NYC Bike Share Edges Into Driving Lane

Event: NYC Bike Share Exhibition Opening and Conversation with DOT and Alta
Location: Center for Architecture, 01.11.12
Speakers: Janette Sadik-Khan — Commissioner, NYC Department of Transportation; Alison Cohen — President, Alta Bicycle Share; Rick Bell, FAIA — Executive Director, AIANY
Introductions: Joseph J. Aliotta, AIA, LEED AP — President, AIANY
Organizers: AIANY (Margaret Helfand Fund); DOT; Alta Bike Share
Sponsors: DOT; Alta Bike Share


“Two Wheel Transit: NYC Bike Share.”

Center for Architecture

As reported here earlier (see “DOT Is Building… NYC Riders Will Come,” by Bill Millard, e-Oculus, 01.04.12), a major evolutionary step in New York’s transportation ecosystem is a few months away. “Two Wheel Transit,” an exhibition installed at the Center for Architecture in the Margaret Helfand Gallery (designed by Pure+Applied), provides details on the NYC Bike Share program. At last week’s opening, the Center reached overflow capacity. If this turnout is any gauge of general civic interest, our streets are in for an influx of Alta’s sturdy bikes — a step toward what 2012 AIANY President Joseph J. Aliotta, AIA, LEED AP, hailed as “the future of urban mobility.”

NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and Alta President Alison Cohen discussed the plan’s specifics. One reason New York should be fertile ground for the system, Sadik-Khan observed, is that it builds on the foundation of recent progress in cycling infrastructure: 500 miles of lanes citywide, on track to meet the goal of 1,800 by 2030. The initial program area has 1.2 million residents plus 2 million daily commuters. It also matches up well with a map of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) facilities, as well as the obvious tourist-magnet areas. It is not a system aimed at elite populations: arrangements with credit unions and other organizations will enable New Yorkers currently without credit cards to participate in Bike Share alongside cardholders, and at $90 a year, the estimated membership cost will make it the most affordable transit mode in town, after the Staten Island Ferry and walking.

The 10,000 bikes, manufactured for Alta and DOT by Montréal-based Public Bike System (Bixi), will be housed at 600 solar-powered, wireless docking stations distributed at large sidewalk areas, subway grates, parks, and privately owned plazas. Sponsorship negotiations are in progress, as are community-board deliberations over final siting decisions to minimize pedestrian congestion. A Quinnipiac poll last fall indicated that 72% of city residents support the plan, with 59% calling for stations in their own neighborhoods. As a transit mode well suited to New Yorkers (“We’re all time-sensitive; we walk faster than anybody else on the planet”), bike share, Sadik-Khan concluded, is “the right fit for the right city at the right time.”

Cohen, who is returning to New York after four years leading share systems in Melbourne, Washington, and Boston, placed the system in a global context, presenting detailed examples of the kinds of information the stations produce (with embedded GPS technology generating routing data, plus associated smartphone apps keeping tabs on station-by-station bike availability, bike share is a number cruncher’s dream). Each community-based system has a local flavor, and use patterns vary as much as bike designs or sponsorship: in Washington’s Capital Bike Share, which logged 1.2 million miles in its first year, members take about 80% of rides, while Boston’s Hubway, with many stations concentrated along the Freedom Trail, has a 50/50 split between members and tourists. (Boston, interestingly, also has larger weekend peaks and more nocturnal riders, with implications that may settle bets over which is the better city for nightlife.)

The systems are too new, Cohen reported, for reliable data on one million-dollar question: the extent of reduction in auto use. Questioned after the event about observed effects on wider urban transportation patterns such as taxi and bus ridership, Cohen reported, “The only way we have to measure that is from an annual survey, and we’re just issuing our first annual survey for Boston and our second for DC; the early numbers from 2010 show that 5% to 40% of rides would have been a single-occupancy-vehicle ride” rather than walking or public transit. Paris and Barcelona data, Sadik-Khan noted, indicate that 40% of trips occur in conjunction with another mode, integrating bike share into a multimodal transit system. Positive effects on bike-shop revenues imply that bike share is “lifting all boats,” expanding the cycling population, not replacing bike ownership with rental. Effects on public health and synergies with the Active Design movement seem intuitive; Cohen reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are helping to support the systems in Boston, Nashville, and Chattanooga, advancing the twin goals of obesity reduction and public-health data gathering.

Another critical question is whether the system’s intended users (more longtime non-riders and visitors than avid urban cyclists who already own bikes) will respond as enthusiastically as the crowd at these events. This, too, will be unanswerable until the system has been in operation for a while, but Sadik-Khan, finding that New York’s burgeoning bike culture is a hot topic beyond the boroughs’ borders, senses that an influential transformation may be under way. “It’s really exciting to work in a city where everybody says ‘go, go, go!’ And that’s not what it used to be. You travel around the world, and people want to hear the story of New York.”

Note: Also see “Bike Share: Live and Learn,” by Ryan Cunningham in Metropolis, published 01.16.12.