NEW YORK – New Yorkers may soon be able to count calories burned and miles traveled while pedaling Citi Bikes, the popular bicycle-sharing program with a troubled history that is undergoing a major overhaul under new leadership.
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The new CEO of the Brooklyn-based company that owns Citi Bike says a revamped smartphone app will soon offer such detailed fitness stats and allow people to make real-time reports of such issues as flat tires or broken seats.
Jay Walder, a mass transit veteran who used to run the city's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, envisions the bikes becoming a seamless part of the city's transportation network, with plans in the works to incorporate docking stations into architectural design plans for massive new development projects.
"We are still defining how bike share should fit into the urban fabric of the city," said Walder, who became chief executive officer of Motivate, the company that owns Citi Bike, several months ago. "Maybe it could be inside of businesses. Maybe it could be inside of buildings. Maybe it could be built into the environment."
Launched in May 2013 to much fanfare, the wildly popular public bicycles have endured a bumpy ride. Superstorm Sandy swamped and damaged a fleet of bicycles in Brooklyn in 2012 and delayed the program's debut. Bikes got stuck at docking stations and were poorly maintained. The app wasn't reliable. People complained of a dearth of bikes in the most high-trafficked areas of the city.
Alta Bicycle Share, its parent company, was nearly bankrupt when it was bought by a group of investors, then re-branded as Motivate in a restructuring deal that relocated the company from Portland, Oregon, to New York. Walder, who had been running Hong Kong's mass transit system since 2011, was hired to turn the company around.
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"The problems actually ended up being the software and the operations. And what a bummer," said Caroline Samponaro, who works at Transportation Alternatives, a powerful transit advocacy group that helped launch Citi Bike in 2013. "Here you are, sort of getting this whole new transit system. And really the only thing keeping people from using it is the system itself."
She said the rider experience has improved tremendously since Walder took the helm.
One major improvement stems from Citi Bike's app software, which has been completely rewritten. Now, if you dock a bicycle, you will see the app update showing it has docked within 10 to 15 seconds, Walder said. That process used to take several minutes or longer.
"As I said to one of the suppliers ... 'You do know that a New York minute is about 15 seconds," Walder said.
Motivate is upgrading all 12,000 docking points in the city and overhauling every single bike, with 4,500 of them already refurbished. And it's doubling the number of bicycles from 6,000 to 12,000 to forge ahead into new neighborhoods, including Long Island City in Queens and Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn. After that, Manhattan's Upper East Side and Upper West Side will be the next neighborhoods to join.
Eventually, Walder wants the company's bike share programs across North America to be linked in such a way that a New Yorker who travels to Chicago, for example, could use the Citi Bike key fob to hop on a bicycle in that Midwestern city, creating a seamless inter-city bicycle network.