DOT Is Building… NYC Riders Will Come: A Preview of NYC Bike Share

Event: Bike Share Open House
Location: Center for Architecture, 12.08.11
Presenters: Kate Fillin-Yeh — Program Director; John Frost; and Stephanie Levinsky — NYC Department of Transportation
Organizers: NYC Department of Transportation; Center for Architecture; Manhattan Community Board 2; Village Alliance; Council Member Margaret Chin

Bike.jpg

One of the NYC Bike Share bikes is on display in the Helfand Gallery at the Center for Architecture.

Nicole Friedman

In efforts to expand transportation options, cities are looking to bike-share systems as a potential tipping point in the re-humanization of street space. New York will soon join Barcelona, Paris, London, Washington, and others in providing public-access bikes that don’t ask much from a rider: just a low membership fee, a simple checkout process at a docking station, a turn of a quick-release lever to adjust the saddle height, and you’re on the road.

These systems have great promise — imagine healthy, fossil-fuel-free surface transportation available every few blocks, at negligible cost to riders and, thanks to private support, no cost to taxpayers. But results from the earliest ventures vary enough that it’s proven wise to let other cities act as first movers. Department of Transportation (DOT) officials have studied experiences elsewhere to fine-tune the New York system’s procedures. When NYC Bike Share rolls out its first 10,000 bikes in the summer of 2012, it should be able to attract significant numbers of riders, avoid the Parisian Vélib’ system’s much-publicized problems with vandalism, and extend the booming cycling culture from enthusiasts and early adopters to the population at large. The safety-in-numbers principle implies that Bike Share can amplify the benefits DOT has recently documented in accident reduction.

For people who haven’t bought their own bikes but might rely on the occasional rental to speed up casual trips, increase their range for errands, or take an occasional recreational ride, a bike-sharing system can ease the transition from potential riders to habitual riders. Demonstrations by DOT personnel (most recently at the Center for Architecture) suggest that New York’s system, being developed by Alta Bicycle Share of Portland, OR, will be convenient and resilient. The key to widespread adoption is in the details: sturdy bikes built by Bixi of Montreal, docking stations deployed widely enough for easy access (at least in the first neighborhoods served), and sophisticated yet unobtrusive GPS technology that should cut down sharply on theft and abuse.

Alta personnel weren’t present at the Center’s open house, but DOT staffers gave detailed demonstrations using sample bikes resembling those from Barclays Cycle Hire (“Boris bikes,” after London mayor Boris Johnson, a skeptic-turned-supporter) and Boston’s Hubway. These aren’t racing mounts for Lycra louts; they’re heavy and industrial, built to survive rough streets. They’re three-speed models with front caliper brakes and a rotary shifter, concealing all cables neatly inside the frame; they give the rider a comfortable upright posture with clear viewing angles, Dutch commuter-bike (Stadsfiets) style, rather than a forward-leaning sprinter’s stance conducive to neck strain. A front rack with bungee cords provides a safe place for packages; bells and self-powered LED headlights are standard equipment.

No bike is theft-proof, but these are theft-resistant: the docking mechanism is built into the head tube above the front fork — breaking it makes the bike unrideable — and since their custom parts aren’t interchangeable with modular components or serviceable with standard tools, they’ll have little appeal to chop shops. If an Alta bike goes missing, GPS circuitry inside its frame alerts the system to its location. (Privacy-conscious types, however, can rest assured their movements aren’t being surveilled, said DOT spokesman John Frost: the location system kicks in only after 24 hours, unlike the Carrier IQ silent monitoring software recently discovered in certain cell phones.)

With a yearly pass priced below $100 (cheaper than a one-month unlimited MetroCard) plus shorter-term options for occasional users and visitors, barriers to adoption are minimal. Alta’s docking stations, heavy enough to prevent theft and requiring no sidewalk bolts, can be installed in about 20 minutes or trucked to new locations to accommodate developing traffic patterns. Membership includes vouchers for discounts on helmets at local bike shops. Any rider encountering a mechanical problem can call a service line, open 24/365, for remote pickups. The bikes will have all the convenience of Zipcars — more, actually, since a rider can drop one off at any station instead of needing round-trip returns to the initial checkout point. They’ll even reinforce riding etiquette, notes DOT’s Stephanie Levinsky, displaying “Rules of the Road” near the handlebars, where rookie riders can’t miss them.

The system’s one apparent drawback is that its first phase is limited to areas where demand for short trips is deemed highest: Manhattan below 79th Street and seven northwest Brooklyn neighborhoods, plus satellite stations at locations to be determined. Considering the response to last fall’s open call for site recommendations (see nyc.gov/bikeshare) — so heavy that website designers had to shrink the icon so the city map wouldn’t become a solid mass of blue — it’s likely that interest in other areas will rise swiftly, and DOT will also look to borough officials, City Council, and community boards to guide second-phase expansion. “This is already the biggest launch of any bike-share program in the United States,” according to Levinsky. After Washington, DC, got Capital Bikeshare, she added, “at first a lot of business owners said they don’t want this in front of their store, and now they’re begging for it…. People don’t really realize how useful it is until it’s there.” That recognition will become even more valuable as NYC Bike Share reaches the outer boroughs, where sparser transit options imply an opportunity to get more people out of cars. From some angles, Bike Share may look like the Field of Dreams gamble (“if you build it, they will come”), but DOT and Alta recognize that people will really turn out if you build it well.

Note: The Center for Architecture will be hosting an exhibition on the DOT Bikeshare program. The opening, which will feature a conversation between DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and Alta Bicycle Share’s Alison Cohen, will take place at 6:00pm on 01.11.12.

Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in OCULUS, Icon, Content, The Architect’s Newspaper, and other publications.