A bike-skeptical New Yorker's journey toward acceptance.
New York stands, but only barely. Monday's opening of the Citi Bike bike-share program saw thousands of velo-maniacs tear-assing around town with no regard for law or life. They shouted at old ladies, they frightened children; a purveyor of frozen ices nearly lost his head. And as soon as one of the 6,000 ungainly bikes was returned to one of the 300 hideous docking stations, it was stolen by thieves who, by nightfall, had begun a brisk black market – funds from which are surely funding terrorism. It is as bad as the New York Post predicted. No, it is worse. So disastrous has bike-share already been for New York that many of its residents are decamping for Philadelphia.
I hope I'm not slathering on the sarcasm too thickly. It's only that suspicion of Citi Bike here in New York grew to previously unimaginable heights as the program's Monday launch date – which had been delayed several times – neared. Some of this was based on a reflexive dislike of Mayor Bloomberg, who lacks the charisma New Yorkers expect from their mayor but is a wonk in the best possible sense, pursuing public policy that may not be popular but is likely to be beneficial, starting with 2003's smoking ban. Even less popular is his transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, whose promotion of pedestrian plazas and bike lanes had some fearing that Gotham was to become a genteel, Europeanized burg on the order of Copenhagen.
I'm guilty of some of that fear-mongering myself. In the fall of 2012, I wrote a column for the New York Daily News decrying the expectations for Sadik-Khan's pro-bicycle agenda in New York as having "outpaced reality." I came to that conclusion after a harrowing 70-mile bike ride through four out of five boroughs that culminated in a near-collision with a car. The whole experience led me to declare that my personal bicycle would be left "reposing in the basement" for the foreseeable future.
I may have been wrong. Or, maybe, the city is finally getting its act together and committing to two-wheeled transport that is both safe and accessible. It's too early to tell how the bike-share project – sponsored by Citibank, which paid some $41 million for naming rights – will fare in a city where urban planning is a blood-sport engaged in by millions. But having spent several hours riding through Brooklyn and Manhattan on the new shared bicycles – the only two boroughs that have docking stations thus far – I think that we're going to be okay. More than okay, in fact.
After receiving my annual pass, which entitles me to unlimited 45-minute trips for a yearly fee of $95 (daily and weekly options are also available, though they don't start until June 2 and their trips are limited to 30 minutes), I ventured to the nearest docking station, where some tugging had me ready to roll, so to speak. Within minutes of getting on the intentionally clunky bike, I was getting plaudits and eager questions from New Yorkers whenever I stopped at an intersection (and a helpful sticker between the handlebars reminds riders to follow all traffic rules): Hey, where do you get one of these? How much do they cost? I tallied two thumbs-up within the first five minutes of riding through the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. That's two more thumbs-up than the average New Yorker gets in a lifetime.
Indeed, New Yorkers were audibly, incontrovertibly excited about the bikes. At the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, I heard one Citi Bike rider gleefully explain to two strangers how he was going to now start biking to work. A gentleman in the East Village informed me that the bike looked "dorky" – which I am pretty sure he meant as a compliment. Families congregated around the docking stations as if these were artifacts dropped from space. In front of a Trader Joe's in Chelsea, a Citi Bike employee worked the docking station with obvious pride, capably answering the legion questions of passersby. Most everyone I saw regarded the stations with a felicitous curiosity.
Credit the Bloomberg technocrats for thinking this through, for studying bike-share programs in Paris, Montreal, and Washington, D.C., for what to copy and what to avoid. The front wheel of the bikes is locked into the docking station with a heavy-seeming padlock, which makes theft unlikely. And I may be putting too much faith in my fellow man, but I suspect that almost no one would possibly want to spend his or her time trying to steal and subsequently peddle these clunky things. Of course, the bikes' girth and utter lack of sexiness – they are about as sleek as an oil tanker – are also strategic. Citi Bike is for tourists who want to pedal gently down the Hudson River Greenway, for Brooklynites making their lazy way to the Prospect Park farmers' market. After puttering up the on-ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge, I decided that this was not the sort of bike one used for the Alpine section of the Tour de France. Others will surely come to the same conclusion, which is precisely the point.
But the fact that the neutered bikes only feature three speeds and a simplistic front basket pales in comparison to the benefit of that prominent Citibank logo. Not only because such private-public partnerships (no taxpayer dollars went into Citi Bike) are sensible, but because the program clearly has the imprimatur of both City Hall and Wall Street. Even when I rode through treacherous parts of Manhattan – 14th Street; Canal Street – I felt protected by the forces of officialdom. For too long, cyclists have been renegades in the city. Accordingly, bike accident deaths are treated as the products of a culture of recklessness that does not belong in New York. But now that visitors from Omaha will be making their way down Broadway on two wheels, I suspect their mode of transportation will be taken a lot more seriously by both the police department and ordinary New Yorkers, especially those who drive – and especially those who drive with a piggish entitlement that has no place in a 21st century city.
Not that it's all good: Bloomberg and JSK like to tout the 300 miles of bike lanes they have created in the last half-decade, but many of these remain either incomplete, disconnected from each other or blithely abused by drivers and pedestrians. All too often, they are all three. And, for now, the docking stations are only to be found in the tonier parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan. I believe that bike-share won't be truly successful until Irish-American youngsters in the upper Bronx and Afro-Caribbean matrons in Eastern Queens feel just as comfortable with Citi Bike as my brethren in brownstone Brooklyn.
But as far as beginnings go, Citi Bike could not have had a more auspicious one. After several miserable days of autumnal rain, New Yorkers would have ridden roller skates. As it happened, we got a beautiful day and a bike-share program that, at least for now, has confirmed hopes while dispelling fears.