On Citi Bike’s Birthday, One Rider’s Journey

“I can’t imagine New York without Citi Bike,” said a friend on a recent ride. And she doesn’t even live here. She’s from Boston.

Still, in those few words, she encapsulated my own feelings about the blue bikes. So swiftly have they reached iconic status, so fully integrated into our urban landscape and consciousness have they become, that they seem as ordinary (in a good way) in parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn as yellow taxis and hot dog carts.

On the first Citi Bike anniversary with more than 8.75 million trips and 14.7 million miles logged and immense popularity among more than 100,000 annual members, I find myself reflecting not only on how Citi Bike has enriched my own daily travels and experiences of the city, but also, more broadly, on the influence of the bike share system on perceptions of bicycling in the city.

Citi Bike’s anniversary, is mine, too. It marks a year of consistent and happy use of a new system that delivered on the long-anticipated, but not uncomplicated, promise of a convenient and economical, on-demand transportation option. Along the way, the blue bikes delivered some surprises and also opened my eyes to possibilities that I had not previously considered. A few thoughts:

By the numbers: Despite following reports of the rapid growth in annual memberships and quantification of total miles logged (expressed as trips to the moon) I hadn’t paid much attention to my own stats until I renewed my membership last weekend and took a look at the trip logs in my profile. It turns out I took 137 trips. But it was, at first, a surprise to me that these added up to only 127 miles. That’s about the distance I cover at this time of year in a single week on my road bike. But the number reflects the essence and the brilliance of bike share within our dense urban environment: Short trips and rapid turnover help keep New Yorkers moving, whether to work in the morning, as a last-mile extensions of a public transit haul, or to meet friends in the neighborhood for coffee.

This is NYC on Bike Share: Citi Bike Rides: September 17th & 18th, 2013 from Jeff Ferzoco on Vimeo.

Seduction of convenience: People are still sometimes surprised that I ride Citi Bike, since I keep three bikes of my own in my apartment. The truth is that I used bike share more in the past year than I had anticipated – with the highest number of trips in June 2013 (post-launch giddiness) and December 2013 (holiday errands).

That’s because, Citi Bike’s ease and convenience seduced the lazy side of my nature. For short trips within the service area, I reasoned, Why haul my bike and lock downstairs when a bike share station beckoned from the street corner? Savings on time and cab fare, especially when traveling through Midtown during the business day, also lured my native-New Yorker husband, who seldom pedaled for transportation, back to bicycling. Now riding is something we can enjoy together, in a simple, casual way.

Permission to slow down: Years ago, a bicycling magazine referred to pedaling for transportation or around the neighborhood as “slow” cycling, a reference, I think, to the slow food movement.  I wasn’t crazy about the term at the time – but with Citi Bike, I’ve come to embrace it, perhaps even more so in contrast to the time I spend on my drop-bar commuter and road bikes. Unless I’m really in a hurry, I treat my ride on a solid, upright Citi Bike as a respite. It’s almost as if Citi Bike has given me permission to slow down and to savor a different level of interaction in the bike lanes and view of the city.

But beyond my own experience, I became aware in the past year of changes in how New Yorkers seemed to look at and talk about bicycling.

Conversation starter: Among the most notable byproducts of the launch of Citi Bike, in my perception, has been expansion of and, I think, more thoughtful discourse about bicycling. Citi Bike prompted curiosity and conversation among people I know who had never given bicycling a second thought. They opined about bikes, street etiquette and street safety with frequency and in a level of detail that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. New York is the better for it because heightened sensitivity to both the challenges and the possibilities of how we choose to use our streets is meaningful to our future.

New vocabulary: Citi Bike not only upped the conversation, but also expanded our lexicon and cultural language. Terms such as “dock-blocked,” to signify inability to find a station at which to off-load a bike, entered common use.  In our household, “Citi Biking” became a verb. On the lighter side, we were treated to Citi Bike BMX, Citi Bike station spin classes and fashion spreads featuring models on Citi Bikes (below). Reference to “bike share culture” began to emerge, seen, for example, in products, such as rack bags and bungee extenders, designed by entrepreneurs specifically to enhance the experience of traveling by bike share.

Photo credit

The bike share visual: But perhaps most significant, and despite Nora Ephron’s protestations, the bikes, in their highly stylized and standardized blue forms, have given two-wheeled transportation a unifying identity.  In other words, the street furniture of the docking stations and the bikes as seen moving through the streets signal a transportation system – like a bus line or a subway — versus a collection of random bicycles. As such, they make cycling seem more normal and accessible.

The come-as-you-are convenience of bike share, visible among women riders clad in skirts and ordinary shoes and men in dress shirts, with no requirement of special, sporty clothing (helmets are a different, thornier issue) further delivered the message to New Yorkers that bicycling truly can be a more carefree option for getting around the city than they might have imagined.

With launch of the largest bike share system in North America, New York City joined a growing U.S. and worldwide assembly of great cities that have embraced this option. This forward-thinking supplement to the transportation landscape, along with the addition in the past seven years of more than 350 bike lane miles, and now the intense focus on street safety through Vision Zero, make the energy around and possibilities for growth of cycling in New York City truly palpable.

None of this is to say that Citi Bike has been without its bumps in the road. We’ve witnessed launch delays and software glitches; operational teething pains apparent, for example, in station re-balancing problems; and now, questions about securing additional financing for expansion so that more New Yorkers can experience the benefits of bike sharing.

Clearly, the book on Citi Bike has only begun to be written. But if New Yorkers’ enthusiastic embrace in the first year is any indication, we can hope for many happy birthdays to New York City’s bike share system.

How has Citi Bike changed your experience of New York City? Please comment below.

Photo: velojoy


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