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Should New York City subsidize its bike share system?

March 24, 2014

The reaction in the general press, blogosphere, and on social media to the Wall Street Journal’s report that Citi Bike is losing millions of dollars has been nothing if not predictable. While the report itself, ridiculous charts notwithstanding, was fair, many took the opportunity to proclaim, “We told you New York wasn’t Paris!”  Those whose dire predictions about bike share failed to materialize — No one will use it!  The streets will run red with the blood of tourists! Traffic will snarl to a halt! No driver will ever find a parking space again! — have been especially prone to gloating.

At least in the days before Citi Bike launched one could blame the hysteria on casual ignorance or a fear of the unknown. This time around the schadenfreude being enjoyed by some of the city’s biggest bike haters requires a unique detachment from reality.  Indeed, the old NIMBY prediction that the bikes would only be used by tourists is perhaps the most ironic and detached of all, since it’s the relative imbalance of annual member use to day- and week-pass sales that seems to be among Citi Bike’s bigger financial problems.

While there are many things that need to be worked out before anyone can honestly answer what will happen with Citi Bike, there’s a more philosophical question at play right now, and that is whether or not New York City’s bike share system should be subsidized. Rational questions about the relative merits of subsidizing ferries over bike share aside, for those who let their dislike for bikes cloud all rational judgment, the answer seems to be no.

So what are the arguments against subsidizing bike share that are floating around out there? They seem to boil down to five things:

1. “But Bloomberg promised!”

It is true that Mike Bloomberg and Janette Sadik-Khan went to great lengths to emphasize that zero taxpayer dollars would go into Citi Bike.  In fact, here’s what the mayor said a year before it launched:

“Citi Bike won’t require any city or federal tax subsidy to operate the system,” Bloomberg said, before pausing for dramatic effect. “I think that bears repeating. We are getting an entirely new transportation network without spending any taxpayer money. Who thought that that could be done?

Bloomberg promised a lot of things, but time, circumstances, and, of course,  mayors change.  Bill de Blasio’s entire campaign was premised on the idea that certain policies of the Bloomberg administration were, at best, misguided and, at worst, bad for the city. Put Citi Bike on that spectrum wherever you like, but it’s fair for the city to re-evaluate whether its bike share system needs to be self-sustaining and whether it ought to be measured using the same yardstick that’s applied to other public infrastructure.

2. “Citi Bike is horribly run! Why should the mayor offer to fund something that’s in such disarray?”

The city should not subsidize Citi Bike until it can conduct a thorough audit of its operations, cash flow, and other details related to Alta and NYC Bike Share, LLC. And no serious advocate thinks that either. The current management should be given a serious chance to turn the ship around or, if it comes to it, step out of the way and let another company run it before the city thinks about subsidies.

3. “I don’t want my taxpayer dollars supporting something I don’t use!”

That’s not how taxes work.

4. “I don’t want my tax dollars supporting a rolling billboard for Citibank!”

There is something icky about having to brand what should otherwise be considered a public good. But the protected bike lane to that public good being branded went directly through a lot of heavy anti-bike sentiment, leading us to where we are right now.

New York City’s bikelash was at a fever pitch between 2010 and 2012, and it undoubtedly influenced the decision to make the bike share system go it alone.  It’s certainly understandable that Bill “I’m a motorist” de Blasio may be wary about opening up a Pandora’s Box of bike hate, but as I noted above, times change.  The same people who today are saying they don’t want the city to subsidize Citi Bike are the same people who last year complained about Citi’s sponsorship.  You can’t please everyone, but now that bike share is a part of the fabric of New York City, there are probably fewer people you can’t please.  Citi Bike was the nail in the bikelash’s coffin anyway, and my guess is that subsidizing it would result in about a week’s worth of tabloid whining before the city rushes headlong, like Kübler-Ross on steroids, to acceptance.

I get that bright blue bikes rolling around town are an affront to the sensitive sensibilities of “real” taxpaying New Yorkers.  But taxpayers subsidize all sorts things, from sports stadiums to parking garages for sports stadiums, that benefit private companies.  In fact, there’s one giant advertisement for a bank just down the street from my apartment that received copious tax breaks and real estate handouts from the city not so long ago. For a fraction of the cost of those giveaways, the city could subsidize a transportation system that helps tens of thousands of New Yorkers get to work, go to school, go shopping, and otherwise live their lives.

5. “I hate bikes because they’re dangerous and take previous parking spaces and these damn hipster transplants are ruining everything with their gentrification and five-dolalr coffee leading to the the downfall of New York City and it all started with Bloomturd and czarina Sadist-Con and her socialism don’t they know this isn’t Paris BLLLAAAARRRRGHHH!!!!!”

Sorry, but I can’t help you.  Might I suggest a Citi Bike membership?

 

 

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Hope Springs Eternal

March 20, 2014

After a brutal winter, spring began with pleasant temperatures that made it an almost ideal day for biking.  And the city’s streets did not disappoint, teeming with people on bikes just getting from A to B.  While it’s still common to see the high-viz, helmeted road warriors of yesteryear’s bike culture blazing a path down an avenue, these days New York’s bicycle ecosystem seems to be evolving in a positively Dutch or Danish direction.

This woman on Prince Street looks like she rode right off of an SAS flight that just landed at JFK. Squint and you might think you’re standing on Copenhagen’s Nørrebrogade.

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 9.53.54 PM

And this father/daughter duo waiting for the light at 6th Avenue and Bleecker Street scores points not only for style, but for ingenuity, too. How about that custom wooden seat and rear rack?

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We still have a long way to go when it comes to making our streets safe for style mavens and regular Joes and Janes, but on this first day of spring the future is looking bright.

I’m no Mikael Colville-Andersen, but I play one on Instagram.

NIMBY Quote of the Day

March 20, 2014

Here’s a gem from F.H. “Not Without My Parking” Buckley, writing in the American Spectator:

“Then there are the cyclists. Backed by powerful lobbies, they knew what they wanted and they were ruthless. Some keyed our cars, stole our ‘NO BIKE LANE’ signs, physically threatened one of us. They’re not from the neighborhood, but in city-wide elections that doesn’t matter. They also don’t have lives, jobs, families. What they have are their bicycles and an inexhaustible desire to attend community meetings.”

Buckley has me dead to rights. I was born not to parents, but rather assembled by a Dutchman from various bicycle parts to resemble a real human being. I don’t work, but eagerly await my monthly check from the All-Powerful Bicycle Lobby.  And don’t get me started about community meetings.  My desire for attending them is can never be satiated.

It’s funny. Back when some of the Prospect Park West madness began, I attended my first Community Board 6 meeting. This was sometime before NBBL had filed their lawsuit. After I spoke in support of the lane, some of the NBBL members asked me where I lived. When I replied that I lived on Fourth Avenue, I was told by one member, “Go back to Fourth Avenue!”

Anyhoo, aren’t cyclists ka-ray-zee?

The More Things Change

March 17, 2014

In a story by Isabel Vincent and Melissa Klein with additional reporting by Kate Briquelet, the New York Post describes the extraordinary efforts to prevent a Citi Bike docking station from being installed in front of Manhattan’s Appellate Courthouse on 25th Street and Madison Avenue.

Susanna Rojas, the clerk of the court, “threw a tantrum” when she saw “No Parking” signs indicating the station would be placed just outside the courthouse doors, an insider told The Post.

The station would displace prime parking for Presiding Justice Luis Gonzalez — who has his space blocked off daily with orange cones by a court officer — and other workers.

Rojas ordered court officers to take down the Department of Transportation’s “No Parking” signs, the insider said. Then signs went up again across 25th Street from the courthouse.

While ordering officers of the court to remove legally installed traffic signs is an audacious move — not to mention the selfish entitlement of reserving an on-street parking spot for a private individual every day — give Susanna Rojas credit for admitting her motivations honestly. It’s rare that the true reason for most anti-bike sentiment shows up in a story like this, since it’s typically masked by false claims about safety or by the idea that bike lanes ruin the historic character of a New York City neighborhoodblock, or landmark.  If I had a nickel for every time someone claimed that bicycles “don’t fit the neighborhood,” I could afford to expand Citi Bike and rename it for myself.

Of course, later in the story this claim does come through from an unidentified employee of the court.

A court worker said the issue was less about lost parking spots than about the bright blue bikes emblazoned with the bank’s logo marring the look of the landmark courthouse.

“In this particular debate, the court is on the side of good, truth and justice,” the staffer said. “This is about desecration.”

“Desecration.”

Construction on the Appellate Courthouse building began in the mid to late 1890s. The building opened in 1899. Here’s a picture:

appellatecourthouse1899 (1)

Image via Daytonian in Manhattan

Note the brownstones that surround the courthouse on every side. But flash forward to 2014 and here’s what you’ll find:

appellatecourthouse2014

The brownstones are gone, replaced by office towers and high-rise apartment buildings. The streets now have traffic and pedestrian signals, parked cars, electric streetlights, and, of course a heavy dose of motor vehicles.

But at least there’s no Citi Bike station desecrating this 19th-century landmark.

Tonight: Reimagine Jay Street!

March 10, 2014

ReimagineJay

When it comes to my ride to work, Jay Street is what I consider a necessary evil. I’d rather avoid the mess of double-parked cars, u-turning police vehicles, and bottlenecked buses, but there’s no better direct route for getting to the Manhattan Bridge from where I live.  So, I, like so many other people who bike to work — not to mention the many pedestrians, transit users, and drivers who use the street as well — take a deep breath and hope for the best.

But as we’ve learned over the past few years, hoping for the best is a waiting game that’s not worth playing. Tonight you have a chance to do something about Jay Street. Lend your voice, ideas, suggestions, complaints, and full-on Dutch-inspired fantasies to a fantastic workshop that many hope will be the first major step toward redesigning this corridor.

Jay Street is the elephant in the room when it comes to bike safety in downtown Brooklyn and Vision Zero in general, affecting people from many different neighborhoods. What winds up working there could have big impacts on the rest of the city.  A huge show of support — which means bodies in the room — will go a long way toward fixing Jay Street for everyone and making a better city.

Reimagine Jay Street is tonight at 6:30 PM at 1 Metro Tech. The good news is that it’s on Jay Street, which is on your way home.

Tonight: Speak up for a safer Lafayette Street

March 6, 2014
There's plenty of room for a protected bike lane on Lafayette Street.

There’s plenty of room for a protected bike lane on Lafayette Street.

Tonight, the Traffic and Transportation Committee of Manhattan’s Community Board 2 will hear a presentation from DOT on upgrading the Lafayette Street bike lane from a buffered lane, as pictured above, to a parking-protected lane from Spring Street to 14th Street.  It’s kind of a no-brainer, as the real estate is certainly there and little will change about the access drivers have to the street.

But despite great leadership on this committee, nothing can be taken for granted.  My last experience with CB2, while positive in many regards, showed me how even the most basic pieces of bike infrastructure still face giant hurdles.  Plus, it’s not just about the bike.  Time and time again, protected bike lanes have improved safety for everyone on the street, including drivers and pedestrians.  Seeing as how this proposal represents the first parking-protected bike lane of the Vision Zero era and one of the most significant safety upgrades early in 2014, it would be nice for livable streets advocates to show up in abundance to support the agency that’s leading the charge.

Community Board 2′s Traffic and Transportation Committee meets tonight at 6:30 at the NYU Silver Building, 32 Waverly Place, Room 520. (I.D. required to enter building.)

“Mobility and safety at the same time.”

February 28, 2014

With New York City looking to Sweden as the inspiration for its Vision Zero plan, it’s worth asking what Sweden actually did to lower traffic fatality and injury rates. What balance should be struck between engineering, enforcement, and education?  The Economist takes a closer look:

Planning has played the biggest part in reducing accidents. Roads in Sweden are built with safety prioritised over speed or convenience. Low urban speed-limits, pedestrian zones and barriers that separate cars from bikes and oncoming traffic have helped. Building 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) of “2+1″ roads—where each lane of traffic takes turns to use a middle lane for overtaking—is reckoned to have saved around 145 lives over the first decade of Vision Zero. And 12,600 safer crossings, including pedestrian bridges and zebra-stripes flanked by flashing lights and protected with speed-bumps, are estimated to have halved the number of pedestrian deaths over the past five years. Strict policing has also helped: now less than 0.25% of drivers tested are over the alcohol limit. Road deaths of children under seven have plummeted—in 2012 only one was killed, compared with 58 in 1970.

As the article notes, Sweden isn’t at zero traffic deaths yet, although it has cut the number of people killed on its roads in half since the year 2000.

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