Bike-share rollout keeps hitting bumps in the road

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER  |  One thing is certain about New York City’s bike-share program, which is supposed to make 10,000 bikes available for short-term rentals at 600 docking stations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens: It didn’t start in July as advertised.

No one seems to know when the program will hit the streets.

“We’ll make an announcement when we have an update on this,” said Nicholas Mosquera, a spokesperson for the city Department of Transportation.

The idea of a New York City bike-share program first surfaced publicly in November 2010 when the city issued a request for proposals. This R.F.P. stipulated a program with specially designed bicycles available 24 hours a day for short trips, and that the program was to be financially self-sufficient. The R.F.P. called for a test run of 30 stations in summer 2011 with a rollout of the complete program on April 1, 2012.

However, it wasn’t until Sept. 14, 2011, that New York City announced that it had selected Alta Bicycle Share — which had previously engineered bike-share installations in Montreal, Boston and Melbourne, Australia — to run its bike-share program.

And it wasn’t until the end of April 2012 that Citibank agreed to sponsor New York City’s bike-share program with $41 million to be disbursed over five years. Some of the money was to be used to produce bikes with unique parts that would be incompatible with other bikes and thus discourage stealing. At the same time, MasterCard agreed to put up the $6.5 million needed to install payment mechanisms on the bike stations.

When the contract was announced on May 7, 2012, the city stated that the bikes would be phased in between July 2012 and spring 2013 and that the program would be known as Citi Bike.

Now there is no definite start date. Mayor Bloomberg has attributed the delay to software problems. He said Alta had changed software vendors and the new system “just doesn’t work yet.”

Perhaps this is to be expected in the launch of what will be the largest bike-share program in the United States. Yet Alta does not have an unimpeachable track record.

Alta’s equipment provider, Public Bike Systems Co., ran into financial problems in Montreal. The city had to put up $108 million, in part to cover losses incurred by the bike-share program.

And the bike-share system in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which Alta installed and manages, was supposed to start this May, but didn’t go live until July 23. On a much smaller scale than New York City, Chattanooga’s system uses the same bicycles and kiosks that Alta will use in New York. Chattanooga has 300 bikes in 28 locations.

In Chicago, Illinois, a bike-share program operated by Alta was scheduled to start late this summer. Early this month, officials announced that the program would not begin until spring 2013 because of equipment manufacturing problems and unresolved docking site issues.

Because the bike docking stations are portable, they can be quickly and easily installed — so it’s conceivable that Alta could put some sharable bikes on New York City’s streets before the fall. But if that deadline is missed, there are rumors that the start date would be pushed back to spring 2013. There are also rumors that Alta has asked Citibank to advance some funds that were contractually not due until the program’s actual launch.

According to the New York Post, Citibank paid Alta $1.4 million when it signed the sponsorship contract, with another $1.4 million due on the launch date, and an additional $2.1 million due when 7,000 bikes have actually been deployed. The Post also said that a city Department of Transportation spokesperson called that assertion “inaccurate.”

The truth will doubtless emerge eventually. In the meantime, not everyone is impatient.

“A year from now, two years from now — no one is going to remember when [Citi Bike] launched,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit organization that advocates for cycling, walking and public transit. “They’ll just know that New York has this wonderful transit option.”

White said he thinks Citibank is getting valuable exposure by underwriting the bike-share program.

“This system is going to be as visible as New York City streets and as iconic as Broadway,” he said. “This being New York, I applaud the mayor and the Transportation commissioner for making sure that it’s done right and that we have a bike-share system befitting the greatest city in the world — and if that takes a few more months to make happen, so be it.”

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