Citibike: an adventure in U/X hell

Recently, my commute has (sadly) changed to include a daily trip to Chelsea (the one on Manhattan's west side).  Exploring the possibilities, I decided to try the Metro North Railway to Grand Central, then hop a Citibike for the proverbial last mile (which is really about 2 miles).  For regular use, it's a no-brainer to buy the $95 annual subscription, but to try it out to see if you like it, there's a 24-hour pass for $10.  So that's what I did.

The problems with the Citibike system have been well documented; in just a couple of days of trying it, I've already experienced most of them, and more.  Docks that don't work.  No bikes at your departure point, and no place to dock a bike at your destination.  Those seem to be the biggies.  But, what really shocked me was how bad the basic U/X is.

First, the most obvious problem, how do you even get started?  I walked up to the station and took a look at a dock.  It had a slot on it which was obviously meant to accept a credit card (not to mention the MasterCard logo next to the slot), but no instructions.  After puzzling over this a while, and asking somebody, I was directed to the kiosk down at the end of the row.

OK, so I'm standing in front of the kiosk.  I'm 6 feet tall.  The screen is about chest height on me.  Between that and the sun glare, I had to (literally) get down on one knee to read the screen.  Sure, I understand that it's easier for tall people become shorter than it is for short people to become taller (and I'm not dissing short people), but somehow this seems like a problem that could be solved better.  So, I'm down on one knee and start navigating the purchase flow.  I wish I had taken notes, but I didn't, so I'm doing this from memory.  I had to get past all of these screens:

  1. Saying I wanted to use English
  2. Dipping my credit card
  3. Saying I didn't have a gift certificate to redeem
  4. Authenticating the credit card with my home zip code
  5. Accepting the system terms of service
  6. Authorizing the $10 charge to my card
  7. Authorizing the $110 credit hold on my card
  8. Accepting a liability waiver
  9. Acknowledging that I had to obey traffic regulations
  10. Finally getting my 5-digit ride code

OK, so now I've got my code.  What do I do with it?  The kiosk said to enter it on the "keypad" on the dock.  So, I go over to a dock.  Keypad?  What keypad?  Again, I enlist the aid of some friendly fellow bikers, and we eventually figure out that three tiny little buttons (see is the keypad.  With the bike in the way, and having to bend down to see, I could barely read the labels on the buttons, but eventually managed to unlock the bike.

This post is intended to be about the software U/X, so I'll just briefly mention that my first routing strategy (downtown on 7th Ave) was suboptimal.  Later experience taught me to go for 9th Ave, with the dedicated bike path.  Makes my trip a couple blocks longer, but it's also a little less exciting, which is a good thing for a daily commute :-)

For the trip back in the afternoon, I went to pick up my bike and attempted to follow the directions.  Swiped my card at the kiosk.  Again, I had to go through an absurd number of screens.  Not quite as many as before, but still had to promise that I wouldn't ride on the sidewalk, accept the TOS, etc.  Then, I get to the point where it says the receipt printer is broken, so it can't print me out my ride code.  I have to memorize the 5-digit number.  OK, how bad could that be?

I (try to) memorize the number, then go over to a dock to unlock a bike.  Doesn't work, I get a red light.  Try it a few more times, same result.  Try a few other bikes, same result.  I assume I just forgot the code and go back to get a new one.  Sorry, it won't give you more than one code in some span of time, so I have to wait a few minutes for that to time out.  Get a new code.  Try that.  Still doesn't work.  I call the customer service number on my phone.  The nice lady has me get a new code, and try it again.  No go.  She asks me to try some other bikes.  Nope, still doesn't work.  She asks me to go get yet another new code.  Still no joy.  At this point, she concludes that the kiosk must be giving out bad codes, and she suspects it's related to the broken printer.  I ask her if she could just remotely release a bike for me.  No, she can't do that.  She advises me to go try another station, one (avenue) block away.  I get a bike there, but by this time, I've burned so much time, I've missed my train home and have to wait a half hour for the next one.

The next day, I don't let all this sillyness deter me (either I'm determined or stupid, not sure which) and try the system again.  This time, I've learned a few of the ins and outs, so the process is a little smoother.  But, I'm still faced with the problem that bikes are in short supply in the morning at Grand Central.  While I'm navigating the 10 screens to get my ride code, the last bike is taken.  So, I get in the line and wait for a bike to arrive.  A few minutes later, some bikes show up, but by the time I get mine, the ride code has timed out!  Apparently, they're only good for 5 minutes.  So, I go back to the kiosk and get yet another ride code.  While I'm doing that, somebody grabs the bike I was going to use.

This time, I wise up.  I wait for a bike to show up, strap my bag into the luggage rack to stake claim to it, and go get yet another code.  I see somebody eyeing my bike, and admonish him, "That's mine".  He backs off (not sure what I would have done had he just rode off with my bag).  Lack of bikes at popular stations is a system problem, not strictly a software U/X problem, but they could at least bump up the ride code timeout at stations where there aren't any bikes available.

Next issue.  That day, I'm going to take full advantage of the "as many rides as you want in 24 hours" deal.  I've got a side trip to run in the middle of the day, so I get a bike for that (and another one back).  That goes OK.  Then, on my way home, I have a stop I need to make in midtown.  I bike there, park the bike, go deal with my errand, then try to get another bike to continue my trip to GCT.  Nope, it won't give me one.  It says I've got too many bikes.  I assume that means "when we say as many as you like, we really mean four", and give up in disgust.  Rather than kill another 15 minutes with customer service and miss another train, I just hoof it to Grand Central (and make my train).

That evening, I email Citibike.  To their credit, I got a very quick reponse, and after a couple of back-and-forths, I'm told that the dock never recorded that I brought the bike back, and that's why it wouldn't give me another bike (you can't have two bikes out at the same time, which makes sense).  He can also see that other people have been using that bike, so obviously it was returned and he's going to manually close out my trip.  He assures me I won't be charged for any extra time.

By this time, I've figured out that the basic system, while creaky, is clearly better than the alternatives (i.e. a subway trip which includes a complicated transfer).  It's also clear that the majority of the problems I've experienced are due to the totally brain-dead process for getting a daily pass, so I sign up for the annual subscription.  At $95/year (not to mention a $15 rebate for using my Citicard to pay for it), it's a no-brainer.  It's unclear why it took 10 days for my key to get to me, but that's another story.  Granted, 5 of those days were weekends and a holiday, but still.

I start using the key.  Much better experience.  Still have to deal with not enough bikes in the morning at Grand Central, and not enough docks when I bring it back, and random docks failing to release or accept bikes, but nothing like the U/X hell I was experiencing with the 24-hour passes.

One the second day, I go to the Citibike web site in the evening, and discover it thinks I still have a bike out.  I call customer service.  Seems like the same deal as before; the dock accepted my bike (locked it, gave me a green light), but didn't record the transaction in the system.  Again, the customer service guy says he can see that the bike has been getting used after I got it, so clearly it was returned, so he manually closes out my trip.  Surely the software could be smart enough to notice that if there's two "undock" events for a bike without a "dock" event in between, something is wrong?