- Citi Bike, the bike share program for New York City, will add 4,000 pedal-assist e-bikes to its fleet.
- Users taking out an e-bike will have to pay an additional $2 per ride on top of existing rental fees.
- Bike advocates have called the extra cost a barrier to entry for interested riders, and a burden for low-income New Yorkers.
As New York City continues to debate the legality of e-bikes, one program—the city’s bike share service—appears to be going all in.
Citi Bike announced in February that it will add 4,000 pedal-assist electric bikes to its fleet. The move marks a major expansion for what is already the largest bike share system in the U.S., with 12,000 bikes and 760 stations.
However, the news got a mixed response when it came out that the e-bikes would cost riders extra. Should they choose an electric Citi Bike over a conventional one, both day-to-day users and annual members will need to pay an additional $2 per ride on top of the existing rental price ($169 for a yearly membership, $12 for a day pass, and $3 for 30-minute one-time rentals).
The fee now applies to non-members and will go into effect for yearly members on April 27. But the added cost has already drawn criticism, with some characterizing it as a barrier for low-income riders.
“We have to ensure that transportation alternatives remain affordable and accessible to all,” City Council Member Antonio Reynoso wrote in an open letter to Citi Bike. “[The] $2 fee for rides on electric bikes undermines this goal.”
John R., a Citi Bike rider who declined to give his full last name, agreed. Taking out an e-bike from a station near the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn, he prepared to throw his skateboard in the bike basket and ride back to Manhattan with a little boost. But with the upcoming fee, he said, he might not rely on the e-bikes going forward.
“I mean, if it’s something that’s temporary, to fund the extra bikes, I get it,” John said. “But if it’s long term and for good, I think it’s bullshit.”
Transportation reporters called the fee Citi Bike’s first major PR challenge since ride-hailing app Lyft acquired the system last year. But while riders may not like the higher price, Citi Bike is asking for patience. Spokesperson Julie Wood said that under the system’s current setup, e-bikes demand more time and labor to implement than their non-electric counterparts.
“Citi Bike’s stations are powered by a solar panel that creates enough power [for] the kiosk where folks can swipe a credit card to take a bike, but that’s not enough power to charge the battery,” Wood said. Batteries instead must be changed out by hand, which Wood said requires hiring more staff.
This seems to be the case in other cities where Lyft has expanded e-bike share options. Last month in Washington, D.C., the company rolled out 500 pedal-assist bikes for the Capital Bikeshare program, slapping them with a $1 per-use surcharge and citing higher operational costs as the reason for the fee. (Although e-bike share doesn’t cost extra everywhere: The Bay Area’s Lyft-owned Ford GoBike offers 850 e-bikes and charges the same for electric and conventional rentals.)
“I understand that supporting e-bikes costs more,” said Seth Pollack, a New York political activist and annual Citi Bike member. “I definitely appreciate that adding e-bikes to the mix is a risk and a set of expenses.”
But Pollack worries that the charge will turn Citi Bike into a two-tiered system. “I see bike share as a public utility, like buses, subways, and ferries,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be charged an extra fee for premium versions of those, either.”
Amazing E-Bikes for Everyone
Carries 88 pounds on the rear rack; lasts 80 miles.
All the fun of a mountain bike—with a boost.
Midtail Errand Runner
Has everything you need to ditch your car.
Riese & Müller
Two batteries + 220-pound capacity = fun
Pollack brought up the possibility of public funding for bike share, a question the New York City Council has discussed before. Citi Bike receives no public money currently; before Lyft bought its parent company in November, the service relied on a Citibank sponsorship and private investment from Wall Street and real estate interests. In his letter, Reynoso asked if Citi Bike had approached the city government about public funding as a way to reduce or eliminate the e-bike fee.
The New York City Department of Transportation did not respond to requests for comment on whether Citi Bike had ever approached it. But in November, Lyft announced that it would double the Citi Bike service area, with a mayoral spokesperson saying that the move was paid for entirely by “the $21 billion company that now owns it.”
Citi Bike has made efforts to reach low-income New Yorkers, offering reduced-rate memberships of $5 a month for SNAP recipients and public housing residents. Those users will also pay a reduced, 50 cent-per-ride fee for the e-bikes. But advocates said any extra cost will still put a burden on the city’s poorest and discourage them from using the system.
Claudia Corcino, a field team coordinator for the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives and founder of Ciclistas Latinoamericanos de New York, said that while the city’s mass transit system continues to struggle, e-bike share could fill in a gap for people in areas underserved by subways or buses. But she cautioned that even a 50-cent fee could turn these potential users away.
“Tourists will probably rent e-bikes because they want to get around and look at different places in the city, so they probably they won't mind paying the extra charge,” she said. “Some wealthy people… can afford this. But another individual in a neighborhood that has Citi Bike will have to make a choice and might say, ‘I can’t [use an e-bike], because it’s expensive.’”
To navigate the price question, Waffiyyah Murray, program manager for the advocacy group Better Bike Share Partnership, said Citi Bike should seek input from underserved communities.
“You have those conversations with community members, with the people that are actually using the system,” Murray said. “Get a sense for, ‘Hey, how do you feel about the pricing structure? What did you feel is too expensive or too high?’ From the outside looking in as operators, you don’t know.”