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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 disagrees with 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?



  1. March 24, 2014 7:53 pm

    I think that if you averaged the subsidies going into roads-bridges, subways, buses, ferries and heliports and came up with a cost-per-mile travelled, Bike Share should be subsidized with the exact same amount. Hashtag-Mode-Neutrality.

  2. March 25, 2014 12:34 pm

    Bloomberg’s best – although perhaps most dangerous – quality was that he didn’t live in the past. Hizzoner never said, “Crap, well maybe John Lindsay shouldn’t have zoned this area that way, then we wouldn’t have this stupid vacant triangle”; instead, he said, “This is what I’m dealing with – let’s put a public space there.”

    I’m hopeful that BDB will do whatever needs to be done to keep this transportation option viable, despite whatever promises were made in the past. (Hey, at least we don’t have to fight for home rule!)

  3. TOM permalink
    March 25, 2014 10:56 pm

    All the secrecy to now has left us without any idea of what to expect next; therefore, we must wait for clarity.
    I”m sure there are a lot of surprises coming yet. In the meantime let’s keep our collective wallet secured as we catch up with those Canadian newspapers. A lot of information there.


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