From Hangzhou to Paris to Montreal, bike shares have entered the daily lives of commuters and casual cyclists, forever changing the face of urban transportation. Soon, we may be able to say the same for our very own New York City.
The Big Apple may lag behind in the bike-riding world, but this will change on May 15, the day New York City launches its first citywide bike share. Citi Bike, the unsubtly Citigroup-sponsored program, is being implemented by NYC Bike Share and the NYC Department of Transportation. With 10,000 bicycles at 600 stations, the program will be the largest of its kind in the United States.
According to the Citi Bike website, the program “is a transit mode designed to provide you with an easy, affordable option for making short, quick trips around NYC.” Users will be able to choose between seven-day and 24-hour passes, subject to overtime fees, as well as a $95 annual membership.
Citi Bike was initially set to launch last summer, but there have been several setbacks. Last August, a software malfunction forced Mayor Bloomberg to postpone the opening until March. More recently, the Department of Transportation announced that electrical damage caused by Hurricane Sandy would delay the program’s start date by another two months. New Yorkers are looking forward to May 15 with impatience—especially those in the “young and hip” demographic. Most of the city’s cycling enthusiasts fall into this category (think mustachioed men pedaling around Williamsburg on vintage 10-speeds). The apparent demand from these and other physically active populations makes many wonder why the city hasn’t acted sooner.
Hunter Armstrong, the executive director of CIVITAS, explains that “the bike share will save a lot of time for a lot of people who are interested in cycling.” CIVITAS is an Upper East Side and Harlem-based community organization dedicated to improving the quality of life in these neighborhoods. The east side only has one subway line, so buses are often overcrowded and certain areas aren’t easily accessible by public transit. According to Armstrong, “Bike shares make areas that are not as accessible to transit a lot more desirable.” This will certainly have an economic impact—these once hard-to-reach areas may become more popular places to live. The initiative is also exciting from a public health perspective, since “cycling is a healthy and enjoyable way to get around,” says Armstrong. He continues, “Anytime you can get people exercising and moving around NYC more safely and easily, I think it’s a positive thing.”
Some are less enthusiastic. “The Upper East Side and Harlem are very densely populated areas,” says Armstrong, “so there’s concern about taking away sidewalk space to build bike kiosks.” Others are worried about safety. “New York can be a pretty harrowing environment for someone on a bicycle, especially where there isn’t a buffered bike lane,” explains Armstrong. Bicycle speeding and sidewalk riding are pressing issues, and Mr. Armstrong sees a need for increased education and enforcement. The Department of Transportation, for example, has distributed over 50,000 free bicycle helmets since 2007 in an effort to increase awareness and make the city’s streets safer.
Unfortunately for residents of the Upper East and Upper West sides, the first portion of kiosks will only be set up below 59th Street in Manhattan and in neighboring sections of Brooklyn and Queens. This means that Columbia students and their neighbors will have to wait another couple of years before checking out a Citi Bike ride.
In the meantime, Columbia EcoReps is setting up a bike share on the Morningside campus. Irene Jacqz, a Columbia College senior, is the current head of the EcoReps bike share committee. “Citi Bike doesn’t really address a lot of Columbia’s needs,” she explains, but “the student demand is there.” According to Jacqz, many students would like a bike but don’t necessarily know how to maintain one or where to keep it. Fortunately, “a bike share addresses both of those needs,” she says.
EcoReps plans to focus specifically on Columbia students’ needs. “Long-term, it would be fantastic to connect all of Columbia’s campuses,” says Jacqz. This would cut travel time for students and teachers commuting between Columbia’s Morningside and medical center campuses, as well as Baker Field and Manhattanville.
The bike share would ideally be partially subsidized by student life fees, so that a semester-long membership would cost no more than $15, which would be $80 cheaper than the city’s annual membership.
“I love the idea of making something I love—cycling—more available to a part of the student body that wouldn’t otherwise have access to a bicycle,” says Jacqz. The same can be said for NYC Bike Share.
Setting the pros and cons of Citi Bike aside, one thing is certain: Come May, there will be more cyclists on the city’s streets. “There’s a theory that the more cyclists you have on the streets, the safer it feels for even more cyclists,” says Armstrong, “so I hope to see more people who are willing to get out on their bikes and make New York a more bike-friendly city.”
It remains unclear whether New York City has the potential to be bike-friendly. But Citi Bike has the guts, and the resources, to find out—and that alone may be enough to make naysayers think they spoke too soon.