How To Use Citi Bike in New York City

Citi Bike has arrived in New York City. Well at least in parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn. However, the question that both New Yorkers and tourists alike have is: how to use Citi Bike? There are a lot of questions and there have been a lot of negative reports about a variety of topics. After 7 hours of riding over the course of 2 days in two boroughs, I have a pretty good idea on how to use Citi Bike. I even espied some portable travel scooters for the disabled in the stands. Here is a guide and my honest take on the good and the bad.

Getting Started

To get a Citi Bike from a docking station you need to buy a pass. You can choose from a 24-hour pass for $9.95 plus tax (as I did on multiple occasions) or a 7-day pass for $25 plus tax. You can also get an annual membership for $95 plus tax; which actually increases your ride times to 45 minutes instead of 30.
Citi Bike pay screen, New York
Buying a pass is pretty straight forward using the automated terminal at each docking station. It is however, fairly annoying and there are several screens you have to click through in order to finally get to where you dip your credit card and agree to their terms. It will take a minute or two to finish up and the machines are short so tall people (like myself) should be prepared to bend over awkwardly.

Unlocking the Bike

After paying, you will be given a 5-digit code containing a combination of the numbers 1, 2 and 3. This 5-digit code is good for 5 minutes from the time of printing to type the code into a bike dock and unlock your bike.
Citi Bike code, unlock bike, New York
You may choose any bike in the docking station. I suggest choosing one where the seat is adjusted already to your height to avoid wasting time fiddling with the seat.
Citi Bike, code
You will know its unlocked when the light turns green and you are free to pull it out of the dock. Note you must pull fairly hard and even lift it a little when pulling it out.

Keep an Eye on the Clock

This is easily the MOST ANNOYING thing about Citi Bike. You must return your bike within 30 minutes to any docking station in New York City. You are then free to re-insert your credit card again to get another 5-digit code to re-unlock your bike (you will not be charged again). Yes, you must basically check in every 30 minutes or you will be charged more money.
Citi Bike rules, New York
As long as you continually check in within the 30-minute time period, you have unlimited 30-minute rides for the length of the pass you bought. However, the key is keeping an eye on the clock; which can be really irritating.

How to Find Docking Stations

The best way to find docking stations for Citi Bike is to download their app. Citi Bike is the name of the app and there is a detailed map for your smart phone to tell you where the closest station is if you need to check in or you want to pre-plan your trip.
Citi Bikes, New York
This is quite annoying if you’re out for a joyride because it means you have to stop the bike, pull out your phone and look up where the nearest station is. Or even worse, look while your peddling. Either way it is pretty annoying.
Citi Bike, out of order, New York
Also, as I found out, not all stations work. I actually docked my bike at Battery Park City after about 25 minutes with the idea to reload my time and the machine was out of order. Therefore I had to walk down to West Thames Street; which was the nearest station. That station was out of bikes. So then I had to walk a while and cross West Street near Ground Zero which is a nightmare to get a new bike at a station over there. So this is not a perfect system by any means.

What is the Purpose of Citi Bike?

The purpose of Citi Bike is to give a viable alternative to mass transit like busses, subways and taxis around Manhattan and Brooklyn. The purpose is not to go for joyrides, run errands or just have a relaxing pleasant day.
Citi Bike, New York
This means that if you want to use it for those purposes you must adhere to their strict 30-minute policy or your late charges can add up quickly.

Who Benefits from Citi Bike?

Aside from the obvious answers of Citigroup, the City of New York and your credit card company-commuters within certain parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn can benefit.
Citi Bikes, New York
You can cover a lot of ground quickly on a bike and as long as your destination is near a docking station; of which there are a ton; you can save time and hassle from the subway or bus.
Brooklyn Bridge
I think a great example would be someone who lives in Brooklyn Heights and works in Lower Manhattan. He could simply get an annual pass and ride a bike across the Brooklyn Bridge every day to work and save time and crowds.
Citi Bike, New York City
Additionally, someone commuting to/from Grand Central Terminal could get there quickly instead of dealing with the bus or train. I was told that the most popular bike docking station was Pershing Square across from Grand Central Terminal.

What are the Major Detractors of Citi Bike?

Citi Bike is annoying. It really is. However, that said, I do like Citi Bike and think the idea is great. Let’s face it, the subway is really annoying too. I do wish however, they had some type of pass for like 3-4 hours where you could just enjoy a nice ride around Central Park or up the West Side Highway without having to constantly think about how much time you have left.
Empire State Building, New York
I also think it’s dangerous for several reasons. Citi Bike’s time restrictions, as I mentioned before, make you think about the time constantly and you are constantly checking your phone so you don’t go over and get charged. Looking at your phone on a bike in Manhattan is even more dangerous than texting and driving. I think many accidents could occur this way.
Citi Bike, New York
Also, riding a bike around the streets of Manhattan is simply not safe and very confusing. There are bike lanes on SOME streets and avenues but not all plus a lot of car doors opening all over the place. The rules for bicyclists are also very confusing to those that don’t ride frequently. Which way can you go? Can you ride on the sidewalk? Etc., etc.
Citi Bike, New York
I have a feeling many accidents have and will occur from the increase in bikes on the street and Citi Bike DOES NOT provide helmets. Wearing helmets while riding a bike is not a law in New York City. So be warned.

In Conclusion

So this is a basic guide and honest opinion about ‘how to use Citi Bike’. I think it’s a great idea in theory but there needs to be some tweaks to make it better and more enjoyable. However, I do see some real value in it and I will probably get myself an annual pass in the next few days as it seems that’s where the value is if you live in Manhattan as I do.

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  1. You should get a helmet with that annual pass!
    Also, I find it odd that there are no Citibikes on the upper west or upper east sides (much to my dismay).

  2. That’s true Michelle, that is annoying as well! I forgot you moved!

  3. This is a great post with perfect information. I also agree very much with Michelle, it makes no sense that they don’t live on the upper east and west sides.

  4. Alexandra says

    I will be in New York next week and wanted to try this. Thank you for the guide and notes. That’s shocking that there is a time limit of only 30 minutes but it is better than nothing I suppose.

  5. Thanks for the run down! We have them in a number of places in Canada, and I see people riding them all the time. Great for tourists to get between landmarks and museums – they do well to have them strategically placed! Haven’t tried one myself. I could see watching the time being an annoyance, as would looking for the docking stations. I wanted to use one in Toronto to go from downtown to my rented villa which was a bit of a hike, but by the time I finally found a station, it wasn’t worth it any more – I had walked too far! Oh well, c’est la vie!


  7. Great informative post, Lee. Glad you got to try out the bikes!

    FYI bikes are classified as motor vehicles under NYC law and must obey the same rules of the roads as cars. No riding on sidewalks, ride in the direction of traffic, yield to pedestrians – even those who are walking in a bike lane or crossing against a light – and stop at all red lights. You will quickly learn which streets are good for bikes and those that are not.

    As for frequent accidents, this is a misconception. Riding a Citi bike is actually safer than walking. See the two articles below:

  8. I am a huge proponent of Citi Bikes and while I think that you get some things right, I think that there are some that deserve more discussion.

    1. True, the machines are short for tall people. But I think we talls have more advantages anyway!! So in this instance I’m indifferent!

    2. You get it right about needing to lift the bike a little to get it out of the dock. It’s actually even easier if you lift from the seat not from the handlebars. So pull with the handlbars while lifting the seat. And when returning them…don’t be shy…push it in hard. I’ve also found that sometimes the bike won’t “take” when returning it. Sometimes it’s a software issue — but I’ve also found that sometimes the sensor/holder on the front gets a tiny bit misaligned…so tweak that and it might help if you’re having difficulties getting the dock to grab. Another tip…if someone has turned the seat backwards and pointing down, it’s likely that the bike is in need of repairs. If there are others available you might as well skip over checking that one.

    3. As far as time goes…I’ve found that it’s helpful to set an alarm or countdown clock on my phone, set to vibrate, for 24 or so minutes. When it buzzes I know I have five or so minutes to get to a kiosk. Really, you’re never very far from a kiosk unless you’ve gone out of the service area or misjudged how long it will take you to go over a bridge. If you arrive at a station and there are no docks, you can ask for a 15 minute grace period and you’ll be directed to a nearby dock. Oh…and seriously, PLEASE don’t look while you’re peddling. If you’re in the clear of traffic you have no reason not to stop. If you’re not clear of traffic you shouldn’t be looking at your phone and peddling anyway. Wait till you get to a red light if you must. Slow down to make sure you get one if that’s what it takes. You’re asking to get doored or run over or have a pedestrian dart out in front of you. It’s just not worth risking yours or someone else’s life.

    4. You talk about being annoyed by the time limit if you’re out for a joyride. But, as you also noted they aren’t mean for joy rides. It’s sort of like being annoyed if you want to take a 2 hour taxi ride and are mad that it costs so much. The bikes are meant to stay in the system. Imagine how useless they would be if on nice sunny weekends everyone decided they wanted the bike for 4 hours to meander around Central Park without thinking about the time…the usefulness of the system would come to a screeching halt. There are plenty of bike rental shops and a company called Bike N Roll (conveniently in Central Park) if that’s what you want to do every once in a while.

    5. You forgot to mention Alta Bicycles in your “Who Benefits.” The bike share is not in the black yet…when and if it runs a profit those will be split between Alta and the city. CitiGroup benefits only from the advertising…otherwise they’re out 40million some odd dollars.

    6. I think that it can be a BIT confusing but I also think that as you do it more, you get lots more used to where you are comfortable ….for instance I always plot my forays on the protected lanes of 1st ave., 2nd Ave, the West Side Highway, 8th Ave., Broadway, etc. And I’ve learned which streets are easier going cross town, even without lanes. It just gets easier the more you do it. For newbies I guess it’s true that it can it be difficult.. But I think that’s true of a lot of things. Someone I know just moved to DC from NY. She’s never driven on the beltway and she had to buy a car and for a couple of weeks now she has been terrified, but every week it gets better. As for the rules being confusing for infrequent riders, the super important ones are written on the bike handles in the rider’s line of site…Go with traffic, yield to pedestrians, obey traffic lights and stay off the sidewalk. With those rules, you’ll avoid most of the common and most dangerous situations (though in my opinion they should mention dooring also). And if you’ve a driver’s license, that should take care of the rest. (Except for maybe the arm signal for a right hand turn). Bikes and car rules are close to identical. Also, plan ahead. I’ve found this site particularly helpful in planning my routes:

    Anyway…glad you came to the conclusion that you’ll get a yearly pass. I’ll bet anything that a year from now you’re wondering how you were ever freaked out about it. In fact you’ll probably have moved on to what my biggest issue is — there aren’t ENOUGH bikes. It’s already suffering from popularity and it’s almost impossible to get a bike in the E. Village in the morning or find an empty dock at night. When it spreads to the UWS and UES and other areas further outside of Manhattan it’s just going to get worse! I’ll still take it over my three personal bikes that were stolen though.

    • I think that may be the longest ever non-spam comment I’ve ever received! Haha…seriously though, great comment and your point about the joyrides is well taken although it would be nice to have an option for 3-4 hours or something like that so you don’t have to think about the time.

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