Catch me if you can. Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Seeing a single bike bounce around so often over my lunch break highlighted the value of bikeshare in a way that ridership statistics can't, writes an MTA analyst.  

On Monday morning, Citi Bike set 200 pedal-assist electric bikes free on the streets of New York. Another 1,000 are set to be distributed in preparation for the L train shutdown in April 2019. By then, North America’s largest bikeshare operator hopes to have enough vehicles to support some of that displaced mobility demand—and to give New York’s biking landscape the power boost it needs.

But if the city’s new enthusiasm for e-bikes on Monday afternoon was any indication, we’re probably going to need a lot more. I know this because I spent my lunch hour tracking down the single electric bike left zipping around lower Manhattan that day.

Yes, I am an avowed transportation nerd. I work as an analyst for the MTA, so I ride the subway most places, but I invested in a Citi Bike membership last year, after the bikeshare network expanded to my Brooklyn block. More broadly, I’m also a supporter of the expansion of safe, accessible cycling in New York. In a time when some neighborhoods are pushing back against protected bike lanes and cyclist deaths from motorists are increasing yearly, progress on this front sometimes feels like it’s moving backwards. Bringing electric bikes to New York is a progressive, sustainable transportation advancement—one that signals a thoughtful investment in people-friendly infrastructure. And I was excited to test it out.

Around 1 p.m. on Monday, I clearly wasn’t alone: On my Citi Bike app, a real-time tracker of the e-bikes showed them spreading across three boroughs at breakneck speed, with most of them migrating to Brooklyn. I refreshed the screen to find just one bike emblazoned with a lightning bolt about half a mile from my office in the Financial District. So I punched out of work and set off in pursuit.

To accomplish my mission, I had to travel light. I headed out on foot, with nothing but my Citi Bike key fob and a fully charged phone, with a timer set for the length of my lunch break—one hour.

I raced through throngs of bankers and tourists towards my destination: South Street Seaport. There I found plenty of normal bikes parked in docks, but the electric one was nowhere to be found. The app showed that it had already made its way to Chinatown, a couple of miles north. These battery-boosted bikes can hit 18 miles per hour. This was going to be harder than I thought.

In hot pursuit, I hopped on the next M15 SBS—one of New York’s bus rapid transit routes—headed towards the base of the Manhattan Bridge. Tight on time, I was grateful for all door boarding. I checked the app again, watching my location inch closer towards the elusive bike. It moved three times in 20 minutes, heading north in 5-block leaps.

The SBS has limited stops, which is great for the bus’s speed, but I had to backtrack on foot for five minutes to get to the dock, where the e-bike was supposedly sitting, alongside one regular bike. I prayed to Polly Trottenberg, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation and my personal transportation deity, that I wouldn’t have to pedal myself back to work manually.

After a race-walk from the bus stop, I arrived at the Bowery and Division St. station to find what I feared: The e-bike had bolted. The app told me that it was now a few blocks up Division Street. I checked my timer—33 minutes left—and broke into a run.

Just as the new dock was in sight, I caught a glimpse of a tourist—“I ♥ NY” t-shirt and all—undocking the electric bike and vanishing into traffic, never to be seen again. With 22 minutes until I was needed back at the office, I was out of breath and looking for ideas—I considered hopping on the garbage truck parked in the bike lane, but it didn’t appear that it was moving any time soon. And I was just a block away from my favorite dollar dumpling spot, still without lunch and feeling peckish. But the bike hike waits for nobody: Panting, I grabbed a regular Citi Bike and set off for TriBeCa, where the bike next had appeared online. (By the way, I was live-tweeting this all.)

En route, I refreshed the app one last time—and what do you know, a second e-bike appeared back at my starting location in the Financial District. I swiftly rerouted, docking my bike and catching a 5 train back down to Wall Street for one last go. But just as I ascended from the subway staircase, I watched the bike fade off the app. Timer checked: three minutes left on lunch. Mission incomplete.

But I wouldn’t say I failed. Chasing a single bike as it bounced around lower Manhattan over the course of 60 minutes certainly put the value of bikesharing in perspective for me, perhaps in a way that ridership statistics can’t. It highlighted how many people were eager to try a technology that was cool and new (to New York City, at least). Even if I couldn’t catch one, I got to experience the excitement over the e-bikes’ arrival, which is so badly needed here. Given the public frustration over the state of the city’s transit system and the maddening congestion on its streets, it’s a thrill to see something fresh, forward-thinking, and fast—perhaps too fast.

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