It was only the second time I’d ever ridden a Citi Bike.
Like many New Yorkers without cars, I’ve taken to walking or biking as a safer alternative to the MTA during the pandemic. But last week, my bike needed to go to the shop, and I needed to trek across Brooklyn to meet with potential roommates. So, I took to my Lyft app, rented the last bike remaining at the dock by my house, and took off to Flatbush.
Since its launch in 2013, Citi Bike has grown to become the largest bike-share system in America. On Monday, the company announced that it has achieved its 100 millionth ride and will soon install its 1000th docking station in the city. Single use, one-off riders like me – people who pay single half hour rides and aren’t yearly subscribers – are making up an increasing segment of the company’s ridership, according to monthly data released by Citi Bike. Last June, non-subscribing customers made up just 14 percent of the month’s total riders. In June of 2020, 46 percent of ridership were non-subscribers.
The reasons for this can only be speculated on, but it seems reasonable to think that the pandemic may be driving this rise. It was certainly a factor in my case – in normal times, without a working bike, I would simply have opted for the bus.
I ended up wishing I’d chosen any other option. About 45 minutes into my outdoor meeting, a guy casually walked up to the spot where our bikes were parked in the yard a few feet from where we were sitting, grabbed the bike, and hopped on before anyone could do a thing to stop him. It was an e-bike, so he was off like a shot, but I still gave full chase halfway down the block before it dawned on me that I’d never be able to run fast enough. I swear the guy laughed at me a little – to be fair, I probably did look kind of funny.
No need to panic, I thought. Surely this has happened before. I looked for a way to report the theft on the Lyft app, where I’d rented the bike. There was a way to report it lost, but not specifically stolen. I went online. The Citi Bike website instructed me to call customer service.
So began my Kafkaesque journey into the bureaucratic nightmare of losing (or being forcibly relieved of) a Citi Bike.
Citi Bike’s website says little about theft of the bikes, or how to prevent it. Other than the mandate to call customer service (“now supported by Lyft”) in the event that a bike is lost or stolen, the site says that “bikes that are missing for longer than 24 hours can result in a $1,200 fee (plus tax) charged to the account holder that took out the bike.” There’s no indication that it even matters whose fault it is, although Citi Bike adds that they “encourage you to file a police report in the event that a bike has been forcibly taken or stolen.” That $1,200 was enough to chill my blood. Panicky, I called the number.
On the phone with customer service, I was told that I had to file a police report, or face charges for the bike. I asked if the police report would keep me from being charged. The person on the phone said only that it would help with the investigation. It felt a little silly to call 911 for such a non-emergency in the middle of a pandemic and during mass demonstrations against police brutality, so I called the NYPD’s 70th Precinct. The incident, after all, had happened on their turf. I called a lot. No answer. It wasn’t until the next day that my repeated calls finally yielded a voice on the other end of the line – who told me to call 911.
It turns out I’m hardly the only one with this problem. A quick browse through social media unearthed threads of people in the same predicament asking for help. My situation was unusual in that the bike was taken right before my eyes – much more often, bikes disappeared from docks after customers left them there, thinking their rides were over. Some users insisted they’d docked the bikes correctly; others couldn’t be certain.
One such user, Mark (not his real name) who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity because the situation had not yet been resolved, said that his bike was taken after he’d docked it the first day he’d started subscribing. When he realized the ride was still ongoing in the app after he’d docked the bike, he called Citi Bike. They said he must have docked it improperly, which he acknowledges is possible – he’s new to the app.
According to the rider, Citi Bike told him to file a police report, which he attempted to do multiple times. But the cops at the 79th Precinct where he filed told him he couldn’t legally file the report as a renter – Citi Bike had to do it themselves, police said, as the legal owner of the bike. He tried going to a different precinct, who said they file such reports all the time – but they couldn’t file a report that didn’t happen in their area. Emptyhanded, Mark explained the issue to Citi Bike. “Every time, Citi Bike said, ‘It’s your responsibility’ – but I can’t just fabricate a police report,” he told me.
Caught between corporation and cops
I could relate. I ran into similar issues after I called 911. The officers who came to my door to take the report told me that Citi Bike needed to file it, not me. Like the officers who Mark dealt with, they told me a rental rider couldn’t file a report. In the end, they went ahead and filed one after I shamelessly begged, but they said it wasn’t the NYPD’s policy to do so. One of the cops later called me to follow up and reiterated that, saying he’d checked with superiors and confirmed that NYPD policy was that Citi Bike had to file as the owner of the vehicle.
A spokesperson for the NYPD, Sgt. Mary O’Donnell, tells City Limits that the NYPD’s policy is and has been that victims of Citi Bike theft can file police reports.
“We do take reports from citizens who have their bikes stolen,” said O’Donnell. “They’re counted as grand larceny.” She wasn’t sure why officers told Mark and me that such reports had to be filed by Citi Bike. “Whoever told you that was misinformed,” she said.
She said the NYPD doesn’t track how many bike thefts reported are specifically Citi Bikes, but said that as a detective she used to take such reports fairly regularly. “They got stolen all the time,” she said. She added that a person renting a Citi Bike is “kind of a temporary owner” and as such, would file the report themselves, the same as if they were renting a car.
She also said that in her experience it seemed like most thefts happened after a person had left the bike at a dock, although she didn’t have specific numbers on that. “The locking mechanisms aren’t great on the racks,” she said, adding that Citi Bikers need to use a good bit of force to ensure their bikes are actually secured at the dock.
Joseph Cutrufo, spokesperson for local bicycle advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives, said that he hasn’t heard much about Citi Bike thefts, but said that he thinks it would help if public officials would see the bikeshare service as a vital part of New York’s transportation system. “If city leaders, including the NYPD, shared that same understanding of Citi Bike as part of the public transit system, then there would probably be a better mechanism to report or at least a universal mechanism to report [theft],” said Cutrufo.
He also noted that, unlike many other bikeshare services in the U.S., Citi Bike is privately owned and receives no public funding. By way of comparison, Divvy, Chicago’s comparable bike rental system, is a program of the Chicago Department of Transportation and was initially funded by federal grants. Both systems are managed by Lyft.
‘I’m just going to be more careful’
Michelle Hum, who has subscribed to Citi Bike for two years, said she’s never had a problem that wasn’t promptly solved by customer service – until she got a notification a few weeks ago that her trip was still going on, hours after docking the bike. She said Citi Bike customer support told her to go back to the bike dock to make sure the bike was there, but at that point it was after midnight, and she was miles away. She said she had a friend check the dock for her, and the friend took pictures of all the bike numbers.
Her number wasn’t at the dock – although she said that some of the docked bikes didn’t have visible numbers. She said she emailed customer service multiple times, but as of the 16th, she still hadn’t heard back, and in the meantime, her account was locked. She said the emails are starting to feel futile at this point. “I’m kind of like screaming into the void,” she said. She said no one she’s spoken with at Citi Bike suggested she file a police report, so she hadn’t done so. She later called Citi Bike customer service, and she said they unlocked her account, but her case is still not resolved.
Citi Bike says that in a bike sharing system, it’s important to ensure that people return the bikes, and that the company has to pay penalties when their fleet numbers fall too low. They also said that missing bikes frequently make their way back into the system, when people notice abandoned bikes and dock them.
Julie Wood, Director of Policy Communications at Lyft, said of Citi Bike’s theft/lost bike procedures, “We’re reviewing this policy internally, as we work to keep bikes in the system and available to our riders.”
Not everyone has issues reporting Citi Bike theft. Jason, who asked that only his first name be used, had his rental bike stolen in front of him while he was using an ATM. “The bike was in full view of me the whole time,” he said. “I was trying to pull my card out as this person was hopping on my bike.”
He said he was able to file a police report without a problem, but called the experience dealing with Citi Bike customer service “incredibly frustrating.” He worried that he’d be charged in the time it took to actually get a copy of the report. He also said one customer service representative kept urging him to find the bike himself. “Why are you asking me to risk getting the coronavirus by going out and finding a bike?” Jason said. “I’m not going to walk around with a magnifying glass and a detective hat, just like, ‘I wonder if this bike’s mine’.”
In the end, Jason said his case was resolved without his having to pay an exorbitant fine. He wished me similar luck. I hope he’s right – I’m still waiting on a copy of that police report. Jason and Mark both said they’d keep using their Citi Bike subscriptions, since they’ve already paid for them. “I’m just going to be more careful,” said Jason.
For my part, I finally felt motivated to take my own bike in for a tune-up. It’s locked up at my apartment now, and ready to ride.