Jul 20, 201309:00 AMPoint of View

Not Just For Kicks

Not Just For Kicks

Courtesy Citi Bike

As usual, I had spent too much time doing one more thing before I needed to leave for a 6:30 pm event at the German Consulate, up by the United Nations at 49th Street and First Avenue. The clock on my desk phone said 6:15 pm. Darn! How could I possibly get there on time, from my 7th floor office near Union Square at Irving Place and 14th Street?

The 6 train up to 51st Street and Park Avenue would be reasonably quick. But after waiting for the train, once at 51st Street, I would still have to walk several long avenues over to the East River. Realistically this could take 45 minutes. What to do?

To the rescue, New York City's new bike sharing system. I hadn’t planned on it, but necessity brought it to mind. I left my office and walked one block to 16th Street and Irving, and checked out a blue bike, using my little blue fob that comes with my annual pass. I bicycled calmly over to First Avenue, and then up to the bike station at 47th Street. I looked at my phone: 6:35 pm. (The citibikenyc web site, which keeps a record of your “trips,” later told me my ride had lasted 16 minutes and two seconds.) I was a bit late to my event, but just a bit.
This was not the first time the city’s new bike sharing plan had saved my bacon, or simply made my life easier. A few days earlier I left an appointment at West 13th Street and Nineth Avenue. I needed to run an errand over at Second Avenue and St. Marks Place in the East Village. How to get there? Any subway route would mean multiple transfers. Walking would take a while too. On the Citibike, it took me 13 minutes. And there was a station right near my destination.

As the city’s new bike system approaches its one-month anniversary, what’s become apparent is that it is no mere amenity. While it does provide tourists with a casual way to get around and see the sights, for locals the service will quickly become a new necessity, I predict. The program expands the range of the city available to us. On a bike that I can pick up and drop off things as needed, I can reach places I normally wouldn’t consider traveling to, or go to familiar destinations more easily and quickly.
But all this depends on the program becoming accepted. And that means winning converts, expanding it to more parts of the city, and ironing out any kinks in the system, which there will surely be.

Meanwhile, there are signs, at least for me, that the program is changing city life in more subtle ways. I find that I cycle more calmly and more respectfully on the blue public bicycles. I am less tempted to run a red light, for example, something I confess to having done. This is partly because on the low bikes with step-through frame, I can easily put my legs down and feet out and wait comfortably for a light to change. But it’s also because I feel I’m representing the city, and I want to set a good example. Am I the only person who feels this way?
Beside the behavior of cyclists, the behavior of drivers may change for the better as well. Will the sight of gentle travelers on blue bicycles make drivers more respectful of cyclists in general? It’s a reasonable hope.

Alex Marshall is a longtime contributor to Metropolis Magazine and a Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association, on whose website a version of this originally appeared. His latest book is The Surprising Design of Market Economies.

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