I love New York

Why do I like Citibike so much (when it works)? True, it helps me cut my long commute (a bit), and it’s a rare innovation in transportation in a country that, thanks to our love affair with cars, radically underinvests in transportation infrastructure. It’s got some geeky software and data tie ins too, which I like, and it also serves as commentary on modern “public services” that, due to the need to show financial sustainability, aren’t as public as they used to be – hence the concentration in Manhattan south of 59th street.

But there’s something bigger and much more personal going on.

As a native New Yorker, I’ve watched my city change a lot in the last 40 years. It used to be a grimy, dangerous place, where you never took the subway if you could avoid it, where most of Central Park was dirt and dust, not lush, fenced-in fields. When I was a kid I watched bodegas and locksmiths on the Upper West Side turn into ristorantes and, eventually, high end, bobo-fied chains. I saw Times Square morph from the underbelly of the city, where 3-card monte players would set up on cardboard boxes to fleece tourists and locals alike, to a place that you could almost drop into Disney Land.

And yet, through all the facelifts and gentrification, New York City is still New York City – even if it’s become a kinder, gentler, more upper class version of itself.

My new, daily, Citibike-powered, two-and-a-half mile ride through the heart of Manhattan is a chance to see all the things that haven’t changed about New York City. It’s a daily glimpse of the kaleidoscope that still is this city if you just scratch the surface. It’s a reminder that, despite all the changes, New York City is still a crush of people and cultures and races mixing together, mostly, without much trouble.

New York is my experience on each and every afternoon ride. It is Sikhs driving Lincoln Navigators, edging into the bike lane. It is smokers with white earbuds, scowling; Japanese tourists with H&M bags; tourists of all stripes looking up and not forward; businessmen in a rush, looking down at their BlackBerrys.

New York is, still, bleary-eyed med students in scrubs, blinking in the afternoon light; watch repairmen, falafel-makers, computer repair hideouts. It is Yankees fans in pinstripes, Rangers fans on an open bus, barreling towards Madison Square Garden, bike messengers with Beats headphones and giant canvas bags, drummers in Hawaiian surfer shirts spinning their sticks and dreaming of their next gig. New York is Bangladeshi kids in strollers talking to moms wearing shawls; it is tourists snapping pictures in front of minor landmarks and yellow mobs of taxis vying for a fare. It is throngs and throngs and throngs of jay-walkers in high heels and high hair, sweating on an early summer afternoon

I (still) Love New York.

Citibike – first rides

My Citibike key fob finally arrived last week, and I’ve got three days of riding under my belt.  I feel great about it, and also had a few first impressions that I didn’t expect.  So, in no particular order, some first observations, especially for those of you thinking about becoming Citi-bikers.

  • I’m wearing a helmet.  You should wear a helmet.  Everyone should.  It’s just too much to be riding through traffic without it.
  • Getting from inside Grand Central Station to work in Chelsea takes between 14 and 18 minutes, riding at a good clip.  The subway takes longer and has more variability, so my benchmark is 25 minutes.  That feels like a pretty significant improvement.

    NYC bike lanes
    Map of bike lanes in NYC (click for interactive map)
  • I’m very comfortable on a bike, but even so in midtown it feels busy with a lot of traffic and obstacles.  If you’re not confident on a bike/in traffic, you probably don’t want to be commuting during rush hour anywhere between 30th and 43rd street in Manhatten.
  • The new bike lanes are amazing.  I really had no idea how ubiquitous they were and what a big change they are in Manhattan’s landscape.  It’s significant, large-scale work that I bet has gone mostly unnoticed compared to its scope.
  • At least on the route that I’m going, hills are basically inconsequential.
  • It’s been in the upper 80s and lower 90s when I’ve been riding and it was still workable.  I’m no more hot and sweaty than I get when I walk/take the subway.
  • The racks are everywhere and the system to get bikes in/out of them is flawless and very quick.  Little red lights tell you when there’s a problem with a bike or a rack.  So far these are minimal.
  • The bike is a big clunker but that doesn’t matter much.  The three gears work well and give you decent range, though limiting your speed.  The chain is protected and the handlebar rack for your bag is good, though the bungee cord is a bit too tight.
  • The Citibike iPhone app itself crashes a lot for me.  I’m using BikeShare instead, which is more stable and works well (and is free).
  • You end up seeing and experiencing a lot more of the city this way.  On the subway (or a taxi) I experience two blocks of the city even though I’m covering two miles.  That’s a really nice plus.
  • Availability plummets after 9AM (I’ve experienced it, and it was just reported this morning on WNYC).  That said, I (and the commuter profiled in the WNYC post) only had to walk two blocks to get a bike, which is trivial.  As Citibike gets more popular I wonder if availability is going to become an issue.  I also wonder about how bike maintenance is going to be handled over time.  Both are good issues to have, because they mean that Citibike is working.

All in all, I’m a big fan and think it’s pretty incredible.  Yes it’s a bit of a grimy way to get through the city if you’re covering more than two miles, as I am.  But it’s so easy, works well, saves me $5 a day, saves me time, and I’ve discovered that rushing a bit on a bike is less harrowing than running for the subway (not that I ever run for the subway).

Given how compact Manhattan is, it’s really perfect for Citibike.    That probably explains some of the numbers: 200,000 trips/week as of the end of June, more than 2 million miles already traveled, and an estimated 50 million calories burned by riders (the equivalent of 52,000 pints of Ben and Jerry’s).

Speaking of which, maybe I should get myself an ice cream.


I’ve just taken the plunge and signed up for Citibike, New York’s bike-sharing program.  The bikes are suddenly ubiquitous in lower Manhattan, and yesterday a colleague of mine burst into work with a huge smile, raving about cutting his commute from 30 to 10 minutes.  That pushed me over the edge.

To get started, I decided it was worth the $10 (for a 24-hour pass) for a one-time experimental ride before signing up for the year ($100).  Even at $10 for the day it’s not much more than my round-trip on the NYC subway ($5), and I wasn’t sure how long my ride would take or how hot and sweaty I’d be upon arriving to work.  After completing that first ride, I’m sold.

Joe Zaro (of Zaro’s bakery) on a Citibike near Grand Central Station

Even with the extra hassle of a manual first ride – which required manually putting in my credit card rather than the little key fob that they send you, getting confused about how to enter the confirmation code on the bike, and not knowing the best route to take – I still got from Grand Central to Acumen’s offices on 15th Street and 9th Avenue in the exact same amount of time as my regular subway-plus-walk commute, so I figure on a typical day I’ll save at least five minutes and get a bit of exercise to boot.  Also, although I never think about the cost of the subway, I’d stand to save $25 / week if I ride every day, or more than $1,000 per year.  Even accounting for variable weather, days when I’m too dressed up to ride, etc. it seems like a hugely winning proposition in exchange for clipping a helmet to my bag each morning on the way to work.

I’m a big fan of public transportation and of city services / public spaces that work, and Citibike seems like a winner on all counts – even for someone like me who doesn’t live in New York City.

Have you tried Citibike?  What do you think of it?


Glenn Urban at MIT teaches us about the importance of the power of trust.  Glenn observes, as have many others, that we have shifted from a mass-media, high promotion world (that effectively ended at the start of this decade) to one focused on relationships and two-way communications.  In this new world, the single most important thing that matters is trust.   (For more on this shift, check out Clay Shirkey’s TED@State talk, below)

Ironically, building trust is easier than it looks – be generous, act consistently, and make promises that you can and do keep.   (The harder part is doing this within an organization that has thrived on another way of doing business for decades.  But it’s important to remember that being trustworthy really isn’t difficult at all).

For example:

I’ve been playing with an out-of-production squash racquet for about three years now.  Since squash is played in an indoor court with cement walls, the racquets break often, so it’s common to go through 1-2 racquets a year.  Since my racquet model (a yellow-and-black Dunlop Hot Melt, if anyone knows where I can still dig one up) is out of production, I’m down to a single racquet, and I’ve no choice but to buy a new model – with a different feel that will play differently.

Squash is a niche sport in most places, including New York, and it’s hard to find stores that sell squash racquets, and harder still to find stores that demo racquets (let you pay to rent a racquet for a day or two before deciding which to buy).

A fellow player recommended Grand Central Racquet, and I went there this afternoon and met Tony, the store’s owner.  Together, we picked two racquets for me to demo.  I was a little rushed, hoping to catch a train, and was dreading the inevitable swiping of my credit card, preapproval of $300+ on my card (the value of the two racquets), maybe even making a copy of my drivers license…all the necessary evils of walking out of the store with a few hundred dollars worth of unpaid-for merchandise.

I’ve been trained so effectively by our trust-free world that I was beside myself when Tony took out a pad of paper, wrote down my name, my phone number, and the models of the two racquets I’m going to demo, and asked for $10 (cash was fine).  No approvals, no verification, no nothing.  “Enjoy them, and we’ll see you on Wednesday,” was all he said.

Why does this work for Tony?  How does he know I’m not going to run off with the racquets?  Did he make some sort of judgment call about me personally (I doubt it) or is this just how he runs his business?

The point is, he is taking a risk.  But he’s decided that being generous and trusting of me in a way that never happens in the big city in the 21st century makes sense.  And by giving me this gift, he’s taking someone who could be a lifelong customer – but who has the option of buying online for 20% less – and giving that person a reason to be loyal to him.

I’m sure the lawyers and the rule-makers and the people whose job it is to say ‘no’ would tell Tony that he’s crazy, and maybe he is.  But if trust is all that really matters today, if success is about building communities of trust, and if trust can be established so quickly and easily, we all need to find ways to act a little more like Tony, and we’ll have to break some rules to get there.

Do you have any great trust-building stories you’d like to share?

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