Marketizing CitiBikeNYC – No more full stations

As of 5/16/2016, this has come true! Well, sort of. Points rather than money and generally much less than what I think is justified- but it is a start!


There is nothing worse than arriving at your destination only to find the station full. 48 docks… and no where to park. You are stuck with the bike and you can’t do anything else until you find a free dock.  The free dock hunt is frustrating and sometimes kills any time saved by taking the bike in the first place.

So many docks and no place to park

They do send around fancy CitiBike vans to move bikes around, but the effort is futile.

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Having people driving vans full of bikes around NYC is wrong in so many ways.

I’m guessing that keeping one of those vans on the road costs $100k-$200k per year (think about the salaries, gas, insurance, and depreciation to start). I’d also guess that each van can only move 10-100 bikes per hour. There must be a better way.

I always prefer a distributed, market-based solution. Short term…

New CitiBike Rewards Plan:

  1. Take a bike from a full rack

  2. Return to a different station with at least 2 empty spaces

  3. Get a $5 reward!!!


Simple. The $5 bounty would automatically get applied to your CitiBike account. Do it one every couple of weeks and your annual membership is free. Do it more, and you have a new (fun!) job.

If you don’t have an account, then the trip would just be free. Same checkout procedure as a normal day trip, but when you return the bike to a non-full station you just don’t get charged the normal fee.

First step is a simple software change in the billing system. Quick and straightforward to implement. It could even be done as an offline system that searches for qualifying trips after the fact and then applies a credit to the account.  You could start the new policy immediately and bring up the software later, applying the credits and refunds retroactively when the software is ready.

Immediately the number of frustrated people not able to return a bike drops.  Huge win for almost no work.

Next step would be to add a…

Alert me when I am within [500 feet] of a full station

… feature to the CitiBike app, just to make it even easier for interested people to collect. In the meantime, if CitiBikeNYC says it is ok to use their data, I’ll happily write a Show Me The (Bike) Money app for people to use until the new CitiBike app is ready.

Next step is to add a bounty for returning bikes to empty stations. This is not as important as the full station bounty (real and mandatory costs of not being able to return a bike are worse than the opportunity costs of not being able to borrow one in the first place), but could still be very effective in keeping bikes well distributed throughout the system.

Next step would to be bring some dynamic pricing into the system so that the bounty is high for really valuable moves (apparently downtown Brooklyn to Chelsea on a Sunday night) and low for not so valuable ones (Cliff Street to Fulton Street ever). Update the app with a new option to…

Show me all bike rewards more than [$25] ranked by [nearest to me]

Start using demand prediction to get ahead of the curve and move bikes before stations are empty/full. A predictive/reactive self-balancing system without heavy fixed costs like vans and bike wranglers, and a new class of professional bike riders. Please?

UPDATE 8/24/16

London Citibike could use some marketizing too…

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  1. Paul

    In general, YES!, for the casual rider. But asymmetrical pricing (rebate to remove, no charge to add) is gameable, so creation of professional bike relocators would be hard. Ie, move bike from full rack to half-empty rack a few blocks away. (Using different fob), move bike from half-empty rack to full rack. Repeat.

    Simple solution is to limit payments per day.

    Or I suppose you might create two classes of membership. Professionals that got charged to add to a near-full rack, and retail riders who could use the Simple One-ride Exchange System (SOES?) for rebate only. Although I guess the professionals would eventually figure that one out as well…

    • bigjosh2

      I think the most efficient system would have full dynamic pricing for every trip, but that it not going to happen. It is too complicated and confusing. Many people still can’t even figure out the whole idea of needing to put the bike back in a rack every 30 mins.

      The $5-unfull plan is nice because it does not require anyone to know anything new. The worst case outcome is that someone gets an unexpected $5 rebate- not something that is going to generate many complaints.

      While the system is gameable in theory, it practice it would be hard and probably not worth the effort. It would take 2 members working together, and in the best case it would take as long as a round trip between the stations to execute. Full stations generally tend to be surrounded by other full stations, so you might have to travel a few stations away to find one that has 2 free spaces to collect the bounty. It is likely that during that time someone will take the space you originally freed up by the time to return to put the bike back. This leaves you hunting for a free space like everyone else. You might get the idea to have your compatriot remove a a bike to make a space for you, but now you forfeit the rebate because of the retirement that you must return to a rack with at least 2 free spaces.

      You can come up with increasingly complicated strategies with more members, but again I think that if you actually tried to execute these then you would find yourself ultimately moving bikes from full stations to unfull stations and accomplishing what the plan is intended to do.

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