Deconstructing New York's Bike-Share Freak Out

Is the city really just "too mean" for shared bicycles?

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By the end of this month, New Yorkers should finally be able to start using Citi Bike, the city's long-delayed bike-share program. And thank goodness for that. For the last year, and even more so over the past several weeks since docking stations began to be installed all over the city, local media coverage has appeared to reflect something akin to a collective public meltdown over these bicycles. From the perspective of a city like Washington, D.C., where bike-share has not only been around for some time but proved to be a massive success, it's been a frustrating, if occasionally amusing, trajectory to watch unfold.

The bike-share doomsday scenarios dreamed up by New Yorkers, no doubt spurred on by the city's uniquely outraged tabloid newspaper culture, have ranged from funny to familiar. As a card-carrying member of Capital Bikeshare, it's been tempting to roll my eyes at every paranoid iteration, every incensed exclamation point, but the truth is that D.C. saw its share of bike-share blowback when the program first rolled out here. Any Washingtonians who've forgotten need only re-read my former colleague Dave Jamieson's account of the Lincoln Park docking station debate, complete with adults shouting expletives and publicly sobbing, to remind themselves. When big change comes to any big city, it's natural that our fears, however irrational, will get stirred up.

So it's in a spirit of helpfulness (and OK, maybe a dash of mockery) that I attempt to allay some of the most out-there bike-share related nightmares of New Yorkers. America's largest city only has a few weeks left to make specious claims about a yet-launched program many of them don't seem to understand. Let's see if we can end the madness on the early side.

Claim #1: Citi Bike is too expensive.

This was one of the earliest complaints about the program, dating back to when it was first announced. The whole thing got kicked off when Reuters blogger Felix Salmon wrote a story based on the faulty premise that many New Yorkers would want to take bike-share bicycles out for several hours at a time, for recreational jaunts around say, Governor’s Island. In fact, this is not at all what bike-share programs are designed to facilitate. Bike-share bikes are heavy and slow and aren't actually that fun to ride, for good reason: They're for transportation. They're designed to be picked up at one docking station and ridden directly to another station. Bike-share just isn't a good replacement for a personal bicycle for cycling fans who want to ride around all day for exercise and enjoyment. Bike-share is a good replacement for short-to-medium subway and taxi rides. Citi Bike's pricing scheme for annual memberships is about $20 more than D.C.'s, so sure, it's a little more expensive. But the idea that it's costly is just wrong. Used the way it's intended, bike-share tends to save people money: If a $95 annual membership replaces just one $10 taxi ride a week, it pays for itself in under three months.

Claim #2: Bike-share is too dangerous for New York.

The City of New York does have plenty more work to do to create safer streets for cyclists. But there's zero evidence that the addition of thousands more bicycles on the street will make the situation any less safe. If anything, the opposite is true. There's been zero cases of a rise in the number of bicycle-related fatalities or injuries in other cities with bike-share programs. And study after study has shown not only that the concept of "safety in numbers" holds true for cycling (more bicycles on the street leads drivers to be more aware of cyclists, leading to reduced crash rates), but the street design strategies that attract bike riders, which New York has been and is continuing to deploy, are also the same ones that improve road safety for all users. Bike-share is just one part of a larger set of principles cities all over the world have been using, successfully, to increase safety on their streets. Arguing that installing bike-share will make road safety worse is like saying that crime gets worse when population density increases. We already know that's not true.

Claim #3: The stations are too ugly for historic neighborhoods, and Citibank's sponsorship is too crassly commercial.

These are just some of the claims behind a series of lawsuits that are already in the works, brought by specific building owners who argue that docking stations don't belong next to their beautiful buildings. They're also worried that delivery truck access may be impeded by the presence of some stations. The lawsuits are being filed within the context of additional complaints that neighbors feel they weren't consulted on the location of some stations, despite the city's department of transportation having held nearly 400 meetings on station locations with community boards and other neighborhood groups. This is a classic NIMBY reaction, and by far the easiest one the city could have predicted. The idea that bike-share infrastructure is somehow uglier or more commercial than any other element of New York's streetscape is easy enough to debunk. But the truth is, one of the best things about the design of the Alta bike-share stations is how easy they are to install and, if need be, later remove. It's entirely possible that small problems with the specific locations of some stations will become apparent after the program launches, and they'll need to be moved around the corner or across the street to better serve users. This has happened here in Washington, D.C., and it'll happen for sure in New York. But that's all part of the bike-share roll-out process. If there's a legitimate problem with the location of a single station, that can actually be fixed within in a matter of hours or at worst, a day or two.

Claim #4: The stations are taking away valuable car parking spots.

Yep. Guilty. That's kind of the point, actually. This argument's a loser on the merits. The city is making bicycle infrastructure a priority over automobile infrastructure, a decision that they've hardly tried to cover up. If you disagree with the mayor on this one, your best bet would have been to vote him out of office a few years ago.

Claim #5: Citi Bike hurts street vendors.

Could be! Again, it comes down to priorities for the city government. If street vendors are forced to move around the corner from their established locations thanks to new bike docking stations, that looks like a choice the Bloomberg administration is willing to make.

Claim #6: New York is "too mean" for bike-share.

That quote comes from a New York Times story about some of the recent docking station-related fury, but its aim is the concept of shared bicycles in general. The idea here, I suppose, is that the particular character of New Yorkers is somehow a bad fit for a system that relies on its customers being reasonable and considerate. After spending several days reading all the breathless coverage of various bike-share "scandals" in the city, it's tempting to agree. But of course it's not remotely true. Every day New Yorkers do perfectly normal things like say hello to their neighbors, calmly enter and exit crowded subway cars, check out and return public library books, and responsibly use amenities like public parks. New Yorkers can handle a few thousand bicycles. And months from now, when they get used to the new system and start to see as it for what it actually is — one more choice in a whole spectrum of urban transportation options — we'll get to watch as neighborhoods begin to beg to get a docking station of their own.

About the Author

  • Sommer Mathis is editor of CityLab. Previously she spent five years editing and reporting on the D.C. metro area at DCist.com and TBD.com.