Looking Over the Bike Share Gift Horse

Central Park users rub shoulders with cars on the main loop road until 7PM on weekdays, even though Olmsted and Vaux’s 1857 park design is predicated on sunken transverse roads to block out the sight and sound of street traffic. It’s hard to say what’s worse; the exhaust sucked into lungs of joggers or the nullification of a planned and celebrated refuge from the streets. The deference to cars is striking, given that most New Yorkers don’t own one and under a quarter of Manhattan households do.

Move it over, city folk; cars coming through! An advertisement in a 1909 issue of Life magazine aims at city dwellers, the logical market when the great majority of Americans, and certainly those of means, lived in cities.

On July 8, 1909, the New York Times published this illustration of “The New Fifth Avenue: New York City’s Greatest Driveway,” showing its planned widening by fifteen feet for vehicles. The image is a reminder that New York wasn’t conceived around the demands of the automobile, and it shows the pedestrian literally losing ground. The choice to widen Fifth Avenue, then more associated with the carriage trade than delivery trucks, suggests an upper class invested in the automobile.

The proletarian Model T notwithstanding, cars remained a luxury well into the twentieth century. In 1925’s The Great Gatsby, a rich man is driven by his mistress in a luxury car; they mow down a lower class victim and leave the scene. The circumstances of their hit-and-run were still a potent class commentary in 1987 when they were replicated in another quintessential New York novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. The available range of car models has long been a matter not of varied needs, but of gradations of style finely calibrated in response to the social status and aspirations of the market. Trading up from a Chevy to a Buick is about much more than finishes. In the context of such ingrained class sensitivity, having cars displaced by mere bicycles is bound to be apocalyptic. Status goes a long way toward explaining the hysteria over the bike share docking stations for New York’s new Citi Bike system.

It’s impossible to bicycle in New York without feeling engaged in class warfare. When I first bought a bike to ride to work, I picked up a guidebook to cycling basics and was puzzled to find a chapter on activism. My puzzlement lasted exactly as long as it took to find out my compact new bike wasn’t allowed on any elevator at work. Cars may be welcome in Central Park against history’s and Olmsted’s intentions, but my bike wasn’t worthy of the freight elevator. Outside the million square foot office building, a single inverted “U” rack had a stripped bike frame chained to it, like a skeleton at a poisoned watering hole. Citi Bike removes this kind of impediment, and even the purchase of a bike, from the path of the novice bike commuter.

This bike share station in front of Manhattan’s Main Post Office is all but empty on a recent morning rush hour, pointing to heavy use of the system for commuting. The station is adjacent to the Eighth Avenue protected bike lane, at right.

Turning around and looking uptown from the same location on Wednesday of last week at 8:50AM, a line of parked police cars fills the bike lane.  This section of it is occasionally used as an NYPD parking lot.

The officer who double parked in the bike lane that day would probably never have thought of parking in a vehicle traffic lane, but completely blocked bikes with evident bravado, forcing several cyclists a minute into traffic. Instances of cyclists struck by cars receive notoriously little follow-up from the NYPD.  According to a StreetsBlog article, “The overwhelming majority of injuries to city cyclists and pedestrians — debilitating, life-altering wounds included — are never investigated by police, much less prosecuted.” A New York Times article, “Reckless Drivers Who Hit People Face Few Penalties in New York,” states that many motorists are never even ticketed for taking a life. Unless eyewitnesses come forward, hit and run drivers readily escape prosecution by claiming they never saw the victim; New York’s ”leaving the scene” law requires the driver to have known personal injury was caused. Without witnesses, the driver’s word may outweigh evidence.

When not being characterized as “sociopaths on wheels” by the New York Post’s Steve Cuozzo (“The bike-lane cancer”), New York cyclists are often viewed as indulging in frivolity in the path of drivers just trying to get to work or do a job. This bias was promoted in last Sunday’s New York Times, where Matt Flegenheimer’s article about the bike share stations began: “They rose from the earth overnight, some said, muscling the cars from their curbside perches: more than 300 hulking monuments to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s surrender to the whims of the New York City cyclist.” Perhaps he’s being ironic, but his look at New Yorkers’ appropriation of the docks as street furniture takes time to give ammunition to bike share opponents, pointing out one station’s accumulation of “rotting strawberries, pale fries, an empty can of an alcoholic energy drink and a crushed pack of cigarettes.” He then takes a magnifying glass to “the dirt-specked water that tends to pool in the corridors between curbs and stations, even well after a downpour,” as if peering for microbes in the mouth of a gift horse.  Dirt specks! In New York! Flegenheimer might have balanced his reporting that “the bike-sharing stations remain a source of dismay to some residents” by noting the opinion of many that they’re a sane alternative to urban driving. He himself reported in the Times last year that drivers predictably kill over 150 New York pedestrians and cyclists a year. What’s an isolated incidence of litter on a bike share station compared to the climate change that now has many of us living in marked-down Flood Zone A real estate, if our homes there still exist?

Although it was said the bike share docks would block trash pick-up, this sanitation worker isn’t missing a beat, without even using the nearby access space created by removal of a docking post.

Among other trumped up objections to the new bike share stations, they have been criticized for creating barriers in front of large apartment buildings. Closely parked cars create barriers too, as this photo shows. A parked car amounts to a private claim on public space, earned by a payment not to the city, but to General Motors. By contrast, Citi Bikes are a shared amenity within financial reach of all. Seven or eight bikes can fit in the space of a single parked car that may make a handful of trips a month. Each bike makes many trips a day. While a car is essential to some New Yorkers with special occupational or mobility needs, there are few places on earth where owning one is more discretionary. Most arguments against the bike share stations make sense only as tactics to defend on-street parking by car owners. Cars have a status long promoted by the automobile and oil industries, but the assignment of the urban cyclist to the status of bike messenger or fast food delivery guy will increasingly become a thing of the past as the bike share program broadens cycling into a mainstream layer of transportation. Entitlement to street parking for having the means to buy a car doesn’t stack up against the daily number of clean, safe bike trips across town represented by shared bikes’ appropriation of a parking space.

When I first became a bike commuter, a funny thing happened on the way home from the office. I skipped the final turn toward home to keep floating happily over the surface of the city and seeing its neighborhoods in a new, more reachable way. After twenty years of living here, it was as if New York opened up in a whole new way. I discovered parts of the city and its surroundings I’d never seen before, soon in the company of generous guides and new friends. Cycling lends itself to connection with surroundings and other cyclists, in sharp contrast to the anti-social encapsulation of driving, which turns our streets into rivers of crosswalk-nosing self interest and horn-blowing anger. The cyclist is surrounded by the open air of the public realm, the driver by an isolating bubble of private property. Many Citi Bike commuters will dock their bikes with a twinge of regret that the ride’s over. If that twinge means the ride of their life is about to begin, they’ll have the bike share gift horse to thank.

One Response to “Looking Over the Bike Share Gift Horse”

  1. Steven Fleming (@BehoovingMoving) Says:

    What I like most about New York’s bike share, is it is conceptually independent of the trains. I saw a great animation just appeared in The Newyorker showing midtown filling at day time and the residential areas filling at night. I think it would be politically more popular banning cars altogether than getting rid of citi-bike now.

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