Touch of Class

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

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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

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