Inside Lyft

How Protests and Bad Press Nearly Sank Citi Bike

Vanessa Quirk - Jun 1, 2023

Citi Bike turns ten this year, a particularly momentous occasion considering how many times the system nearly collapsed before becoming an iconic part of New York City. We’ve marked the occasion with an authoritative history of Citi Bike’s first ten years. In the excerpt below, the Citi Bike team finds itself facing a citizens’ revolt in the weeks leading up to launch.

Citi Bike launched to fanfare, but, initially, New Yorkers were not impressed. Dani Simons, a key member of the Citi Bike team at the time, was deluged with angry phone calls. Caroline Samponaro, who was then at the nonprofit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, called it a “hazing process.” 

“It was like trench warfare around every single station,” Justin Ginsburgh, Citi Bike’s general manager at the time,  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. 

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. 

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 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.”

Jeanette Sadik-Khan, who led the bikeshare effort from New York’s Department of Transportation, 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.”

Citi’s Jon 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.”

For more on Citi Bike’s ten-year anniversary, check out Rev’s complete history.

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.