue doing the community-based work they’d begun with the Better Bike Share Partnership. They partnered with Healthfirst, New York’s largest not-for-profit health insurer, which allowed them to open up discounted memberships to not just NYCHA residents but those who receive SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) as well. 

Tracey Capers, executive vice president at Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, speaks at a press conference announcing Citi Bike’s partnership with Healthfirst to launch $5 monthly memberships for SNAP recipients, July 2018 (Image credit: NYC DOT)

The efforts began to bear fruit. In June 2016, Bed Stuy residents took 225% more trips than they had in June 2015. From 2015 to 2022, trips that started in Bed Stuy increased by 761.5%. “As the work of the Partnership grew,” Capers recalls, “the conversation shifted from ‘Why is Citi Bike in my neighborhood?’ to ‘Why isn’t Citi Bike in my neighborhood?’ ” 

Boykin says that today, the change in her neighborhood, and in her neighbors, is palpable. “They feel comfortable biking. Seeing people that look like them biking, having infrastructure — biking just seems like a mode of transportation and not this alienating thing.” 

“In Brooklyn, it feels a part of our nature.”

Capers agrees: “​​When this work started, it was so rare that you would see people of color on these bikes. Now, it’s commonplace. It’s an everyday occurrence.” 

Not only did Capers, Boykin, and her colleagues transform Brooklyn, their work became a model for the entire bike-share system. Inspired by Restoration’s strategic efforts, Citi Bike subsequently launched an Equity Advisory Board and created a community grant program that, since its inception, has allocated over $790,000 to nonprofit and community-based organizations to lead bike programming in their neighborhoods.

Inbar Kishoni, today the community and equity programs manager for Citi Bike, reflects that the Better Bike Share Partnership “changed everything for Citi Bike.”

It “set the foundation for what our community programs are. Everything is rooted in that work.”

XIV. Enter Lyft

“[Here’s] a big player in the transportation space saying that bikes can be part of daily transportation, that bikes should be part of daily transportation.”

— Caroline Samponaro

From 2015 to 2017, Citi Bike kept hitting new milestones. 

In August 2015, 139 additional stations hit New York City streets; by the end of that year, riders had completed 10 million trips — breaking the one-year record for bike-share ridership in North America. 

In August 2016, another 140 stations were added, and the bike fleet grew to 10,000. 

About a year later, in September 2017, 142 more stations were added, and the fleet grew to 12,000. In October, Citi Bike marked its 50 millionth trip of all time. 

From her position at Transportation Alternatives, Caroline Samponaro watched the progress like a proud parent. After all, when she started at the nonprofit organization 12 years prior, her job had been to put pressure on the city to make bike share happen; when it became a reality, she’d become its biggest supporter. And she was witnessing the fruits of her and her colleagues’ labors. 

In early 2018, after more than a decade in the nonprofit world, Samponaro got a phone call from John Zimmer, the co-founder and then-president of the rideshare company Lyft. Zimmer told Samponaro that he was interested in making his company a platform for all kinds of sustainable mobility options — and disrupting Americans’ dependency on their cars. Bike share, he thought, could be part of that vision.

“I was like, ‘Oh hell yeah, this has got my name written all over it,’ ” Samponaro recalls. “I had started to feel like I was hitting the ceiling on my ability to scale impact, and this could help me bring some of the work I’d been doing to another level.”

When Samponaro joined the team in 2018, her friends and family were … confused. “I would tell people I was at Lyft working on Bike and Pedestrian Policy, and they were like, what does that mean?” 

A few months later, Lyft acquired Motivate, announcing a $100 million investment to double the size of the Citi Bike service area and triple the fleet size in five years — and Samponaro’s role became clear. 

Samponaro sees Lyft’s acquisition as a big moment for bike share: Here’s “a big player in the transportation space saying that bikes can be part of daily transportation, that bikes should be part of daily transportation.”

Not only could Lyft’s resourcing help Citi Bike expand, its tech capabilities could open doors to new riders. “A simple thing that we’ve done is added a QR code on every bike,” reflects Samponaro, “so that you can seamlessly walk up to a bike, whether you’re a member yet or not, scan that code in the Lyft or Citi Bike app, and take a ride. And we’ve seen that introduce many people to bike share for the very first time. Over 1 million rideshare users have taken their first Citi Bike ride through the Lyft app. It’s really compelling.”

In July 2019, Lyft and the NYC DOT announced details of a new phase of Citi Bike expansion, into all of Manhattan, parts of the South and Central Bronx, and deeper into Brooklyn and Queens. They committed to installing about 350 new Citi Bike stations every year. 

Caroline Samponaro speaks at a press conference with Lyft and NYC DOT announcing Citi Bike’s Phase 3 expansion, July 2019. (Image credit: NYC DOT)

Samponaro and her colleagues started 2020 believing that it would be the best year for New York City’s bike share yet. 

They were right — but for reasons they never could have imagined.  

XV. A city stands still, but pedals on

“It was, in this difficult moment, incredible to see so many people out and cycling.”

— Laura Fox

In March 2020, Callie Leaman was working as an ICU nurse in a small town in Michigan. After working a long shift, and coming home to put her two young children to bed, she’d sit and watch the news with her husband. The stories coming from New York were grim: COVID-19 cases were rising exponentially, and hospitals lacked staff to handle the surge. She wanted to help. 

While most of her family didn’t understand it, her husband fully supported her next move: Leaman flew out to New York City, got an apartment in Manhattan, not too far from NYU Langone, and started working in the ICU. She had been to New York a few times before, as a tourist, but in those early days of the pandemic, the city was unrecognizable. “I would describe that time in New York City as dark and lonely. Nobody was really out.”

Leaman worked four days a week; on her days off, she’d sit alone in her apartment, going to her window at seven every night to hear people cheer for workers like her. It still “makes me kind of emotional,” Leaman reflects tearily. “Sometimes you would feel not appreciated by people that thought it was a hoax or not real or whatever. And so that was a reminder of how many people actually did care.” 

Because much of Leaman’s days were spent working directly with COVID patients, she decided not to take public transportation, rideshare, or taxis to avoid the risk of exposing others. Sometimes she walked to the hospital, and sometimes she took a Citi Bike. She was at the hospital when she and her colleagues learned that Citi Bike was now free for essential workers. “All of the nurses got really excited when we saw that,” says Leaman, especially those New York–based nurses who lived far from the hospital, for whom walking wasn’t an option. For Leaman, it felt like another needed gesture of appreciation: People cared. 

The program was the brainchild of Laura Fox, Citi Bike’s general manager at the time, who had been at Lyft for less than a year when COVID-19 hit. “Entering into the pandemic was not an easy moment for anyone in transportation services. We made the decision very early on that we weren’t going to reduce service, but that we were going to be there for New Yorkers who still needed to get to work or who needed to get out of their apartment.”

“Some of the most inspiring moments of my time at Citi Bike,” recalls Fox, was “hearing some of the personal stories of doctors and nurses.”

“There were a number of female nurses who all lived in a similar area of Brooklyn. They were going to the Upper East Side and developed a mini bike train to feel safe while navigating New York City streets. None of them had been regular cyclists before. And through that experience, now all are regular cyclists.”

Those nurses weren’t the only ones. Fox, who was personally driven to expand bike share to women and people of color, was shocked by the uptick in ridership — more than doubling to 1.3 million riders in 2021. “The pandemic led to a lot more people trying bikes for the first time,” Fox says. “We saw a transformational change.” 

The jump in low-income riders was also stark. In 2020, reduced-fare bike-share members took 1.4 million rides; in 2022, 3.2 million. And in 2022, they took 77% more trips than standard members, on average.  

“People were so anxious about being cooped up inside, and looking for recreation and exercise,” says Jordan Levine, Lyft’s former head of Communications for Transit, Bikes, and Scooters. “Citi Bike was the best option.”

Fox agrees. “It was, in this difficult moment, incredible to see so many people out and cycling and using street space in different ways. There were open streets, streets closed down, major protests were done on bikes. It just started to feel like biking culture was essential to New York City in a way that hadn’t been fully true prior to the pandemic.”

XVI. Electric jolt

 “E-bikes changed the way that people use the system.”

— Jordan Levine

The pandemic wasn’t the only instigator to bike share’s explosive growth in New York. 

In 2020, Lyft introduced a new bike to the fleet to encourage more and new riders onto the system: a pedal-assist e-bike. They were instantly popular, getting 10 to 15 more rides a day than the classic bikes. “People were quickly calling for more,” recalls Fox. 

E-bikes “changed the way that people use the system,” explains Levine. “You see people crossing from Brooklyn to Queens, or even the Bronx into Manhattan, or you see people going from a place like Astoria to Greenpoint, where the train connections aren’t the most efficient, but taking an e-bike will get you there in 15, 20 minutes flat. So that really was a game changer for Citi Bike. There’s a whole other kind of trip that’s more likely to replace a car trip.” 

But e-bikes also brought new operational challenges: “The battery life was about 25 miles,” explains Levine. “When people are riding ten times a day for an average of two miles, that battery needs to be swapped out by a human every single day. And when you’re adding in these mechanized parts, it makes the repairs and the tune-ups a little bit more complicated.” 

In 2022, the Lyft team launched a new, improved e-bike with a stronger motor, reflective paint for safety (particularly helpful to the “many New Yorkers, like me, [who] are wearing black all the time,” comments Fox), and a battery that’s twice as big — meaning the bikes last longer (up to 60 miles instead of 25) between charges.

On May 5, 2022, Lyft launched its next-generation e-bikes into the Citi Bike fleet. (Image credit: Lyft)

Today, e-bikes are only 20% of Citi Bike’s fleet, but they account for 48% of annual rides. Fox says that members choose e-bikes over traditional bikes about 65% of the time — 75% for subsidized members. 

Indeed, e-bikes, which can feel effortless to ride, are reducing barriers to all kinds of new riders. 

And they are just one of the ways the Lyft team hopes to make bike share more accessible to all New Yorkers. Fox is particularly proud to have seen the percentage of women riders tick up from about 28% in 2019 to about 41% in 2022. Also in 2022, 61% of Citi Bike riders identified as members of racial and/or ethnic minority groups. 

Prioritizing equity and expansion, the team at Lyft has helped make Citi Bike “the fastest growing transportation network in the city’s history,” explains Levine.

“I don’t think even in the wildest dreams of the founders of Citi Bike, did they ever imagine it would be over 30,000 bikes and 1,800 stations right now, which makes it the largest bike-share system in the Western world.”

XVII. New York City icon

“Ultimately, the story of Citi Bike is the story of New York itself. We have an amazing ability to overcome doubt and exceed every expectation. And we are practical — we always need to get from here to there, fast.”

— Janette Sadik-Khan

Today, you can’t go far in New York City without seeing someone riding a Citi Bike. For those people who helped build this system, it’s sometimes hard to believe. 

“This thing was so hard to get on the ground because of all the people saying it couldn’t work. And now it’s hard to picture New York City without it,” says Lyft’s Caroline Samponaro. “It’s iconic.”

“People have met and married at bike stations,” reminisces Citi’s Jon Sellman. “People bring their kids to school on Citi Bikes. I’ve seen families carrying Christmas trees on Citi Bikes. We’ve become part of people’s lives.” 

NACTO’s Fillin-Yeh agrees. “I was walking around the other day, and I saw this kid learning how to bike — and their parent was riding behind them on a Citi Bike. They didn’t have their own, but they wanted to go biking with their kid. 

And it was just fun to watch. And I see that frequently. It’s just part of the city.” 

“When you change a street,” reflects Sadik-Khan, “when you install a bike lane or a bike-share station or a bus lane or pedestrian space, when you let people use a street for anything that isn’t just driving and parking cars, you do more than just change the way a street looks and operates. You change the city, and you change the people who live, work, and play along it.”

XVIII. The people who made it happen 

“It has survived the rough times because people stood up for this program. People showed up, people made hard calls, people were invested in its success.”

— Jon Sellman

There are many reasons why Citi Bike overcame the odds, again and again, to become the iconic fixture that it is today. But if you ask anyone who was behind the scenes, they’ll all say that Citi Bike had an incomparable advantage: its people. 

Will Bissell was hired in May of 2013 as a brand ambassador to help get bike share off the ground. “It was a one-month contract gig, and I’m still here ten years later.” He believes in the mission still, but he stays for the people.

Dani Simons agrees: “The New York City bike-share team from those early days are still some of my best friends. We all gave birth to something together, and it’s our baby, and we still look at it as a very proud group of parents.”

Citi’s Jon Sellman considers it the most meaningful collaboration of his career. “People gave this thing their heart and their soul. It has survived the rough times because people stood up for this program.”

But, of course, the Citi Bike we know and love today was not made by Citi Bike professionals alone. Will Bisssell thinks back to those early days a lot: “I think about community groups who hosted us at barbecues in 2013. Nonprofits, city agencies, employers who subsidize memberships for their employees. They have contributed to bike share’s success.”

“It takes a community,” reflects Lyft’s Jordan Levine. “All of those folks as a community embracing the system has led to it becoming part of the fabric of neighborhoods and one of the most identifiable symbols of New York.”

In May of 2023, Citi Bike turns ten. Its 1,800 stations and 30,000 bikes have enabled over 180 million trips. (Image credit: Getty Images)

About the author

Vanessa M. Quirk is Rev's managing editor and co-host of the podcasts Urban Roots, Uncertain Things, and City of the Future.