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Shared bikes, headaches in New York, Boston

Some in NYC look to Boston as Hubway peer off to a bumpy start

NEW YORK — Jeanne Epstein was having a rough morning with the fledgling New York City bike-share program.

Her first Citi Bike did not properly lock when she reached her destination, requiring a call to customer service. Her second bike had a flat tire. And now, in Greenwich Village, she attempted to remove another of the royal blue bikes from a kiosk, but it would not budge.

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Yanking at the handlebars, she looked up and groaned.

“Is this,” she asked pointedly, “what it’s like in Boston?”

Nearly two years after Boston debuted the New Balance Hubway bike-share program, the advent of New York City’s long-awaited counterpart has brought new intensity to the New York-Boston rivalry.

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But on the streets of the Big Apple, as commuters attempted to use the bikes for the first time and encountered technical glitches and malfunctioning kiosks, they looked to Boston not with scoffing condescension but instead with pleading desperation.

They wanted to know: Does it ever get better?

“It seemed like things were so great last week, and I just bought a year-long membership,” said Joe LaPorta, a 56-year-old accountant in a suit and tie. “But now I’m seeing all these people with all these problems with the bikes, and I’m having second thoughts.”

Citi Bike premiered two weeks ago to riders who had signed up for annual memberships. Last week, the bikes became available to those seeking 24-hour or seven-day passes.

A slew of technical difficulties had commuters around Brooklyn and Manhattan, even those eager to embrace the service, gritting their teeth. On Tuesday, several of the stations, even those with spots for 60 bikes, were full, preventing incoming riders from depositing their bikes. In a scene that played out again and again in different parts of the city, riders responded with confusion, frustration, or panic when they realized that seeking out another station would cause them to be late.

Others found themselves unable to rent a bike, or tried to dock the bikes into racks that failed to lock.

And while passersby could not help themselves from snapping photos of the bike racks or ogling them from car windows — a practice long-since passé in Boston — that shiny-new-toy feeling was wearing off.

Julia Cumes for the Boston Globe

“Is this what it’s like in Boston?” asked Jeanne Epstein, who encountered problems with Citi Bike last week.

In SoHo, Tanja Diklic, 39, tapped angrily on the buttons of a Citi Bike kiosk, swiping her credit card again and again.

“I don’t think it’s working,” she said. “This is the third station I’ve been to.”

“I would love it to work,” said John Hanson, of the East Village, sitting astride one of the bright blue bikes. “But right now, it’s got problems.”

Understandable, he thought. It is challenging to introduce a city-wide transportation system overnight without a few hiccups. He remained hopeful that the program would work more reliably in coming days and weeks. After all, he said, it has worked in other cities.

“Everything takes time to work properly,” Hanson said. “But by the Fourth of July, it better be rolling like it’s been here for five years.”

If the rows of shiny new bikes look familiar to Bostonians, it is because they are operated by the same company that runs Hubway: Alta Bicycle Share. Other than the color, the bikes are practically identical — fat tires, wide seats, heavy frame, high handlebars that keep passengers sitting upright. The New York City bikes, however, have one important addition, a decal with the rules of the road stuck on the panel between the handlebars. Yield to pedestrians, stay off the sidewalk, obey traffic lights, ride with traffic, the bikes advise.

Julia Cumes for the Boston Globe

“I just don’t see this becoming the new Amsterdam,” said 32-year-old Brooklynite Kym Chamber.

Citi Bike also uses a similar fare structure as Hubway: The option of a yearlong, weeklong, or daylong membership, and additional charges if the bikes are kept for longer than 30 to 45 minutes.

Darwin Torres, 29, leaned his arm on a Brooklyn Citi Bike kiosk and investigated the deal. In a manner befitting his brethren in Boston, he did not mince words.

“I think it’s kind of stupid,” Torres said. “New York is a big city. How are you supposed to complete a ride in 30 minutes?”

Joe Downes and Shawn Hennessey, construction workers laboring nearby, approached the kiosk and grinned.

Were they planning on becoming Citi Bike members?

“No way,” said Hennessey, of Queens. “We were just looking to take a laugh . . . We wanted to see if anyone is actually using this thing.”

And he couldn’t understand why the extra-long collection bicycle rack was stationed in the street, taking up precious space on the roads.

“Why don’t they put it up on the sidewalk?” Hennessey said.

Julia Cumes for the Boston Globe

Jason Salvatierra rode a Citi Bike through Greenwich Village last week. The program, which launched in late May, is managed by the same firm that oversees Boston’s Hubway.

Even some avid cyclists, like 32-year-old Brooklynite Kym Chamber, treated the new bikes with skepticism. She worried about the safety of inexperienced cyclists unaccustomed to New York’s eat-or-be-eaten roads. And she wondered whether the influx of newbies would clog up the bike lanes, already too few and too narrow.

“I just don’t see this becoming the new Amsterdam,” Chambers said.

Perhaps no one was more enthusiastic about the bikes than Pamela Potischman, 44, of Brooklyn. Her husband had paid a visit to Cambridge, encountered Hubway firsthand, and came home raving.

“It just seemed like this was so normal there,” Potischman said.

She acknowledged that there were quite a few themes of complaint swirling around New York City, but maintained confidence that concerns would be put to rest soon.

She took comfort in the similarities between Boston and New York.

“A lot of people are outraged,” Potischman said, “and I don’t know if it’s like that in Boston, but here in New York, you’ve got a lot of very loud people on both sides.”

But, she continued, “things always get worked out in the end.”

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the role Alta Bicycle Share had in Hubway in Boston and Citi Bike in New York. Alta operates the bikes and their accompanying software.

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