Touch of Class

New York City’s bike-share program adds an undeniable dose of civility to the neighborhoods where it’s available.

Having bicycles readily available to anyone with a credit or debit card at 332 New York City locations is a siren song to the clueless. People who should not be permitted to walk in New York City, let alone ride, suddenly have easy access to 6,000 shiny blue bikes. In one famous incident, some dimwit tried to ride a Citi Bike across the Brooklyn Bridge on the traffic-clogged roadway instead of on the elevated bike and pedestrian path.  Fortunately, Good Samaritans on the path above helped the poor schmo by hauling his 43-pound bike up from the roadway and over a fence. So, if you feel compelled to hate bike-sharing programs, there’s always a reason.

To me, however, this new transportation network has been a revelation. Since it opened for business in May, it has changed the character of the New York City neighborhoods where it’s available and infused the streets with an unprecedented civility. The first time I rode one of the Citibank-branded bikes, I felt as if I were astride something bigger, and in certain respects better, than my vintage three-speed. The bike feels substantial. Originally designed for Montreal’s Bixi system, this urban machine forces you to sit upright. There’s something almost stately about its ride. It has three speeds, and while the lower gears pretty much compensate for the bike’s heft, it never goes fast. A slower rider is, by definition, a more polite rider.

But even though the bikes don’t have the speed or maneuverability of the hipster’s beloved fixie, they can still be faster than any other means of transportation. “The bicycle itself is a time machine,” says Adam Greenfield, a designer and observer of urban systems, and author of a recent manifesto called “Against the Smart City.” Greenfield lives on the east side of Manhattan, in the Kips Bay neighborhood, many long blocks from the nearest subway. “It’s the single fastest way for me to get to the East Village, to the Lower East Side, to Chinatown.” 

But the beauty of the Citi Bike is not so much the bike—although I love its bungee-cord-equipped, handle-bar-mounted luggage rack, and its flashing LED lights (they remind me of the toy trucks Hess gas stations sell at Christmas)—but the system. As an annual member, I can stick my plastic key card in a rack a few blocks from my home in Williamsburg, pedal over the Williamsburg Bridge (getting passed by just about everyone), and dock it at West 21st Street and Sixth Avenue, near where I teach, and never have to think about it again. Very liberating.

Illustration by Jing Wei

 

The point is, this isn’t about bicycles. It’s about transit. Citi Bike adds another layer to New York City’s transportation infrastructure. Greenfield sees bike sharing as part of the emergence of a phenomenon he calls “transmobility,” in which “information is the substance of the new mobility.” What he means is that existing systems, like the buses, subways, streets, and sidewalks, are part of a larger network that now includes bikes. The various components are woven together by new navigation apps such as Citymapper that merge every form of transportation data into a single platform. “Together they form a field condition that helps people compose journeys in real time with an astonishing degree of suppleness and flexibility,” Greenfield says.

His argument is that bike sharing makes existing transit systems better. In the parlance of planning, bike sharing can take commuters “the last mile” from bus stop or subway station to home. At least 35 U.S. cities (and more than 500 worldwide) have implemented bike sharing; compared to conventional forms of transit, these systems are a bargain. “From a political perspective, it’s an extremely cheap way to make a lasting and high-profile mark on a city,” says Alison Cohen, director of bike-sharing services for Toole Design, a firm that specializes in planning for bicycles, pedestrians, and transit. “The amount you get for your investment in bike share is huge compared to expanding a subway system or building another mile of road.” She estimates that it costs about $10 million to get a 200-station bike-sharing system up and running (versus, say, $4.45 billion for the first mile and a half of New York City’s Second Avenue subway).

Citibank provided $41 million in sponsorship funds to purchase the Citi Bikes and stations; rider membership fees are expected to cover day-to-day operations.

Cohen says the trend is driven in part by federal aid from the U.S. government’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The list of cities now implementing bike sharing contains some surprises. “We did a business plan for Philadelphia,” Cohen says. “We did a feasibility study for Cleveland, Ohio; Birmingham, Alabama; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Frederick, Maryland. We’re assisting Las Vegas in their implementation.” Jing Wei

Unfortunately, bike sharing is still perceived as something elite and frivolous. “The data for who’s using bike share, not just in New York but all over the world, is not great,” notes Caroline Samponaro, senior director of campaigns and organizing for the New York City advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. “It doesn’t reflect the demographics of cities.” A 2012 user study of four systems—Toronto, Montreal, Washington, D.C., and the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul)—conducted by the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University, revealed that the systems predominantly appealed to a somewhat predictable group. Last year’s annual study of Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare said of its members: “Compared to all commuters in the region, they are, on average, considerably younger, more likely to be male, Caucasian, and highly educated, and slightly less affluent.” (Note that “slightly less affluent” does not mean poor; the bulk of D.C. member annual incomes are between $50,000 and $125,000.)

Samponaro is working with a number of neighborhood bike groups “trying to crack that affordability and access nut.” She points out that Citi Bike isn’t prohibitively expensive if you buy a $95 annual pass (compared to a day rate of $9.95 or a weekly rate of $25). And it’s even cheaper if you buy the $60 annual pass available to residents of public housing and members of certain community credit unions. But to take advantage of the discount, you have to know about it. The Citi Bike street kiosks just dispense daily and weekly passes, and the setup is not particularly user-friendly. My one attempt to use the kiosk (rather than my home computer, tablet, or phone) was undermined by sun glare and a screen positioned well below eye level.

Indeed, the problem with transmobility is that those without money and digital acumen get left behind. If you’re not part of the System with a capital S—if, like many people in this country, you can’t afford to have a bank account—you can’t use a bike sharing system either. And, for now, Citi Bike is only in Manhattan south of 59th Street and a few of the most prosperous Brooklyn neighborhoods. Real transit goes everywhere and is available to everyone. 

That said, I remember being in Paris shortly after the launch of Vélib’ in 2007 and watching Parisians blithely cycle through their city as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The Vélib’ riders didn’t exude any of the macho vibes I had associated with New York’s cyclists. They possessed a grace and fluidity. This fluidity is the thing I’ve observed—and felt—in New York City lately. 

Sure, the transition has been going on for decades. Back in the 1980s bike messengers and their kamikaze culture ruled the streets. In more recent years, the city’s Department of Transportation, under Janette Sadik-Khan, began redistributing the asphalt, and ridership among civilians spiked. If you pedal across the Williamsburg Bridge at 8:30 a.m. in decent weather, you’ll find yourself in a dense stream of bicycle traffic reminiscent of Amsterdam.

Now, when I cruise on one of the blue bikes through the heart of Manhattan, I feel as if I’ve pedaled into the city of the very near future. There’s a surprising sweetness and generosity to the whole premise. The introduction of bike sharing is transformational, and not just because it’s a brilliant marriage of high and low technologies. Or because it represents the mainstreaming of the bicycle as a real form of transportation. Bike sharing is transformational precisely because it encourages the clueless to ride. 

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