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New York’s citibike program: Tips and one big glitch in the system to avoid

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Citibike NYC
All checked in? Be sure to wait for the green light before leaving your bike in the station. It could seriously cost you! Photos by Tom Meyers

It’s been one week since New York debuted its citibike bike-share program for annual subscribers and one day since tourists (and curious locals) have been able to purchase 24-hour and one-week passes for the program.

Here at EuroCheapo, we’ve been big proponents of bike-share programs throughout Europe for years, notably in Paris, London, Rome, and Dublin. With our offices based in New York, it’s no surprise that we’ve been very excited about hopping on the sleek and shiny three-speeds in our home town.

Since we pedaled off on our first ride last Monday, we’ve been pretty happy with the program, and loudly proclaim that it represents a solid value for the annual pass, which costs just $95 for unlimited 45-minute rides. Even the 24-hour pass ($9.95) and one-week pass ($25) strike us as great deals for tourists, even if their trips are limited to 30 minutes.

Citibike slots

Dip your key into the slot or punch in your code. Note that the middle yellow light is illuminated.

The program, however, does have one very important glitch to work out concerning the process of returning and “re-docking” the bikes. We’ll get to that below, but first, a quick overview of how the program works:

How to “check out” a bike from the station

In the docking station next to the front wheel of the bike, you’ll see a small slot and three small buttons (marked “1″, “2″, “3″). To take out a bike, annual members simply insert their key-stick into the slot next to the bike. Short-term members type in the code that they received when they signed up at the bike station’s kiosk.

Once you’ve dipped your key or typed your code, the yellow light (the middle light) will become illuminated, which tells you to wait… the computer is checking in with headquarters to make sure that you’re permitted to take out a bike. Among other things, it’s checking to make sure that you don’t have another bike checked out at the same time.

If all goes well, the green light (the light on the right) will illuminate, and you’re free to take your bike out.

How to physically remove the bike

All cleared? To remove the bike from the station, lift it up from the seat and pull back.

Believe it or not, this is not obvious and not clearly marked on the signage, which is why you see so many first-time users trying to pull the bike straight backwards. It won’t work—that baby is locked in. Lift the bike up from the seat and pull back, and it will become released.

Ride your bike

Enjoy your ride. Remember that cyclists in New York must follow the same laws as motorists in cars. This means, among other things:

For the safest trip, stick to streets with bike lanes. Fortunately, the city has greatly increased the number of bike lanes in the past several years. Pick up a cyclist map (available for free at most bike stores), check out this website, or download the Bikester NYC app for your smartphone.

You must stop at red lights. And yes, you have to wait for them to turn green to proceed.

You may not turn right on red. This is a surprise, especially for Americans from other cities where “right on red” is permitted in cars. Not here. As crazy as it seems, the police will actually give you a ticket for turning right on red on a bike. I speak from experience.

Do not ride the wrong way on one-way streets. This can be very tempting, especially to get back to a bike station that’s just one wrong-way street away. However, wrong-way riding is dangerous to you and to pedestrians, who often step out into traffic only looking for traffic coming in the legal direction. Instead, cycle the extra block, following traffic, or get off and walk your bike on the sidewalk back to the station.

Use your bell. It just makes the cutest little ding-a-ling. People perk up and pay attention. Ring for pedestrians to get out of the bike lane, and to cars preparing to turn and cut you off. If you’re riding in the bike lane, you have the priority. Ring it!

How to return the bike to the station

This is the tricky part. When you return your bike, you must push your bike firmly into the docking station and make sure that it locks. This sounds simple, but can actually be rather complicated.

1. Line up the little metal triangle above your front tire to be above the metal ledge in the station.

2. Push the bike in until it clicks and has been locked into place.

3. The yellow light will then signal that the bike has been placed into the docking station.

Important: Don’t leave yet! Your bike might be locked into the station, but you’re not yet in the clear.

4. Once you see the green light, your bike has been checked in and your account has been cleared. You’re now free to go.

Locked into place, but the light is still yellow... Don't leave!

Locked into place, but the light is still yellow… Don’t leave!

One big glitch in the system to avoid!

During its first week, the citibike program has experienced a number of problems. Most of the problems seem to stem from stations either “going down” completely (not letting users return or take out bikes) or from bikes not registering that they had been returned (and then blocking users from taking out additional bikes).

For example, this is what happened to one of the Cheapos this morning:

He took out his bike on the Lower East Side and docked it at a station in Greenwich Village. When putting the bike into station, the yellow light illuminated—and stayed illuminated for about one minute, before turning off. No green light at all. But the bike was locked. Nervous because he hadn’t seen the green light, he dipped his key and tried to take it back out, in order to dock it into another station. But the light flashed red.

What to do?

He called customer service (855 BIKE-311), and an operator explained that the system still showed that he had the bike out. But wait, it was locked into the station? Yes, he was informed, there was a glitch in the system: Stations are docking and locking bikes, even without “checking in” the user into the system.

Which brings us to the most important piece of advice we have so far:

Always wait for the green light!

For the sake of your membership and your credit card, don’t walk away from a bike without seeing the light go green. Even if it locks into the station, if you don’t see green, you haven’t really checked in the bike. You may not even realize it until you try to take another bike and get the dreaded red light from every station.

If this happens to you (and from our experience, if you spend a lot of time riding around, it probably will…), be sure to call citibike immediately. They will clear you in the system.

Your citibike stories

We’re still very enthusiastic about New York’s new bike share, as the program provides a great new way for both locals and visitors to get around the city. We’re eager for them to fill in these little bumps in the road.

Have you joined citibike as an annual or short-term user? Do you have any questions or advice, or have you faced a similar problem? Tell us about your experience in the comments section below.

About the author

Tom Meyers

About the author: Tom Meyers created and launched EuroCheapo from his Berlin apartment in 2001. He returned to New York in 2002, set up office, and has led the EuroCheapo team from the Big Apple ever since. He travels to Europe several times a year to update EuroCheapo's hotel reviews. Tom is also a co-host of the New York City history podcast, The Bowery Boys. Email Tom. [Find Tom on Google Plus]

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2 Responses to “New York’s citibike program: Tips and one big glitch in the system to avoid”

StephNY says:

I have an annual membership and have been using the Citibikes with relative ease for almost two weeks now. I’ve made a dozen or so trips and when the system works, it’s made the city more accessible to me than it has ever been.

That being said, add to your list of glitches the time when it logged my destination as my origin point so that it made it look like I had a bike out. Even though I could see it had done this on my account, I was still able to take bikes out, sometimes only after trying my key at 6 – 12 different bikes.

I got it cleared last week and it’s worked fine until today. Now it shows online that I have no trips and my key simply does not work and I’ve tried all of the bikes at 3 different locations.

Hi StephNY — Have you called them to get your key reset? I’d bet that one of the bikes you returned was not logged into the system.

Which brings up two more glitches:

1) When docking the bike, even you see the green light, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the bike has been checked in with the system’s main computer. (Contrary to the whole point of my piece above that you must wait for the green light!) I’ve waited for — and seen — the green light when docking, only to find out that my bike was still recorded officially as “out.” This is made obvious when trying to get another bike, only to get the dreaded red light and buzz (necessitating a call to the customer service line).

2) Calling the Citibike customer service can be an incredibly frustrating experience, which probably isn’t a shock, considering that probably half the serious riders out there have will to call at least once to get their keys cleared! Most of the times that I’ve called, I’ve gotten a “this number does not exist” error message, which is bizarre, as it clearly exists and is printed on my key. When I have finally gotten through, the wait is usually about 3-5 minutes to talk to someone. That having been said, the customer service reps are very friendly and helpful, and I’m sure, overworked.

Still, when the program works (which for me is about 75% of the time these days), it works really well and makes me so happy to be a subscriber. I am hopeful that the city will clear up these little glitches soon.

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