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.

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.


(Frank Franklin II / AP)


(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.


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.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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