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I really love Citibike.

It’s transportation that works almost perfectly as designed. It makes my life better.

A solution built for what myself, and hundreds of thousands of others, needed without knowing. Without ever really asking, lobbying or fighting for. A gift from the transportation gods.

The numbers at a glance show instant market alignment.

Since launch on May 27th of this year, 6.6 million miles in 45-minute hops have been logged by 6,000 bikes at 330 locations by 285,000 users, mostly in downtown Manhattan.

As a New Yorker and obsessive urbanite, every time I jump on a bike, which is often, I’m enthused by how much it has improved my life.

As a marketer, who connects products and markets for a living, it’s the epitome of a product launched into an impossible environment with hardly any public hiccups. One that changed the human landscape of this immensely complex metropolis in demonstrably positive ways.

And potentially may ever be a profitable model within an astoundingly short time.

As a user

Transportation in New York is serious business and now has a rock star new kid on the block with Citibike.

Alongside the subway, cabs, call-a-car solutions like Uber, and ZipCar. Not six months in, Citibike has earned a spot on the transportation line of apps on my iPhone. It’s part of my getting-around rooster of tools.

Why does Citibike really matter to me?

Here’s a common scenario.

I’m in TriBeca and need to go to Meat Packing District, wearing gym clothes or a suit, weather permitting. I hop on a bike (there are 5 racks within 10 minutes of my apt) and I’m there in 15 minutes and hop off.  To the East side? Same drill, 20-30 minutes for the ride. It takes about one-third as long as any other method with no fuss, no waiting for a train or sitting in traffic. It costs a whooping $.27 a day with a yearly pass.

In my downtown world,  anything south of Madison Park, from river to river, to dinner or to work, this is always a viable option to get from here to there..

Take a look at the humanity hopping on and off these bikes at any busy rack.

Every possible type of person, from tourist with tour book in hand in Swedish or Japanese, to bankers, to families, to people commuting to work,  to me.

It just works.

From late Spring when it started with 3.000 users on day one, through the Summer and now Fall, there are almost 300,000 users with some 90,000 annual passes. A home run.

Who knows what Winter and snow will do to the bikes and my excitement with them.

But for now, this is one giant step to making NYC—an impossibly busy, crowded and expensive city–just easier, approachable, more human, and of course, more environmentally sane.

 It ain’t perfect but do we really care?

When you are in a rush and the bike racks are full at the most convenient destination, it surely does suck.

When you were counting on a bike as transport and there are simply none there, this is bad. It happens, though way less than it did in the beginning.

There are nits as well. Bike adjustments that won’t tighten and gears that slip. And an app that while great at finding where the next location is, is useless at predetermining whether there are open slots to park or bikes to use.

This isn’t bike rental, it is transportation. And this is New York.

Every day subways during rush hour are too jammed to let you in. Or running late.  Or cancelled.

I’ve been biking in NY for years.

There were less bike lanes, and for what I use Citibike for today, I had to schlepp my bike out of storage and carry chains around to lock stuff up.  And worry generally about theft, safety and weather.

The value of Citibike as a community service is infinitely more important than all the annoyances and imperfections that come along with it.

There seems to be a real business here.

I believe Citibank put in $41M to get this started.

As of September 15th, Citibike had generated $10,067,819 in fees, excluding overtime charges. The goal of $36M per year over time in revenue seems like a slam dunk. I don’t have any insight into operating costs and details, but I’ll take these gross numbers as an indication that this is trending well.

So let me see:

New York is a town where getting a permit is a serious nightmare.  Getting stuff done is daunting for the most staunch and perspicacious, and the most wealthy and insulated alike.

Citibike had to change the very fabric of our streets. Build bike lanes, remove parking spots and meters, change the look and feel of old and affluent neighborhood streets. And add 6,000 people on two wheels, tooling around south of Madison Park during any given 45 minute period.

There was no real marketing or advertising that I noticed. No deaths that I know of, and rumored few accidents.

All this work and change so I could get to where I need to, easier and cheaper. Nice of them!

And as a tax payer, this seems to be net positive from the outset as taxes will be generated (I think) and paid into the city coffers.

Not too shabby.

Lessons that jump out from this.

This is a great analog for all of us who build products and companies, brands and customer service organizations.

It’s a case study in taking a real human problem and solving it by providing a service that does one thing really well. In using the web as an on ramp to add efficiency to activities on the street.

And proof that there are things that done simply and clearly can indeed change the world and how we live in it.

I took a ride this morning to the West Village to get some supplies. (A thirty minute round trip!)

Three core marketing lessons jumped out at me as I was riding along:

1. True user value makes the seemingly impossible an insignificant barrier

If my numbers are right that this was built for $41M, I’m in awe.

The software, the bike design, the permits, the approvals, the physical process of changing the streets. Then the infrastructure to make it work and keep it updated.

All that, so in 6 months, hundreds of thousands of  people like myself can blithely walk down the street, get somewhere with ease, with no instructions, no fuss or bother.

If you are touching on something that truly can matter to a sizable market, the end can really justify the severe pain of the means.

2. Consumer behavior is remarkably malleable

Marketers and business builders rightfully fear the idea of having to educate a new mass market. The idea of teaching consumers new behaviors is a costly and long nightmare. You always want to extend what consumers are doing, not add something potentially alien and disconnected. Possibly wrong.

Bike share is albeit not a new concept. I used Veleb in Paris 6 years ago and bike shares everywhere from Vienna to London. But this is New York!

People said it just wouldn’t work. That there would be consumer blood on the street every day from trucks wiping out tourists. That this is just not how we do things here.

They were wrong. The behavior was either there and very latent. Or the market had some weird vestigial drive to jump on a bike and that Citibike simply created a platform to exercise that need.

I don’t know.

I do know that bike share for New Yorkers is as much a part of life moving forward as well…those really recent digital signs on the subway platforms! How did we ever get from here to there without them.

Was this project a risk?

A huge one and Bloomberg’s legacy depended on it.  I think that his legacy will now be built on this as one of his (and the city’s) biggest wins.

We all create things that don’t work, more often than not.  This one did…and really well.

 3. A truly great product has marketing built in

Citibike’s marketing is built into the product itself. The ease of use and the clarity of why it is here and what it is best at.

They made tough decisions like where to deploy and I’m certain, made lots of enemies in the process. And important, little things, like that real people answer the phones when you call with a concern.

Citibike does one thing really well. It let’s you get from here to there without fuss. This is a really big deal. That is the positioning, the promise and what is delivered. Thousand of people signed up walking by and hopping on for a ride the day it started.

Not everything is perfect with this service. But it never made me crazy like a lost file on my laptop, a Zip Car with no way to get back to the garage, or going out of cell range on an important call.

Very few things of grand scale get done good enough the first time around.

Most products have to work amazingly hard to find an audience and most never do. The winners evolve and iterate to find their right pace and market connection. And in almost every case, what and how we think will work, invariably doesn’t.

Not this one.

Well done Citibike!

We all win as New Yorkers and tourists.  And the New Yorkers who ride their own bikes win with more paths and a more friendly bike culture.

As marketers, we get a living example of how things do at times, in spite of everything, just come together and feel like they belong from the very beginning.


Do share your own experiences with Citibike or bike shares wherever you use them.

Numbers for this post were taken from this Newsday article.