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The Long View

October 3, 2012

Surprising no one, Alta Bicycle Share just won Portland’s $4 million bike share contact.  Jonathan Maus at Bike Portland has an interview with Mia Birk of Alta Planning + Design, who offers a tiny slice of insight into Citi Bike’s delay.  Birk says that New York’s “software testing is going well, and we’re on schedule for the March launch.”  She also mentions that her experience in government and planning has taught her that “It’s not surprising that things have taken longer than initially envisioned.”

Officials tend to publicly pick launch dates before having everything worked through. For example, funding issues — often a mix of federal and local dollars and sponsorship — tend to create a longer timeframe than officials (and the public) initially hope for. Capital Bike Share launched quickly because they had all government money and DC as a unique sovereign entity had complete control of the funding. The other cities don’t have that; most are using federal dollars that flow through state DOTs and/or regional agencies –with very complex and challenging bureaucratic requirements – AND they are raising private funds as well. In NYC, which wanted a completely privately financed system, we had to secure not just an underwriting sponsor but a large bank loan. It’s awesome that we were able to do this in such a short amount of time, as anyone involved in fundraising will tell you, and a real testament to the dedication and brilliance of Janette Sadik-Khan and ABS [Alta Bicycle Share] President Alison Cohen.

Then, besides sorting out funding issues, you also have to do site plans and secure permits, hire staff, buy equipment, and work though a long list of hundreds of other details. In other words, short delays are not surprising given the complexity of issues. We try to take a long view, and believe that it’s important to get it right on the front end in order to ensure long-term success.

I know Birk is toeing the company line here and isn’t likely to give much more info than what we already know, but I agree with her about the long view.  This time next year no one will remember the six-month delay.

UPDATE 11:33 AM: After chatting with a DOT contact, I should add that much of what Birk is talking about here does not apply to NYC.  Almost all of the siting issues surrounding Citi Bike have already been worked out with community boards, City Council Members, the MTA, private property owners and other stakeholders.  Once the software issue has been worked out, getting the system up and running will be as simple dropping the stations into place.  The bigger point, that the “long view” is what matters in the end, stills stands.

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8 Comments
  1. Concerned permalink
    October 4, 2012 5:35 pm

    Theres one other issue: Supply of stations and bikes. The Boston expansion, slated for Spring, didnt begin until August. Its October, and theyre putting out 4 stations every other week. Meaning their promised expansion wont be done before the pack of for winter. Another broken promise. Id be shocked if “phase 1” of the NYC rollout is done by July.

  2. October 6, 2012 7:00 pm

    Committing to unrealistic schedules in order to secure government contracts is hardly what I would call “taking the long view”. Alta took damage to their reputation in Boston and has repeated the mistake with more eyes on them in New York. Our DOT should have been more skeptical; other cities must be thinking, “fool me twice…”.

    Portland can be forgiven for knowing Ms. Birk personally, but it’s going to be a little awkward if their bike share is a year late too. What will they blame then—the rain?

  3. October 6, 2012 10:42 pm

    Mia Birk is correct that these large scale projects are complex. This is why smart companies don’t parade their products around town and host press events with people like Mayor Bloomberg and Vikram Pandit announcing “we’re ready to go” when they really are not. They also don’t ask ordinary people to help them at community board meetings or planning workshops when a launch isn’t going to happen.

    In her statement above Ms. Birk offers a pretty standard “it’s complicated” press statement with some obligatory praise for the DOT commissioner who helped Alta secure its contract. What Birk should really be offering is an apology to the people of New York who she let down. We haven’t heard that at all.

  4. October 7, 2012 12:19 pm

    I’m in agreement that DOT and Alta painted themselves into a corner by announcing a firm launch date. It was boneheaded, in my view, to commit to anything specific when we all know that even renovating a bathroom in City Hall can take more than six weeks. I’ve been a vocal critic of their press strategy and even think they may have made a mistake by saying the launch will happen in March. Spring 2013 might have been a safer announcement in order to avoid “Bike Snare” New York Post headlines and to account for the Rumsfeldian “known unknowns.”

    But my larger point — and this is where I’m in complete agreement with Birk — is that the long view is very important, especially as it concerns biking and transportation.

    Does the average New Yorker know when individual subway lines launched or the politics behind knitting together various private systems? No. All they know is that the subway system exists and (mostly) takes them where they want to go. If you just moved to Prospect Park West in the last year, you’d have no idea that the great bike lane in front of your apartment was/is hated by a few cranks. You’d just hop on your bike and ride down to the library.

    But I think the same will hold true with bike share down the line. Yes, DOT and Alta royally messed up the launch. But six weeks, six months, six years after it launches… will anyone really remember or care about the missteps we’re arguing about now?

  5. October 11, 2012 12:21 am

    I don’t know, brooklynspoke, it seems I could steal $50 from you and ask you to take “the long view” about that too. In 6 years, who will remember the $50 I stole? We’ll all be riding around on 40,000 citibikes, happy as can be.

    I feel that Birk reduces the phrase to a platitude in an effort to shrug off responsibility, and doesn’t deserve any help in that effort. They pay good money for that in PR.

    • October 16, 2012 10:56 am

      The analogy doesn’t fit. Theft is wrong and not something one merely waits out or gets over, especially if it’s a large sum.

      Bike share wasn’t stolen from us; it didn’t even exist as an idea not too long ago. Then it did, but it wasn’t necessarily coming to NYC. Then it was announced. Then delayed…twice. That’s unfortunate, but the only thing that was taken from anyone was an idea.

      My life hasn’t changed as a result of bike share not existing before and still not existing today. It would if you took $50 from me.

      We “Inside Baseball” types may have long memories, but the average commuter probably doesn’t know very much about this and won’t really care. If someone takes a taxi every day from Grand Central to Wall Street, does he care about the TLC and the history of livery cabs or does he care about how many drivers waiting for him when he gets off the train?

      Birk’s PR-speak is a different story, of course.

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