The Summer Bicycles Took Control

Ten thousand communal blue bikes are arriving in NYC, and 4,000 more just took Chicago. Despite opposition, the bicyclization of urban America is here, to stay.
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Just ten days after deploying its first 6,000 bicycles at the end of May, the Citi Bike sharing program in New York City had logged more than 100,000 rides. (This is not one of those bikes.)(Moyan_Brenn / Flickr)


If in a few years we're talking about the summer that New York tried that thing with all the blue bicycles, we'll laugh. And then sigh. And then shudder. And then laugh!

It was supposed to be simple. People will have easy access to bikes; they'll drive less, and exercise more. We'll have less pollution and fewer heart attacks. It works in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Hangzhou, Stockholm, Helsinki, Milan, and Copenhagen -- it has to work here, too.

"Biking clothes and lifestyles clash with their traditional values."

Remember, though, this is New York. When something happens simply, you're not in New York. Drop 6,000 (soon to be 10,000) unsolicited bicycles into the heart of the most overpopulated, eccentric zip codes in the hemisphere, and what we get is a good old-fashioned bicycle freak-out.

It's like when you buy a new wheel for your hamsters, and you're excited to see how they use it, so you run home and drop it into their cage. But you didn't realize the wheel still had some strange animal scents on it from the pet store, and so instead of running to play on it, the hamsters panic and start eating their young.

We fear change, and we don't like new things in our space. The bikes are eyesores. They take up valuable parking spaces. They're used by tourists who ride on sidewalks, don't know their way around, and try to take pictures and read maps and buy chachkes while riding. Some Hasidic Jews are upset that "biking clothes and lifestyles clash with [their] traditional values."

At this point someone is already writing a chapter in a health policy book about the unanticipated safety hazards, another in a city planning book about implementing massive bike programs into traffic flows unequipped to deal with them, and another in a sociology book about the cultural-economic disparities highlighted by the program. And probably something in a young adult novel, too. Which isn't really relevant, just inevitable because everyone is writing a young adult novel.

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(Frank Franklin II / AP)


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(Carol Allegri / Reuters)

When Citigroup signed on to privately fund New York's bike-share project, surely paying handsomely to put their brand on 10,000 searing-blue bikes, the multinational financial services corporation probably didn't anticipate that they would become objects of derision. ("Should we pay X million dollars to put our name on a thousand moving obstacles that will incur hatred from Manhattan's wealthy elite, our most valued clients? Yes? Okay. Who wants lunch? I'll have a panini.")

Pulitzer-Prize-winning Wall Street Journal editorial board member Dorothy Rabinowitz summed up the "majority of citizens'" position on the Citi bikes earlier this month, as James Fallows brought to our attention:

WSJ: Why would we want a program like this, anyway? Are we too fat? [Editor's note: Yes]

Rabinowitz: Do not ask me to enter the mind of the totalitarians running this government of the city. Look, I represent the majority of citizens. The majority of citizens of this city are appalled by what has happened. ... We now look at a city whose best neighborhoods are begrimed by these blazing blue Citi bikes. It is shocking to see how much they have snuck under the radar in the interest of the environment. ... The bike lobby is an all-powerful enterprise. But even without it, the mayor's stamp on this city is permanent, unless an enterprising new mayor undertakes to re-dig all of the streets and preserve our traffic patterns.

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Michael Bloomberg gets on a bicycle during a launch event May 27, 2013 (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)


Rabinowitz: The fact that a city is helpless before the driven personal and ideological passions of its leader in the interest, allegedly, of the good of the city. This can take many forms, but we have seen the most dramatic exposition of this in our city.

WSJ: With the latest example being the bike-share program.

Here's the full video of that exchange (click to play):

In an interview yesterday with New York Magazine over salmon roe, Rabinowitz described the subsequent reaction to her comments.

Excitedly, [Rabinowitz] reached into her purse and found a greeting card a woman had sent to her. "This sums up the general attitude -- this is the biker-fanatic sensibility." She handed it to me.

"You are still a cunt," it read. I gasped.

"This is nothing," she said, laughing.

So ... opinions are mixed.

Where do the anti-bike-share Villagers want bicycles? We've seen that, for an increasing number, the bicycle is most flawlessly conceived as a device with no wheels that sits in a hot windowless room next to lots of other bicycles and someone yelling at you over a microphone to pedal in a manner that "focuses on your glutes." Access to this room is exclusive.

If you're not familiar with SoulCycle, over the last six years, the New-York-based company has rebranded spinning classes as an expensive, transcendent experience ("It's mind, it's body, it's cardio"), basically by having people on spinning bikes also do upper body exercises. For example, pulling resistance bands that hang from the ceiling above them, and saying things about consciously breathing. Kelly Ripa called it "as good for your brain as it is for your body." It's just exercise, though, not like you're solving quadratic equations while you ride. A single 45-minute SoulCycle class costs $34, so almost a dollar per minute, to ride a stationary bike while someone physically superior to you barks about flattening your belly, sometimes by candlelight, then sells you a $44 tank-top that says "Young, Wild, Free."

Last week comedian Fabrizio Goldstein repurposed the Citi bikes for SoulCycle-ish use to wide acclaim in his video "SoulCycle for the Homeless." Noticing that the parked Citi bikes basically work like stationary exercise bikes, without ever paying to unlock them, Goldstein staged a class:

The scene is sort of problematic in the same ways it was when that marketing agency at South by Southwest used homeless people as Wi-Fi hotspots. Maybe we could forget about the blue bikes altogether if Brooklyn could repurpose even half of its aspiring comedians as a viable transportation system. Still Goldstein makes a good point: "Indoor cycling is too expensive, and it's not available to everybody. It's just like, I want the homeless people of New York to have the opportunity to have sick bodies." He points to his fat belly in jest, but also the guys riding along seem to take it semi-seriously. ("My legs feel better!")

Plenty of us who can afford homes also can't or otherwise wouldn't pay for SoulCycle. Bike shares do get us closer to said sick bodies. Even if the practicality of free outdoor spinning classes ends with a laugh at a YouTube video, you can still count that among the unexpected positives that have come of Bloomberg's program.

It's admittedly unfortunate that these are the ugliest bikes imaginable, and that some people don't ride respectfully. When someone is riding on a sidewalk, you should absolutely be allowed to tip them over. As my colleague Conor Friedersdorf noted, though, people have been complaining about sidewalk riders since the nineteenth century. Even in Paris (where their share-bikes are much nicer looking than ours, but the sidewalks no less crowded) they've made it work.

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Parisian bikes look better than New York's, but you get what you pay for. Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe sits on a bicycle at the 2007 launch of "Velib." (Laurent Baheux / AP)


The bottom line is that one contentious month since the launch of New York's program -- with riders as bad as they'll ever be, and the blue paint without any sun-fading to tone down the gaudiness -- the actual majority of New Yorkers love the bikes. Numbers released yesterday from Quinnipiac University showed overwhelming approval.

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If we made it through this first harried month and most people still don't hate the bikes, it's not likely they're going to start hating them once they're woven into the city's cultural identity. When London launched its bike-share program, which is probably the closest one to New York's, there were similarly vocal Hyde Park detractors. But years later, it's still alive. 

See also Copenhagenzine's graph of the typical timeline of "whining" around the launch of bike-share programs worldwide: a steady rise during the months preceding, followed by a precipitous drop to almost zero shortly after launch. The dissenting New Yorkers are not an original phenomenon. If precedent holds, they will fade.

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A worker inspects new bikes at a storage facility in London before the launch of their public bicycle sharing program in 2010. (Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters)


With U.S. cities like Chicago poised to launch new bike programs (and ongoing programs in D.C. and Minneapolis, which have yet to reject them or descend into totalitarian states, in the utopian sense or otherwise), it's increasingly clear the bike sharing is here to stay.

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June 11, 2013. Chicago's new bike-share program, Divvy, is about to roll out with about 750 bikes at 75 solar-powered docking stations. It will expand over the next year to at least 4,000 bikes at 400 stations. Users can get a $75 annual membership or a $7 day pass. (Scott Eisen / AP)


No transport system is perfect, but bike-sharing is promising, and among the best we have. Look forward to more stories from the grand New York experiment, to inform, amuse, and challenge the rest of the country. Young, wild, free: the SoulCycle of the people. On this eve of the 100th Tour de France, we finally celebrate the bicyclization of urban America.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

 
 

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