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Citibike-Top

New York has launched a new bike share program, and people have lots to say.

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For loyal readers of The Hopkinson Report, you know two things I really love: New York City and biking. So it’s no surprise that I was very excited about the launch of Citibike, the Big Apple’s new bike sharing program.

The program is off to an amazing start, recording 100,000 rides in just the first 10 days.

Today I’ll cover two things:
1) My review of the bike share program
2) What business lessons we can learn from it so far

First Look Review of Citibike Bike Share Program:

I wrote this up after my maiden voyage on June 5:

The system:
– In terms of pricing, Citibike offers a yearly membership for $95, which allows you to take the bike out for 45 minutes at a time.
– Short term memberships are $10 for 24 hours and $25 for a weekly pass, each give you 30 minute rides.
– Activating a bike is simple, just insert your key fob into a station with a bicycle, wait for the light to turn green, and it activates.
– It’s a little tricky to remove the bike itself. You need to do a combination lift-and-pull at the same time.
– They did a good job with the Citibike app, combining your geolocation + bike stations
– There are 600 locations, with about 30 within a few blocks of my apartment near Union Square. See the only ‘coming soon’ one on the map? Yup, that’s the closest location to my place. Sigh.


map-coming-soon

The Bike:
– The bike itself is really solid. It is made by Public Bike System Company (PBSC, also known as Bixi), who has also done similar programs in places such as Montreal and Boston.
– It’s built like a tank, but I found it surprisingly nimble and not too heavy, even though it is about twice the weight of a normal bike. You can tell that a lot of effort went into the design.

Click the image below to see some bike details:
etc_citibike_950
– While it takes a little oomph to get going, I found the ride incredibly smooth. I was impressed. You can get going at a decent pace, and are able to power over uneven city streets and potholes that litter New York.
– The brakes are decent, but I’ve found they vary from bike to bike. Allow a little more stopping time vs. your normal bike due to the extra weight.
– When riding, you notice a lot of other people riding these bikes too… it’s like we’re in a new special club

The big issue: Safety.
Look, navigating Manhattan is always a frightening experience. Buses, cabs, cars, delivery trucks, pedestrians on cell phones, delivery guys on bikes, moms with carriages, tourists, runners, idiots. They’re all still there folks, they just come at you a bit faster.
– I think there will be some growing pains, but feels like a pretty interesting new development. Thumbs up.

Follow-up Review of Citibike Bike Share Program:

So it sounds like everything is rainbows and butterflies, right?
Not so fast. I used Citibike twice more in the next few days. Here are the results:

– On June 6th I went to a nearby location to check out a bike. I tried to activate multiple bikes using my keyfob, but the light stayed on yellow and refused to work. I walked 3 blocks to another station and tried on a different set of bikes, and was able to unlock one. Great.
– From there I sped down Broadway to the New Work City coworking space. The trip was much faster and efficient than the subway, and I was excited to get to work for the day. I pulled into the docking station directly across from the NWC office.
– However, that’s where the frustration really began. As I jammed the bike into multiple docking stations, it refused to lock. Since this was all new, I wasn’t sure what the problem was. Was it me? Was it my account?
– From there I rode 3 blocks in dangerous traffic along Houston Street to another docking station. Once again the bike refused to be checked in. Within 5 minutes two other riders joined me and were having the same problem. So at least I knew it wasn’t me or my bike or that one other dock. This was a bigger issue.
– In their defense, I called the 800 number from my cell phone, got through in under 30 seconds, and a very pleasant customer service rep walked me through the issue and told me to leave the bike there (you can still put the front tire in the dock, so even though it isn’t locked, at a glance it appears to be). She checked me out of the system so I wouldn’t be liable and got me on my way.

However, there were more problems to come, when I rented a bike on June 9.
– I grabbed a bike near my place and checked out with no issues.
– Because I haven’t yet memorized the bike lanes and best paths, I had to go out of my way to get to my friend’s house so that I wasn’t commuting against traffic.
– When I got to the closest station to him, once again the bike refused to lock.
– Repeat the same dance… leaving the bike there, a call to customer service, and late for my appointment.
– As expected, there are some growing pains here

Business lessons from Citibike

Everything is in beta
You know how nearly every new website launches and has the words “Beta” below the logo, symbolizing that this is still in the launch phase? That goes for real-world businesses as well.

I’m smart enough to know that this is a massive undertaking and will need a few months to work out the kinks, but others have been quick to criticize the program.

However, the only way to succeed in life is to throw things out there and see how it performs in the real world. There’s no way to predict how something works in the real world while it is still in the lab. Get it out there and get feedback.

Branding matters
. The NY Times reports that Citibank paid $41 million to be the lead sponsor for 5 years.

In a world featuring bad stadium names such as Northeast Delta Dental Stadium, Save-on-Foods Memorial Center, Sports Authority Field at Mile High, and the $238 million KFC Yum! Center, Citibike is a pretty great name.

The name flows off the tongue, and it’s near impossible to say Citibike and not think Citibank. The company logo and colors are now ubiquitous throughout the city, not only at the 600+ station, but now as rolling billboards across every block in Manhattan.

When you’re creating a name for your business, make sure it has positive connotations, is easy to say, and think beyond any initial financial outlay to the long term branding.

citibank-branding

Big, open data
I think one of the most awesome features is the incredible amount of data that is being generated. On a personal level, each annual member can log onto the web to see a detailed account of their trips, including the date, bike stations, and duration of the trip.

citibike-big-data

Over at the Citibike blog, they’re posting realtime stats of the entire system daily, including weather conditions, popular start and end stations, and average trip duration. This will go a long way to optimizing the system over time, allowing them to allocate bikes for weekday commuting and weekend excursions.

Other bloggers are taking this data and repurposing it, such as an interactive heat map showing the most beneficial neighborhoods.

Whether it’s Google analytics or social media stats, pay attention to the data.
citibike-heatmap

Mobile + Geolocation makes for a killer app
For a world that always has a cell phone in its pocket, it’s no secret that mobile technology will be the single biggest tech revolution over the next decade. Combine that with geolocation capabilities and the opportunities are endless.

The Citibike app does a great job simply pulling up a map of the closest stations to you, but I can see it expanding to do so much more moving forward.

Whatever your business is, you need to account for mobile.

Technology and software giveth and taketh awayJim-Hopkinson-CitibikeThe technology behind Citibike, from the LED lights on the bikes that are charged as you ride, to solar powered stations with touchscreen kiosks is impressive. But much of the issues are being blamed on software. When talking to reps about my issues, they’ve talked about “rebooting” stations. Felix Salmon talks about the software issue in a Reuters article, and spoke with someone from the city:

NYC DOT’s Seth Solomonow tells me that “a quick inspection can address” the problem. Basically, if a technician goes out there and resets the station, the problem is solved. But there doesn’t seem to be a way to reset the station remotely, and it’s not at all clear whether CitiBike HQ even knows when a station isn’t working, unless and until someone calls them to report the issue.

Customer service is crucial
It’s not that your business won’t have problems, it’s how you handle a problem that is crucial. Just about every person that calls Citibike’s hotline is going to be angry. They’re lost or stressed or late and are having problems with a bike. I don’t envy the reps on the other end of the phone.

But to their credit, they seem to have been well-trained. They have been incredibly understanding and apologetic and worked to solve any problem immediately. They have also brought in additional reps to handle calls at this crucial time period while they work out any issues. Adding a 10 minute wait on hold for customer service would have infuriated early adopters.

Haters gonna hate
From the start, there was opposition to Mayor Bloomberg and this program, and some of the hiccups have given the naysayers additional ammunition.

– Some worry about the safety and liability of inexperienced riders – helmets are encouraged but not mandatory.
– Friends are concerned about unleashing thousands of additional bikes into the already crowded streets.
– Businesses and residential apartments are up in arms over bike stations taking up sidewalks and interfering with their foot traffic. And there is worry about vandalism.

If you decide to quit your job and become an entrepreneur, or do something revolutionary at work, you’re going to face opposition as well.

The bottom line is, you can’t please everyone. This is a massive program that will ruffle feathers. But if it makes New York greener and easier to navigate and has health benefits to its residents? It’s a worthy program.

Img via AM New York
[Image via AM New York]

Go big or go home
What impressed me the most is the sheer size of the program from day 1. This wasn’t a few hundred bikes in a few key locations. This was a massive rollout with thousands of bikes in hundreds of locations, with more planned.

Are you looking to launch a business or do something great? Be bold.

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