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Yay to NYC's Bike Share Backlash!
Paris, London, Copenhagen: all over the world, opponents have tried to put the brakes on bike-share programs. Then they fall in love. Is New York next?

No revolution is deserving of the label if it doesn't provoke resistance from a threatened establishment. That’s why the backlash against Citi Bike—the new bike-sharing program scheduled to put 6,000 bikes and 330 stations on New York City’s streets by the end of the month—is a positive development.

Let us first qualify. As far as backlashes go, the anti-Citi Bike outcry is fairly tame stuff: a smattering of lawsuits, some very typical New York City-style kvetching over details and logistics, the expected histrionics from reporters whose expertise on matters transit-related may extend no further than possessing a driver’s license. The specifics of said outcry have been adequately dissected elsewhere (here and here are two good places to start), so I won’t linger on the rather parochial nature of most of the complaints that have been lodged so far.

But here’s the reason I’m actually heartened by the backlash: most of the energy behind it has been provided by residents of apartment buildings or business owners who are taking issue with the siting of particular bike share stations. What’s striking about that fact is that it means, essentially, that these people have already accepted the idea of a bike-sharing program in New York as a fait accompli—and that they are now merely subjecting that program to the same gauntlet of travails that would accompany the introduction of any othernew transit system. (The building of the city’s Second Avenue subway line, for example, has already occasioned a number of lawsuits over where its station entrances should be located.)

Insofar as they alter entrenched travel patterns, change urban landscapes, and carry people into parts of town where they previously hadn’t been carried, new transit systems by their very nature tend to be magnets for opposition. (And here it should be noted that Citi Bike is perhaps the least disruptive transit system that has ever been adopted by New York City, at least in terms of its construction and operation.) In its earliest phase, the debate over Citi Bike appeared to echo the debate over another profound change to New York City’s streetscape a half-century ago: the installation of on-street parking meters. At the time, critics declaimed them as “unconstitutional.” Lawsuits were mounted. The warnings were dire. There would be vandalism! People would try to cheat the system! The meters would only make traffic worse! Today, of course, parking meters are universally viewed as simply an irrefutable cost of driving a car in a crowded city, and the only real debate left is over how much to charge per 15 minutes.

The Harvard University sociologist Lant Pritchett has proposed a sort of taxonomy of social change that I find applicable to changing dominant transportation paradigms, which are really social paradigms. The four stages in the sequence might be labeled thusly: Silly, Controversial, Progressive, and Obvious. When applied to the the idea of bicycles serving as transportation in New York City, the stages of opinion have played out something like this:

SillyIt’s New York, you’d have to be crazy—or a messenger—to ride a bike.  As more people began to do it, the tone shifted to:

ControversialBikes are dangerous, pedestrians are getting hurt, they will make traffic worse by removing space for cars. As these scenarios in turn failed to materialize, a new strand of critique began to surface:

Progressive: Biking proponents are nothing but an elitist, Copenhagenizing cabal trying to take over the city and turn us all into velocipede-loving socialists.

We would now seem to be entering the “Obvious” phase of the sequence, in which dissenters are spending less time arguing over the desirability or wisdom of the bike share program (which, it should be noted, enjoys the support of more than 70 percent of the citizenry) than they are over the precise location of bike infrastructure, and its day-to-day operation. The tone of this dissent has given it the characteristics of a classic NIMBY response —or perhaps, given New York City’s unique urban geography, a NOMB (Not On My Block) response.

In the end, people’s opinions about bike-share programs are going to be shaped most by their experiences—or lack thereof.

Dropping a huge bike-share program into the middle of New York City is unquestionably a dramatic step; the average New Yorker, to be fair, has little idea of what to expect. But in a society so relentlessly focused on what’s happening right now, it can sometimes be hard to remember that the things we think are so important today won’t necessarily be the things we think are so important tomorrow. As an example, consider what took place—or, more accurately, what didn’t take place—in another major city of global importance that installed a bike-share system not unlike Citi Bike’s. The debate over London’s Barclays Cycle Hire program, which is overseen by Transport for London (that city’s version of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority), was dogged by many of the same doubts raised when New Yorkers were first considering Citi Bike. But the resounding success of Barclays Cycle Hire to date effectively refutes all the objections these doubters raised prior to its launch in 2010.

So you say that people “just won’t cycle” in a big city like London? As James Mead, the system’s head of operations, told me, 49 percent of Barclays’ users say they actually started cycling in London because of the system. You say that bike-sharing is inherently unsafe? Mead tells me there have been more than 20 million hires (to use the British-ism for uses) without a single fatal crash. What about the argument that bike-share infrastructure will contaminate the character of historic streets in picturesque neighborhoods? While he acknowledges that “wealthier areas generated more resistance” to the siting of stations therein, Mead also reveals that—once the program was actually in place—something very curious happened. Those areas, he said, “are the very same areas which tend to have some of the highest levels of uptake.”

The opposition to bike-share programs can, at times, take on the quality of what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman has called a “focusing illusion,” which he describes using the following epistemological shorthand: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.” In London, for example, objections were raised about the noise that stations would almost certainly generate—including the electronic beeping sounds made by employees’ keypads during transactions. Transport for London eventually agreed to disable the audio. And yet, as Mead points out, these beeps would have measured sonically at about 60 decibels, well below the 75db background hum—much of it generated by automobiles—that is simply the inescapable “sound” of living in modern-day London.

A version of the focusing illusion is alive and well in New York City during the debate over Citi Bike. Virtually every objection that has been raised by opponents focuses on some problem that already exists in their lives and on their streets—interestingly, almost always a problem that can be traced to automobiles. Noise, injuries, the aesthetic degradation of the city: you can pretty much go down the line. It’s odd to hear someone bemoan how a Citi Bike station will mean the loss of yet one more precious parking spot in their neighborhood; for one thing, most of the stations aren’t being sited in such a way that they’ll result in the loss of a parking spot to begin with. But the program nevertheless seems to have equipped frustrated street-parkers with a tangible symbol of their ire regarding the dearth of these rare urban commodities—even though the real culprit is far more likely to be someone who’s driven in from New Jersey or Long Island, and is willing to troll the streets in search of a sweet parking space next to the curb.

Interestingly, when it comes to property values, it’s generally accepted that higher-traffic streets are correlated with lower property values.  But with bike infrastructure, the opposite seems to be true. In London, there’s no surer sign  that a property is located in an upward-trending hot spot than the presence of a nearby bike-share station. One real-estate broker notes that her company’s agents “have been inundated with questions from prospective tenants about the nearest docking station.” (And what’s true in London also appears to be true here: in Washington, D.C., proximity to a Capital BikeShare station now appears in real-estate listings—along with hardwood floors and top-of-the-line appliances—as an amenity.)

In the end, people’s opinions about bike-share programs are inevitably going to be shaped most by their experiences—or lack thereof. Not long ago, after giving a talk at a conference, I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged couple from suburban Paris who assured me, with what appeared to be deeply-held conviction, that the city’s Vélib' bike-sharing program had proved itself to be an unmitigated disaster since being installed in 2007. The system was too expensive, they told me; the bikes were always being vandalized; “no one”—their words—ever used it. (Paradoxically, they insisted, you could never find a bike when or where you needed one.)

“‘Oh, come on,” I replied. “There must have been at least one time when you found it useful.” Somewhat placidly, the man to whom I had addressed my question admitted the truth. “I’ve never actually used it,” he said.

Unbowed, on a trip to Paris earlier this year, I rented a Vélib' bike and rode it around to my various destinations throughout the day. It was easy to obtain, comfortable and fast: all in all, a wonderful way to see the city. That one act was all it took to turn me into a Vélib'-er. Doubtful New Yorkers, if they can be convinced to get off their high horses and onto bike seats, will be converted in much the same way.

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image of Tom Vanderbilt
Tom Vanderbilt is the author of "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)." He writes for many publications and is a contributing editor to Outside, Print, and Artforum, a columnist for Slate, and a visiting scholar at NYU's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy. MORE STORIES ➔