100 Days of Citi Bike, An Assessment

My nearest public transit option used to be four blocks from my apartment. Now, it’s across the street.

I’m referring to the 27-dock Citi Bike station that landed on my block, as if conjured, one day last spring. It’s one link in the network of 332 similar structures in Manhattan and Brooklyn (for now) containing 6,000 sturdy blue bicycles available for rent, economically and on demand, for short trips around town.  

Now, as the passage of Labor Day bookends the system’s official launch on Memorial Day, I find myself taking stock – as a Citi Bike subscriber and as a passionate believer in the transformative power of two wheels, for people and for cities. I’m mentally leafing through the early days, but also scanning ahead with anticipation to the chapters of a transit story that’s only begun to be written.

Kicking the Tires, Before There were Tires to Kick

Do you remember the start? The way New Yorkers of every stripe stopped to look? Even before bikes populated the stations, the first of which “dropped” on April 6 in Brooklyn (the #bikenyc twitter hashtag equivalent of Kim Kardashian finally posting a photo of Baby North) people paused to read the kiosks, as if to decipher a new language, cell phone cameras took aim, children climbed on the docks as if on found playground equipment.

I’m one of the more than 71, 395 (as of Aug. 13) people who’ve added a blue plastic Citi Bike membership key to the ring that holds my apartment key, my CVS Rewards fob, my gym membership ID. Let me be precise: I’m Founding Member No. 271, a feat that carried some bragging rights among bike nerds as the system launched, but that seems positively quaint now, given Citi Bike’s rocket-ride to popularity.

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Don’t get me wrong. Citi Bike had its birthing issues, to be sure. Software problems and damage from Super Storm Sandy caused launch delays; last-minute NIMBYism, despite an inclusive planning process at the community board level, made headlines; early glitches arose with key delivery; users experienced initial long waits for customer service by phone; and the learning curve of balancing supplies among popular stations is ongoing.

Bike Sharing Doubles Down

But today, the privately financed Citi Bike, on which a record 42,010 trips were logged on a single day in August,  is the largest, most talked-about bike share system in North America. And it’s not even fully deployed; New York’s plan calls for 10,00 bikes in total.

Bike sharing is a progressive transportation trend that’s gaining real traction in the U.S. after taking earlier root in cities like Paris and London. The Earth Policy Institute reported recently that, with the latest opening, San Francisco’s on August 29, the combined U.S. bike share fleet totals 18,000, having more than doubled since the start of the year. That number is set to double again by the end of 2014.

Citi Bike is a capstone of three-term Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, the blueprint for a greener, more sustainable city that also saw the addition of more than 300 bike lane miles since 2007 and a doubling of bicycle commuting between 2007 and 2011.

Upright Citizenship in the Bike Lanes

In the first few weeks, passersby on the sidewalk  — tourists, construction workers, folks I recognized from the neighborhood — would approach me as I inserted my key into the little slot on the dock, waiting a beat for the yellow light to turn green, then lifting the bike gingerly by the saddle and releasing it onto the pavement. “How does this work?” people would ask. “How much does it cost?” “Do you like riding these?”

There would be exchanges at intersection, of the spontaneous, hurry-up-before-the-light-changes variety that, on the best of days, make you glad to be a New Yorker. Conversations about the merits of the new bikes lit up among cyclists – here’s a food delivery guy challenging me to a race! – with pedestrians waiting to cross the street, with motorists rolling down their windows to chat.

A certain naturalness resides in the grab-it-and-go, come-as-you-are attitude of this enterprise. No fuss, no special clothing, no heavy locks to carry. People just get on the bikes and ride. As it should be.

There was even an impulse, I think, among early users – whom research shows to be a self-selecting, experienced cohort – to embrace extra-courteous behavior. I remember an earnest conversation with a new acquaintance during a women’s ride to celebrate Citi Bike’s launch (photo below), during which we talked about a desire – no, maybe even an obligation — to promote support for the system, to model “good” cycling behavior for the uninitiated in the wake of the 2011 “Bikelash” in New York City.

Photo: Dmitry Gudkov

There was, above all, an invigorating sense of newness and of potential for thinking about cycling in a new way as the first bikes hit the streets and in the months that followed. Citi Bike’s own twitter stream referenced “the eyes of the world.”

Farewell Oz

Perhaps it  was inevitable, but the four Citi Bikers who raced toward me last week, against traffic on University Place are only the latest scofflaws to have snapped me out of my reverie. This is New York City, after all, not the Land of Oz.

Still, when I walk out my door, bike helmet and handbag in hand, I often find myself pausing, to observe, to wonder: That man in the suit and tie, did he ride a bicycle before Citi Bike? Or is he a “convert”? Those kids, they’re sitting on docked bikes, going nowhere, just flirting. Citi Bike kindles romance! What a beautiful dress that women is wearing as she steps effortlessly onto a bike that’s got a skirt guard built right in. I find myself happy to see the Citi Bike rebalancing staff (of which there are 50 members) delivering reinforcements to my station in the evening. It signals to me that all is well. I marvel at the animated maps that reveal the ebb and flow of the bikes, a multicolor pulse of the city. And I get pissed off, like everybody else, when I can’t find an open dock to park a bike in Soho.

 A Contradiction in Terms?

As the system and my relationship with it passed the “100 days” mark this month, and as I pedal my hefty blue workhorse through, say, the West Village, or the Lower East Side, where station density is high, there’s a continuing sense of newness – and yet, not. In what I can only describe as both reassuring and vexing, Citi Bike feels, to me, simultaneously brand new and utterly ordinary. I see the stations on city streets. I notice the blue streaks in the bike lanes. I follow news accounts. These things still stand out to me. And yet, they don’t.  Why? Maybe it’s partly a structural issue. The stations, through subtle design features, are particularly well suited to the urban landscape. But, of course, there’s more to this than good “street furniture.” I think this is the essence: A certain naturalness resides in the grab-it-and-go, come-as-you-are attitude of this enterprise. No fuss, no special clothing, no heavy locks to carry. People just get on the bikes and ride. As it should be.

It’s a feeling we’re perhaps unaccustomed to in the U.S., where road cycling has long dominated the picture we hold in our heads of cycling. But that is changing rapidly.

And so, when I think about it, perhaps eventual “ordinariness,” a positive reference made by a leading cycling advocate back in early May, truly is the highest compliment to be conferred on Citi Bike so far. The point, after all, is to “normalize” cycling as just one more, everyday public transportation option.

Coming:  How Citi Bike Has Changed My Life – And Maybe Yours

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