When New York City announced the sponsor and price structure of its new bike share program this week, I expected general happiness to ensue, especially from my friends who ride bikes around town and who care about making the city’s streets safer for non-car transportation.
There was a lot of positive feedback in my Facebook and Twitter feeds, it’s true. But there was also a fair amount of grumbling from people I know. They weren’t necessarily upset about the pricing, which got so much negative attention in the mainstream news, but is truly kind of a red herring.
No, this other line of criticism was about the corporate sponsors – Citibank and MasterCard – and the model of privatized management of what is being billed as a public transportation service that will put 10,000 bikes at 600 stations around town by next spring.
The private financing model was one of the selling points of the bike-share program from the beginning, with both Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, emphasizing repeatedly that it was being implemented “at no cost to taxpayers,” and that if the system ever turns a profit, the city will get a share. Citigroup is ponying up $41 million over five years, and MasterCard is chipping in $6.5 million. (Alta Bicycle Share is building and operating the system.)
It wasn’t until the actual sponsor was announced and the “CitiBikes” fleet, in the corporation’s trademark blue, was unveiled that people started getting upset about it. One friend posted this on his Facebook page:
One day NYC will have truly public bicycle sharing, until then we'll have a bank branded bike share. The ironies are not lost on many of us.
Another friend recalled the arrest last fall of Occupy Wall Street protesters at a Citibank branch. Yet another, who lives in Queens – which was left out of the first round of stations to roll out this summer -- said he was offended by the clustering of bike share stations in Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn. “I did not realize that this was a bike share for white rich New York,” he said.
And the sponsorship by a bank that received $45 billion in bailout funds from the federal government (since repaid) was especially galling to him: “It’s like they’re throwing a penny at us from a tower,” he said.
Yep, CitiGroup has an image problem. They want to help fix it by having smiling, happy people ride around on bikes that scream out their logo. Here’s how I feel about it: all day, every day, as I walk and ride around the city, advertisements for dozens of products and multinational corporations are drilling themselves into my brain. This particular ad will at least help me move my butt from one part of New York to the other.
I agree, it’s troubling that we are relying on corporations to finance public infrastructure. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been striving to shore up faltering ad revenues in recent years by selling space on station walls and even wrapping whole trains in ads. Our bus shelters and newsstands are the products of Cemusa, a Spanish ad corporation that paid the city $1.5 billion for the right to erect the structures and sell ads on them.
Is all of this advertising turning our city into a corporate dystopia like the one in the brilliant animated short Logorama? Not quite yet, I don't think. And considering how hard it is to get the federal and local governments to pay anything at all for non-motorized transportation, I can hardly blame the city for aggressively seeking other sources of revenue.
In the case of bike share, it’s hard for me to imagine a political environment in which the city would have been able to pay for “truly public bicycle sharing.” Maybe some years down the road, after the system has had the bugs worked out and has proven its worth, we can hope for that. After all, let’s remember that the New York City subway system started out as a private enterprise.