Tips and Tricks for New York City’s Citi Bike and Starting to Bike in Your City

As someone who has lived in NYC for most of her life, I never ever thought it possible that the city might start becoming friendlier towards bikers, nay, even promoting biking as a viable transportation option.

On May 27th, New York joined the ranks of many other biking cities in the world by initiating the largest bike share program in the nation, Citi Bike. A program which has been highly successful in Montreal, Washington DC, Boston, Melbourne, AU, and other cities with more soon to launch. Finally, this was a totalitarian overreach by Mayor Mike and the powerful bike lobby I could get behind. Or, you know, ride. And, since its inception, the biker population has really exploded, it seems, with Citi Bikers and non – a development I am very happy about if somehow eventually it means less cars.

I had never really ridden in the city, unless you count a couple of trips on a friend’s borrowed bike about *mumble* years ago. I had always wished that I had a bike so I could ride it to work but the hassle of where to put it or getting doored / run into by cars petrified me. I had been a regular rider for two years when I lived in Japan and that definitely had its challenges but this was way different. However, it was too good of an opportunity to pass up so I joined the early adoption ranks and got a yearly pass. I wasn’t even drunk.

So now what? First, I thought that I should get a helmet. Citi Bike officially “strongly recommends” that you get one but seriously, get one. I hated forking out the dough for it but I figured that it was cheaper than potential hospital bills from brain surgery. The friend I went shopping for it with recommended that I get one with the large holes. It wasn’t as cute as some of the other designs but when you are riding around the city in mid-summer under a hot beating sun, you’re going to thank me. Citi Bike also gives you a coupon good towards $10 off a helmet at local bike stores and there are a couple of events coming up where the city is giving away free helmets.

If you are using Citi Bike, get the app.  Not only does it show you were all of the docking stations are, it gives you a fairly good estimate of how many bikes vs. docks are at each one. So, if you find that a station has say, 18 bikes and 2 stations (or vice versa), you can probably assume that something is wrong with those two. I look for docks that have an even balance of bikes / docks and hope for the best.

If it’s your maiden voyage, also don’t forget to validate your key online first (like I didn’t). It will help you avoid fumbling around for 10 minutes on your phone like an idiot trying to remember your password, making you late and having to take a goddamn cab to work anyways. When you stick the key in, wait for the yellow light, and then the green and then you can take it out. If you approach one with a red light, it is out of commission. When you dock it, make sure you jam the bike into the dock hard so the yellow light, then green, come on again. This makes sure that the powers that be know you returned the bike and you don’t get charged overages. You can get all of the details from their site here.

Citi Bike has a plethora of helpful tips, information, and resources on their site and NYC has a very helpful primer on bike laws and lots of extremely useful strategies for navigating the roads. Read them and love them BEFORE you leave the house. And really, not 10 minutes before like I did. Also, if you haven’t been on a bike in awhile, there are classes you can go to to brush up through Bike New York. In addition, The League of American Bicyclists also has some great information which is not specific to New York.

This is obvious, but definitely allow extra time for glitches. My second day riding, I ended up being about 30-40 minutes late to work because I didn’t really calculate how long my route would take because there was no way I was going to go anywhere that didn’t have a path. Plus, I had to go to two docks that day to find an available spot to park the bike. Thank god I had an understanding boss. I would also recommend sticking to streets with bike paths, if you have them, at first until you get used to biking in such narrow spaces. Then, definitely change your route to suit you.

Don’t wear earphones. I didn’t believe people do this but I’ve seen it. You want to be able to figure out what type of vehicle is coming up behind you by how large it sounds. Having a bus or a large construction truck pass you within about 2 ft. is unnerving to say the least so you need some advance warning. To avoid being doored (hitting a car door that someone has just flung open), NYC recommends riding about 3 ft. away from parked cars, a point that I got from their brochure. I believe there is a white line indicating it too. And. another obvious point but can’t be said too much, don’t get distracted. Keep focused on what you’re doing at all times.

So, those are some of my observations over the past couple of weeks of getting used to the program. Overall, I really love it and am slowly getting comfortable riding around. It’ll take some time but I am extremely excited this has happened.

Now, I’m going to hand it over to my biking colleagues who have way more experience than I and who have submitted extremely useful tips as well. The first is Tunamelt, who will help all of you LA riders and then we’ll turn it over to DearBrutus who has included his own NYC tips. They will give you lots of insight if you are a Citi Bike person or have your own bike.

Tips from Tunamelt:

I just recently started commuting to work by bicycle. I used to ride recreationally, and this is the first time I’ve commuted any significant distance via bike. It’s a good idea to get involved in your local cyclist community. I live in LA and there’s a pretty active and vocal community here, and they do everything from organize rides, to lobby for bike lines/paths/routes. You can also learn where there are bicycle repair co-ops. The one I know of in Los Angeles is Bicycle Kitchen, where you pay a small fee (sliding scale) to use their tools and get their advice in learning how to fix your bike. 

Some important tips for the road–be visible, be alert. If you’re riding at night, wear light colored clothing and get lights for your bike. Pay attention. Don’t day dream. The reality is you can be pretty vulnerable on your bike to cars, so it’s important to make sure you’re paying attention and minimizing danger.

If you’re a lady or someone who wants to stay “not disgusting” on a bike, carry some wet naps or oil wipes for your face/hands. If your chain pops off (it will) and you fix it (you’ll have to), you’ll need to clean your hands so you don’t get nasty bike grease on your clothes/face.

One thing I’ve noticed too is dudes think it’s really funny to shout inappropriate things at ladies on bikes (or honk.) Be careful! There are things my boyfriend does on his bike, that I would never do if I were alone. (Like ride on a secluded bike path or anywhere that isn’t well lit or bustling.) There’s been a rash of crime in LA lately on the LA River Bike Path in the segments that aren’t as populated.

Lastly, GET A DECENT LOCK. Amazon sells tons of cable lock + u-locks, for a decent price. You want the small Kryptonite lock because it’s harder for a bike thief to get a car jack into it. And you want the cable so you can lock your rear wheel and frame together. Nothing’s infallible, obviously, but what you want is to make your bike look like just too much work to steal.

Tips from DearBrutus:

I love it and I am one of those annoying people that tells all their friends to get the annual pass. Strangers will come up to me and ask me about it, I even let some random guy lift the bike to see how heavy it is. And I’ve had fellow Citi Bike riders yell “Yeah Citi Bike!” when they see me.

[Author’s Note: Yeah It’s really amazing how people have been extremely interested in the program and I’ve encountered a lot of friendliness from fellow riders.]

The biggest advice I have is to be patient with the system and, just like with every other commuting option in the city, add in an extra ten minutes or so for shit to to go wrong. Bike racks might be empty, the docks might be full when you try to park it. 

If you need more than the 30 or 45 minutes to complete your ride, just dock your bike and immediately take it out. The whole process should take about a minute, and then your 30/45 minute time starts over again.

Despite what the haters say, the majority of Citi Bikers that I see are following most traffic rules-and certainly more than most car drivers or pedestrians. Sure, there are always some assholes that run reds, but then I see plenty of cars that do that as well. That being said, cops are apparently ticketing riders at areas with heavy Citi Bike usage (as they have given up on any other form of traffic enforcement), so I’d be extra careful following traffic rules-going through a red light on a bike can cost you $190.

Although I can’t Citi Bike from work to home since I live in Queens, I use it as a hack for working out, where I bike from work to a later subway stop. It doesn’t add that much time for my commute, and I get a nice work out by just going home. And every mile on a Citi Bike burns about 40 calories (due to how heavy the bikes are).

I’ve tried a lot of different apps, and the best apps overall are ridethecity (if you have an iPhone) and the Citi Bike app. The Citi Bike’s app main problem is that it is hard to tell on a cellphone how full a station is, since the Citi Bike app uses different shades of blue to tell you whether a rack is full or nearly empty, and you can only tell how many bikes/docks remain by clicking on each station. But overall, the app does give you up-to-date data, a timer to remind you when your ride is over, and decent directions to get around town.

I’d also suggest buying the Ridethecity app, especially if you have an iPhone. Ridethecity has the best directions for any cycling app (including Ridethecity and Google Maps), and the iPhone version now includes a feature telling you the location of Citi Bike racks and how many bikes are docked in each station. A similar update for an Android should be ready soon, and the detailed maps and directions make the app worth it even without the Citi Bike features.

So, hopefully these suggestions will convince you to try biking around your town. It’s fun and eventually, walking will seem much slower. You also get a huge adrenaline rush before you get to work. Start small and work up to what you feel comfortable with. You’ll be surprised at how fast you get used to it.


(Picture courtesy of Omar Rawlings via Flickr)

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