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A Future on Two Wheels

Is Bike-Sharing Possible in New York?

Photo by Michael Short
Photo by Michael Short

On a recent trip to Paris, I noticed with curiosity the rows of perfectly spaced, knee-high gray posts that had popped up intermittently throughout the city, just off the curbs. The next day, bicycles appeared next to each post, and representatives of Paris’ new public bicycle-sharing program, ‘Velib’ (an amalgam of the French words for bicycle and freedom), were present to explain the system to curious onlookers. Lines quickly formed amidst of the bikes at the computerized withdrawal stations. I saw a businessman with his briefcase poised in the bike’s front basket, a woman in a hijab, and some students all gliding through the street on the sturdy, gray bikes. Pedestrians would point and yell out as riders passed, and the cyclists would respond with a ring of their bell.

My husband Yann and I decided to try out the bikes on a trip from Odeon, in the St. Germain des Pres area, to the Hotel de Ville. Our credit card was swiped and a guarantee for 150 euros (about 200 dollars) was processed. Questions were asked by the computer and warnings given about the possible fate of our 150 euros if the bike was not returned. We each selected a one-day pass, which costs one euro. A card printed out and we followed the instructions for unlocking the bikes from their docks. The euro got us thirty minutes of riding (unlimited rides within the 24-hour period), with each half-hour after costing an additional euro, and more as the time increased. This encourages the use of Velib’ bikes for point-to-point transportation without harming businesses that rent out bikes for recreation.

We rode our bikes towards the Seine, but when we got to the river, we realized the flow of traffic took us in the opposite direction from our destination. We took our bikes up onto the sidewalk (which we later learned was a cycling no-no in Paris) and attempted to ride over the Pont Neuf, abusing our bells to get through the tourist throng, then followed the traffic along the right bank of the Seine.

We gasped for breath as we rode behind buses on the main road until we arrived at Chatelet, where we turned into the smaller streets. Less than 10 minutes from the start of our ride, we reached the Hotel de Ville. A Velib’ station stood prominently in front and we had no trouble sliding our bikes into the locks. After a few seconds, the dock beeped and we were free to leave the bikes. No keys to fondle in our pocket, no seat stealing worries, and (sort of) fresh air. Borrowing a bike was freedom unparalleled.

To boot, we saved 20 minutes off the time it would have taken us to walk the same distance. Even the train can’t compete with the direct point-to-point nature of biking; changing trains would have meant a ride as long as the walk would have been. We felt a lightness from our lack of responsibility and direct control of our trip.

In Paris, bike lanes were added on city streets in support of the bike-sharing project. Cyclists were also given the right to ride in the bus lane where there are no other bike lanes. Signs designating the main points of interest are scattered about town to help bikers orient themselves. Velib’ bikes are equipped with automatic headlights, an integrated lock, a bell and three gears. At night, trucks redistribute bike-share bicycles to high-use areas, guaranteeing availability. With these measures, the government of Paris has empowered bike riders. The newspaper Le Monde has already noted a change in urban behavior: car traffic is adjusting to the inundation of bicycles on the road, which is estimated at up to 60,000 thirty-minute rides daily.

In July, the Forum for Art and Design conducted a five-day experiment in lower Manhattan to determine whether a bike-sharing program would be welcome and worthwhile in New York. At the Storefront for Art and Architecture in SoHo, twenty bikes were available, free for thirty minutes, and could be returned at a few locations including Tompkins Square and Washington Square Parks. Not a full scale operation, but a taste of what having a bike-share in New York could be.

Along with the bikes, the storefront was set up as a gallery displaying information about how bike sharing systems function in other cities. “The point of making bikes available was not just to imitate a bike-share system, but to bring awareness to such a project,” said David Haskell, executive director of the Forum. Since the project finished, he has received calls from the Department of Transportation, Department of City Planning, and the Mayor’s office, as well as community boards who are interested in hearing more about the idea.

The Forum for Art and Design plans on continuing its research, holding another bike-share event in the springtime, and hopes to continue acting as a source of information on bike-sharing for the public. Haskell said he felt the experiment had been a success. Bike-sharing gave New Yorkers, “a liberated feeling,” he said, “because they didn’t have to worry about securing a bike or keeping a bike in their apartment.”

He continued, “while some New Yorkers were worried about the safety of riding on the streets, many understood the lesson we have learned from European cities, which is that the more bikes are on the street, the safer it is to ride.”

The city has taken baby steps to promote cycling in New York. Mayor Bloomberg, for one, has made the promotion of cycling a part of his plan for a greener New York City—PlaNYC. Part of this plan’s transportation initiative includes increasing dedicated bike paths from the existing 120 to 1800 miles by 2030.

Some hope this will happen much sooner. Transportation Alternatives, a non-profit supporting alternative forms of transportation in the city, estimates that 120,000 bicyclists make 400,000 bike trips per day in New York, at least in the warmer months. The Department of City Planning conducted an extensive survey last year to support the practice of cycling in New York. They found that cars were the number one problem for cyclists, namely, drivers often don’t look out for cyclists as they drive. They also double park in bike lanes, and many city riders worry about “dooring,” when the occupant of a motor vehicle opens their door in front of an oncoming cyclist.

Bike-sharing has the potential to encourage more people to get on bikes, changing this balance and making riding a safer option. A spokesperson for The Department of Transportation says that “[they] are keeping an eye on some of the new bike sharing systems in cities around the world,” but they have not studied the issue in enough depth to issue a comment.

Two major challenges a bike-sharing program in New York City are space and funding. According to David Haskell these are easily overcome. Two parallel parking spaces could hold 20 bicycles. Bikes can also be housed on large sidewalks and near parks. Designating space for bikes allows cyclists the space to develop road savvy riding.

Another hurdle to bike-sharing is funding. In European cities like Sevilla, Paris and Lyon, bikes are provided for free by the companies that make park benches and bus shelters (in Paris, the French company JC Decaux beat out the American Clear Channel for the best design) in exchange for free advertising. The city then recuperates user fees (in Paris annual membership is 29 euros, weekly 5 euros, daily 1 euro), which Haskell insists should be nominal, and hires maintenance to keep the tires aired up, redistribute bikes and locate and replace damaged bikes. If a congestion charge were implemented here, profits could go to supporting a bike-sharing program. Though they both seek to improve our green scorecard, the former discourages driving, while the latter encourages riding.

I lived in Paris four years ago and could never have imagined a workable bike-sharing program in that city; how space could be made for 750 bike stations with room for 10,000 bikes (a figure that Paris authorities plan to double by the end of the year.) I would have been concerned at all the novice riders let loose on the city streets. Now, I have seen the system working. The success of Paris’ Velib’ program speaks for itself: Within its first three weeks, one million rides had appeared on Velib’ bicycles, and no serious accidents were reported.

Just two days after the bike-sharing program began, Yann and I were walking home after having a few pastises. A girl came up to us, “excuse me,” she said, “Where is the nearest Velib’ station?”

At first I didn’t understand the question, it was something new in the Parisian vocabulary. In a short time, it has become a natural statement, part of something that many Parisians, like many New Yorkers, would not have considered just a few years ago. We pointed her in the right direction. “Merci,” she replied, and skipped away. I wondered, watching her go, if the sea change I witnessed in Paris could take a similar hold back here in New York City.


Paula Crossfield


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2007

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