Is Citi Bike Share the Omafiets of NYC?

Those who have traveled to Amsterdam, where bicycling is ingrained in the culture, know about the simple bicycles called Omafiets (above), or grandma bikes, that citizens own and use for daily transportation. They’re a classic, upright design that’s sturdy, durable, simple to maintain and built to be ridden at a leisurely pace. They’re as ubiquitous on the streets as teapots are on range tops. People step onto the bikes in their ordinary clothes and shoes and go. Easy.

Close your eyes – change black to blue and bulk out the frame (a lot) — and that description could fit the fleet of 6,000 Citi Bike share bikes that are about to roll onto the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn on Memorial Day, first for a week of preview rides for those who have already purchased and received annual membership keys, and then on June 2 for public use.

Citi Bikes are accessible, fully equipped, simple to ride, and largely free of security and storage woes.

The Blur of Choice

Utility. Uniformity. Ease. Those aren’t exactly the hallmarks of bicycling in New York City to date. People who ride bikes around town here – especially those who’ve been doing it since the bad old days before the introduction of bike lanes – wear independence like a badge. But on the broader scene, daily scrutiny of the bike lanes and bridges reveals that bicycles and apparel are often an extension of riders’ personalities, providing a canvas in motion for personal self-expression that’s a marvel to observe, and a source of endless inspiration. In other words, the opposite of Amsterdam.

But it is also this variety, this blur of different bikes and clothing and gear, that leads to thoughts of “Where do I start with all this?” that must sometimes appear intimidating to people who may have been sensitized to riding bicycles as a transportation option by the dramatic growth here, but for whom the cares of buying, outfitting and maintaining a bicycle serve as a barrier to entry. Where is the spirit of simple, ubiquitous Omafiets for them? (By the way, this in no way implies “dumbing down,” but rather wising up.)

citi bike load-in Fulton St.
Night-time load-in of Citi Bikes at Fulton. St. Photo: @brooklynspoke/twitter

Is it possible that Citi Bike, with the grab-it-and-go characteristics that are engineered into the DNA of bike sharing for quick trips around town might attract some of those people, and perhaps even encourage them in the longer term to go to the next step and buy a personal bicycle?

Luring First-Time Riders

If other cities are any indication, that’s a possibility. Just one example: A recent article in Streetsblog on the excellent safety record of bike share systems in other cities noted that in Washington DC 70 percent of Capital BikeShare users were not bicycle owners before joining. What’s even more intriguing, but the topic for a different post, is that 45 percent of Capital BikeShare members are women, even though women represent only 23 percent of the cycling population there. The convenience and freedom from storage and maintenance concerns that are associated with bike share were noted as possible enticements to female riders at our recent panel on women’s cycling at Bike Expo New York.

Citi Bikes at NYU
Full Citi Bike station at NYU Law School. Photo: @stevemau/Instagram

Much of this will be elucidated over time as Citi Bike user and GPS data is analyzed.

But in the mean time, the idea that a simple new, no-muss, no-fuss way to use a bicycle for transportation in New York City might bring new riders into the fold is exciting — not only for the users themselves who will come to enjoy all the personal benefits and joys of cycling, but also, in the longer term, and especially as the system is slated to expand to 10,000 bikes,  for the broader civic advantages of  improved street safety and less congestion.

Bring on the new blue Omafiets!

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  • I owned a French touring bicycle decades ago as a teenager. I rode it from the outerboroughs to Manhattan al the time. Then, in college, it was stolen. In the last 18 months I’ve attended a few seminars on bikes offered by Bike New York and have signed for the Citi Bike program in part to see if I commuting is realistic. I may buy a bicycle eventually.

    I was never hurt while riding, but I had some close calls with oily streets and there was the occasional cat caller. I’m very interested to see how cyclists behave themselves because I’ve almost been hit numerous times.

    A couple of years ago, the owner of a women’s NYC bike store told the New York Times that women didn’t cycle because of fear of being unfashionable. I hope she was misquoted because that’s such an ignorant statement I don’t know what to say. I’m concerned about looking professional, not unfashionable.

  • Rolling Orange Bikes likes Citi Bike, but the blue Citi bikes are by no means Oma fietsen! Come and visit our shop or website for the real Dutch Granny Bike (we also have the beautiful Azor Oma.

    • Marc, thanks for commenting. Rolling Orange is a lovely shop. Here’s hoping that bike share will be the “gateway drug” for new riders — and that they will eventually want to purchase bicycles of their own, in addition to using Citi Bike.

  • While riding my own omafiets around Sheepshead Bay a couple of days ago, I passed a young couple walking on either side of a black men’s road bike with red tires. The young woman was wearing a dress. As I passed, she said to him, loud enough for me to hear “Now that’s the kind of bike I want!”. When I reached the end of the promenade and turned around to go home, I passed them again, head on. And they both turned, silently to watch my bike pass. Even women who may not know much about bikes, recognize the posture and features that suit them. Mine is a Batavus Breukelen with wicker handlebar basket and big panniers, and a flowered BikeCap seat cover.

  • Hey Janice,
    Be proud of your great Batavus bike. Unfortunately Accell Group – the owner of the Brand – withdrew them from the North American market. So if you have one, hang on to it 😉 The omafiets in the picture above is an Azor, that is finding it’s way to a whole bunch of oma and opafiets amirers in New York City.

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