A Brand New Transit System

The Metropolitan Transit Authority debuted the Metrocard in January 1994 at the Whitehall Street and Wall Street stations. Initial public reaction was lukewarm and complaints came in all forms: Some patrons thought it was too hard to swipe; others felt it lacked character; most were ambivalent about the change.

By August of that year, the New York Times reported, "Despite efforts by New York City transit officials that have included advertising campaigns and discount offerings, subway riders seem wary about the new electronic fare cards that have been billed as the future."

If you believe the press reports from the time, busy commuters were simply not ready to give up the token. Seventeen years later, that premise seems laughable. The blue and yellow Metrocard has become a ubiquitous symbol of the MTA and an icon of New York. And, of course, it has completely revolutionized how the city moves.

A growing community of planners and transportation engineers now believe that public bike sharing is the next transportation revolution coming to New York. New technology allowing cost-effective implementation has arrived, supportive politicians are touting the benefits from every podium, and the biking infrastructure is already in place. Most importantly: cycling is more popular than ever. Like the Metrocard, public bike share might take time to catch on and there will likely be some grumbles along the way, but rest assured, New York City will never be the same.

Bold Beginnings

Bicycle sharing systems began appearing throughout Europe and the United States in the mid-1990s, most notably in Copenhagen and Portland, Oregon. In 2007, Paris launched its Vélib program with more than 20,000 bicycles. The prominence and success of that system caught the eye of planners in major cities around the globe, thrusting public bike share into the center of the world’s transportation stage and piquing the interest of competition-minded policy makers in New York, always wary of lagging behind the Joneses - or Jacqueses as the case may be.

In 2009, New York City’s Department of City Planning published an extensive feasibility study on public bike-share, proposing a cost-neutral system to be co-sponsored by the City and a corporate franchise, eventually linking four of the five boroughs - Staten Island was not included - through a network of 49,000 bicycles focused in the most densely populated neighborhoods. In November 2010, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city is currently accepting bids for sponsorship and construction of a stage-one system. Most insiders believe that this will consist of 10,000 bikes spread through Manhattan’s central business district, Northwest Brooklyn and Western Queens.

Waves of Change

Municipalities around the world have cited a wide variety of justifications for public bike sharing, ranging from auto-traffic reduction to an increase in public health, but few arguments have focused on the significant long-term cultural impacts that a bike-share system might have. The introduction of the unlimited ride Metrocard caused unforeseen spikes in ridership during off-peak hours and allowed the system to become less dependant on peak-hour commuters. Today, it is not uncommon for New Yorkers to routinely use the subway on their lunch hour or swipe their card a dozen times a day in order to make unorthodox and previously impossible transfers. Public bike sharing would augment this flexibility, allowing riders to further fill the fine-grain gaps in their travels and organize their outings around a new transportation pole.

The available data suggests that a large-scale public bike-share system can revolutionize transportation in a city. In Paris, bike mode-share went from about 1 percent to roughly 10 percent in less than a year. Andrew Duvall, a behavioral scientist at the University of Colorado has been closely monitoring the implementation of the new B-cycle system in Denver, hoping to further understand how the general public is actually using that network. Duvall’s research has shown that incidental trips for midday errands, meetings and lunches have been widely popular across the system, a benefit that would likely have similar impacts in New York City. He has also seen significant increase in intermodal ridership, where a public bike-share customer uses multiple forms of transportation in a single trip.

"Survey findings indicate more than 20 percent of Denver B-cycle riders use shared bikes in conjunction with transit," says Duvall, "and many of the most utilized B-cycle stations are in close proximity to major transit stops."

Intermodal transport between buses, trains and for-hire vehicles is a key feature of bicycle sharing that could change the way New Yorkers move. The notoriously congested crosstown transit experience could be simplified to a few minutes of delightful pedaling that would come in at a fraction of the cost of express bus or light rail services. Offering straphangers a simple way to make a short, one-, two-, or three-stop trip could reduce heavy congestion on lines that are already at or near peak-capacity. Public bike sharing could also prove the missing link in bringing greater ridership to the New York Water Taxi, a system that has been isolated by poor connectivity with existing transport hubs, particularly along Manhattan’s East Side. 

The City that Shares

Many national advocates of public bike sharing have argued that this type of infrastructure exemplifies the beginning of the new era of “communal ownership” in the United States that is a natural outgrowth of social media networks. Social media has shown great promise in allowing previously disconnected users to capitalize on their common interests. Groups organized around the sharing of tools, services and products have become commonplace within the online community.

Public bike-share programs across the nation have harnessed a similar energy and even integrated creative usage of social media to incentivize and expand their ridership. In the Capital Bikeshare program, which serves the District of Columbia and Arlington, Virginia, riders lined up to join the Winter Warriors competition, where hearty souls who log the most winter miles can qualify to win free membership to the network. Real time results for the competition were regularly posted to Twitter and Facebook, allowing users to interact and heckle other riders, building a strong sense of community throughout the program.

Of course, communal ownership is nothing new in the Big Apple. Residents of the city have long been sharing walls, stoops, laundromats, taxis cabs, subways, buses and sidewalks. Sharing is an intrinsic reality of life here, a fact that shows great promise when it comes to a communal bicycling program creating lasting change. A public bike-share system will undoubtedly have an effect on New York’s cycling culture, but more importantly, it will broaden the base. Much like the Metrocard, public bike share will open up a heretofore-unimagined world of transportation possibilities and bring cultural and habitual shifts that welcome more New Yorkers into the fold.

For decades, the yellow cab has long been one of the dominant symbols of transportation in New York City. Plastered on the lion’s share of billboards and postcards conjuring life in Gotham, it has helped set the spirit and tone of our streets. At 49,000 units, the proposed public bike-sharing program would rival the significance of the 12,000 yellow cabs in New York. Public bike share could bring a new sense of civility, of communality to the city: an enlightened symbol of 21st century New York that may seem as strange now as a hard-to-swipe yellow and blue card did fifteen years ago, but will prove every bit as potent.