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NYC Bikeshare

By Sustainability Office on August 21, 2013

581819_10200195985036811_668079102_nMy hair was more blonde back then. It got bleached by the sun in the hot Rochester summer. I still remember those humid days with my mom and my brother, Dan. We woke up to the symphony of the suburbs; the highway nearby rang with the sound of rubber smacking on asphalt, a dog barked somewhere far off, and the leaves by my window rattled, letting light into my room as a saltshaker would. My mother had left for work already and I jumped out of bed and was eager to start another day. I grabbed the handles of my Huffy bike and cranked away down the street. My hair flew back and the wind bit my eyes as I went what seemed like a million miles an hour; I’ve never felt so close to flying.

The first stop, as it was every day, was my best friend Steve’s house. From there we went as far and as fast as our legs could take us. We climbed mountainous hills just to race down at warp speed. We found trails and took them to places we had never been. You could often find us at the local church parking lot, trying to do tricks on our bikes and drinking soda from the gas station around the corner. Our only enemies were the cars that dared to race us down the street. The sweat dripped down my forehead as I pedaled with all my might over the cracked and lopsided sidewalk. My head was down; I didn’t need to check my progress against the car. The cars always won, no matter how hard we tried.

I am older now, but I dismiss those that say I’m any wiser. I have a car, a rusty old Jeep that jets me off to school, work, or time with friends. I cruise along the streets with music blasting and my hand out the window letting it rise and fall on the whims of the wind. I feel less free than I did when I was younger. Now I’m chained to that vehicle that was once my nemesis. The gas in my car never seems to last long; it burns with every mile and always asks for more. It seems that I can never get where I’m going fast enough.

As I got older biking seemed less relevant and less useful. I couldn’t wait to turn sixteen and get my learner’s permit and start driving. When I was young all I longed for was to be like my older brother and have my own car – the ultimate symbol of freedom and maturity. But now I’m not so sure. As adults, our lives revolve around cars. We drive to work, to the movies, or to the park- a place where we are supposed to get away from the motorized world.

With growing concerns of climate change, the depletion of fossil fuels, and the preservation of the planet, the balance between mobility and sustainability is one
of the hottest socio-environmental issues out there. In many cities across the globe urban planners have turned to bike share programs as a means to alleviate the impact of automobile use and foster sustainable behavior as well as encourage healthy forms of exercise. Bike share systems work by strategically placing automated docking stations throughout the city. Participants can pick up a bike and ride it for a small fee for a limited time anywhere in the city and dock the bike at any other station. These programs have enjoyed great success internationally in cities like Paris and Hangzhou, China, but have yet to take off to the same extent in the United States.

The most recent installation and perhaps the most controversial happened on May 27, 2013 in New York City with the unveiling of the Citibike program. The system has over 10,000 bikes available to rent at roughly 600 stations located below 59 in Manhattan and throughout Brooklyn. The bikes are bright blue and feature the Citibank logo because Citibank gave over 40 million dollars to start the program, totally alleviating the cost of the rollout from taxpayers. The installation of the program has been one of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s crowning achievements as part of his larger policy initiative to make New York City healthier and more sustainable. The launch of the Citibike program was initially met with great fanfare and excitement but was soon plagued by software problems and disappointment. Users reported problems with the docking stations. Often when one bike had a problem it would shut down the entire docking station. A report from WNYC stated that over 10 percent of docking stations reported failures each day. These problems proved to be more than opening day jitters and are the result of a corporate disagreement. The contract for the system was originally given to Public Bike System Company (PBSC) who hired out to a tech company called 8D to design the software. However, the PBSC severed ties with 8D and claimed it would design its own software despite the success of 8D’s software in other cities with bike share programs like Boston and Seattle.

As well as software malfunctions the system has also been experiencing some real world problems. Citibikes were marketed as the best way to see New York for tourists because of their locations throughout the city and their ease of use. While this may be true, having masses of tourists on bicycles in a city they are completely unfamiliar with has proven to be a health and safety hazard. With tourists ogling at skyscrapers it is difficult to pay attention to the millions of cars, pedestrians, and other cyclists streaming past you in the city that never sleeps.

Another challenge for the bike share system to overcome is dock location. New York represents a very special case because of its extremely high population density and subsequent density of dock locations. New York is unlike any other city in the world because of its intermingling of residential and commercial space. Hence this does not allow for uniform separation and redistribution of the bikes. For example, the Citibike docks in the residential neighborhood of East Village empty out in the morning because people are going to work, but few have incentive to bike back to the East Village until 5 p.m. leaving the station abandoned of bikes. Citibikes has a redistribution scheme that consists of workers driving bikes in trucks from stations with too many bikes to stations with too few bicycles. Reports are clear, however, that these transfers are happening far too infrequently and the system lacks adequate flow. This is counter productive to the idea of sustainable alternative transportation because of the fossil fuels that the system.

Furthermore, Citibike stations are being moved at the request of the city’s wealthy and powerful in what has been clearly labeled as class discrimination. High class New Yorkers like Barry Diller were easily able to move stations from in front of their luxurious co-ops and condos. In fact, three such cases have been handled by the same attorney, Steven Sladkus, who was able to get the stations moved without filing a single piece of paper to the court. Yet at the same time a group of SoHo residents filed a lawsuit against the city to have a bike station moved with 600 signatures and 132 letters to the DOT but had to wait until the DOT could figure out the budgeting. Even Steven Sladkus feels some remorse for moving the docks as he states, “I can guarantee you won’t see a Citi Bike rack in front of Mayor Bloomberg’s town house… maybe the same [courtesy] should have been given to all other property owners in the city.” Despite all these problems the Citibike program has been a success. The bikes are being used extensively. Since the launch of the program over 750,000 trips accounting for more than 2,000,000 miles of travel have been recorded. Many people use the system at the margin; they leave home later and show up earlier for work and therein lay the advantage of a bike share system. Rather than walk to the nearest subway station it is much more convenient to rent a bike and make the trip much faster.

The true benefits of the Citibike program may not reveal themselves for some time and can be measured in reduced air pollution and traffic congestion or a quieter city with a healthier populous. One thing is clear, however, bike share programs are a major step towards a sustainable future. Bike sharing is one answer to the problem of urban transportation while addressing important issues such as climate change and fossil fuel consumption.

What’s more is that for me, riding a bike has always taken me back to that childhood sense of freedom. My best memories are of the long days of adventure and play. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t drive, we were care free and young. We travelled everywhere at the speed our legs could take us, we didn’t need to go any faster. I wonder what that wide-eyed child would think of me today. I wish I could talk to him. But the day is over and he has to go home. His mom and brother are there in the backyard cooking dinner. Burgers, his favorite, and always with sweet relish and ketchup. The smile on his face spread from ear to ear as the last rays of sun peeked through the fence posts.

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