No Mere Amenity: The City’s New Bike Program

As usual, I had spent too much time looking at email, and doing one more thing before I needed to leave for a 6:30 PM event near the United Nations at the German Consulate at 49th Street and 1st Avenue. Suddenly, I saw that the clock on my desk phone said 6:15 PM. Darn! How could I possibly get there on time, from my desk at RPA’s office near Union Square at Irving Place and 14th Street?

The 6 train up to 51st Street and Lexington Avenue would be reasonably quick. But once at 51st Street, I would have to walk several long avenues over to the East River. This could take 45 minutes, when all is said and done. What to do?

Citibike to the rescue. I left my office and walked one block to 16th and Irving, and checked out a blue bike with my annual pass. I bicycled over to 1st Avenue, and then north to the bike station at 47th Street. I looked at my phone: 6:35 PM. (The Citibike website, which keeps a record of your trips, later told me my ride had lasted 16 minutes and two seconds.) I was late to my event, but just slightly.

This was not the first time the city’s new bike sharing plan had saved my bacon, or simply made life easier. As the city’s new bike system approaches its one-month anniversary, what’s become apparent is that it is no mere amenity. While it does provide some tourists with a casual way to get around and see a few things, albeit in 30-minute increments, for locals able to ride the program expands the range of the city available. On a bike that can be picked up and dropped off as needed, we can reach places we normally wouldn’t consider traveling to -- consider the vast stretches of the eastern and western flanks of Manhattan not served by the subway -- or go to familiar destinations more easily and quickly.

But all this depends on the program becoming accepted. And that means winning converts, expanding it to more parts of the city, and ironing out kinks in the system. Some are already apparent. Too often, system malfunctions or mechanical issues are taking bikes out of commission. There’s also price. Is $95, which is much higher than in other big cities, too much for an annual pass?

I think the program could influence cyclists’ behavior. I find I cycle more calmly and more respectfully on the blue public bicycles. I am less tempted to run a red light, for example, something I confess to having done. This is partly because on the low bikes with step-through frame, I can easily put my legs down and feet out and wait comfortably for a light to change. But it’s also because I feel I’m representing the city, and I want to set a good example. Am I the only person who feels this way?

Will drivers be swayed by the ubiquitous presence of the blue bicycles, and become more respectful of cyclists in general? It’s a reasonable hope. As the programs continues to grow and find its legs, it’s an exciting time to be a New Yorker, and to be a part of a long-awaited initiative that is changing how people experience the city.