A few years ago in Munich, I took advantage of the splendid NextBike system to see the city. There were many convenient, accessible stations and it was easy to dock the bikes. It worked great -- a sublime example of German efficiency -- and I enjoy bicycling, so I was intrigued last year when I saw the racks of CitiBikes installed in my Upper West Side neighborhood.
I held off on a membership until a friend in my building, who is a mom at the same Upper East Side school my daughter attends, assured me that it was an efficient way to get cross town. She's one of those glamorous, super-fit moms that I aspire to be. I took the plunge and bought a CitiBike membership. I figured I could amortize the expense over a year of transportation around the city and it would be a good deal.
First, the bad news: the bikes are heavy and ponderously slow. They have the maneuverability of a Panzer tank, but without the delicacy or finesse. Sometimes they aren't in perfect working condition, so the brakes don't work. You need to check the brakes before you take out a bike. Please: check the brakes before you get into traffic. Also, sometimes the gears slip. And make sure you can adjust the seat and get the clamp to fully close. I once spent an entire ride swiveling from left to right. I kept hopping off and pressing the clamp closed, and it kept popping open. That wasn't as much fun as it sounds.
The best use of a CitiBike is a straight shot up or down the West Side highway bike path. That's a great ride on a sunny day, even on a slow bike whose chain can't decide between second and third gears.
Cross town isn't as pleasant. Going from the Upper West Side to the Upper East Side, the streets are full of potholes. City drivers really don't know how to drive alongside bicyclists. It's anxiety producing. I haven't been doored but my husband, who owns a Pinarello and bikes to his studio every day, has been. Passengers in taxis often don't look when they're getting out of the cab.
Also, this is New York, so people yell. Pedestrians, drivers and even car passengers lean out their windows to shout at cyclists. And to gesture. They think they know what you're about to do, but they don't. It's difficult to turn left from a far right bike lane, but the moment I get in the left lane to make the turn, there's a chorus of howls from vociferous Manhattanites. I understand that this is the way Gotham shows its concern. But still.
Worst of all are the serious cyclists. What is it about putting on a pair of Assos bib shorts that turns a perfectly sane, normal human being into an unreasoning jerk? If you're on a CitiBike and you see some geared-up guys on specialized bikes, give them a wide berth. They're just going to snarl at you.
The CitiBike docking system is imperfect. I once biked to midtown on the West Side to have dinner with a friend, and I pushed the bike into the dock and saw the green light. I jiggled the bike and it was firmly pinioned in place. But it didn't register as docked. I didn't know that because I didn't check my email until I returned home after dinner. That's when I received a message thanking me for docking the bike two hours later. Another biker had taken the same bike out after I docked it. It would have been an $18 charge but I called and discussed the situation with a customer service representative. So be sure you get the acknowledgement email immediately after you dock a bike.
There are no CitiBike stations north of 86th street on the West Side. I gather that's a thorny political issue; I don't want to get tangled up in it. I'd just like to say that I often shop at Whole Foods on Columbus and 99th Street, and it would be convenient to have a CitiBike station there. Just saying.
Above all else, if you're going to use a CitiBike, get a helmet. You can get a decent helmet on Amazon for a reasonable price, and the CitiBike membership comes with discount coupons for local bike stores. Use the coupon. Recently I biked to midtown to meet a lawyer friend for lunch. He saw the helmet on my arm and said that he was glad I was wearing it. "We have three wrongful death cases involving bicyclists," he said somberly. "Be careful."