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New York City on May 27 joined the ranks of progressive metropolises such as Paris, Amsterdam, London and Barcelona—not to mention Hangzhou, China—in offering residents a healthier mass transit option. Roughly 6,000 bright blue bicycles were unveiled at stations dotting the Big Apple in a new membership-driven bikeshare system.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the new program dubbed "Citi Bike" (thanks to $41 million in corporate backing from Citi Bank) to a chorus of cheers and bicycle rings at a press conference outside of City Hall.
The program is aimed to offer short station-to-station rentals as an alternative to subway and bus service. However, the crowded, traffic-heavy alleys of New York have some residents questioning the safety of unleashing thousands of bikes onto city streets.
"I guess I will have to see it in action before I can decide," said Meg Kutchner, 24, of Brooklyn. "It sounds great but I'm scared to ride in Manhattan. Taxi drivers are crazy."
Theft is another concern of urban riders. It didn't take long for the first bike to be snatched, either, as one intrepid thief rode off on one of the $825 bicycles while workers were installing a Manhattan station. Other riders predicted the adjustable seats, which are removable, would soon go missing.
Other cities around the world have launched similar bike share programs with success. The Netherlands offers a nationwide program called OV-fiets with over 1 million rides in 2011. And, Paris's Vélib' program offers a network of 20,000 bikes with daily use averaging between 50,000 and 150,000 trips despite a loss/theft rate of 80 percent.
The largest bike-share program in the world is offered in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang Province, with 66,500 bikes at 2,700 stations. Unlike New York, the Hangzhou program is free to residents and tourists with a $30 deposit. A March 2010 survey found that 30 percent of Hangzhou bikeshare users used the program for their daily commute.
Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn projected the bikeshare system will generate $36 million in economic activity and create 170 new jobs. The success of the program depends on mass participation, prompting a heavily publicized and wide rollout. Plans are already in the works to expand from 6,000 bikes at 330 stations to 10,000 bikes at 600 stations.
"This is going to be phenomenally popular," Mayor Bloomberg predicted during an event celebrating the national Memorial Day holiday. More than 14,000 city residents have already signed up for an annual membership.
"We have the A train, and we have yellow cabs, and we have the Staten Island Ferry, and today, Citi Bike joins the ranks of the transportation icon family in New York City," said Sadik-Khan. "It's been over 75 years since our streets have seen a new public transit system, and people are enthusiastic."
Sadik-Kahn said the multi-year outreach process before the launch included more than 400 meetings with community boards, elected officials, civic associations, property owners and other neighborhood institutions—the most participatory outreach process in New York City transportation history.
The program is being hailed as a victory for privately funded public works, as it is supported completely by corporate sponsorships and member fees.
"New York City's new bike share program is consistent with what Citi strives for as a company – it is innovative, sustainable and is designed to help simplify people's lives," said Andrew Brent, a spokesperson for Citi. "For 200 years, Citi's mission has been to enable progress. Sponsoring the bike share program is a unique and meaningful way to reach consumers and help improve the quality of life in New York City."
Not everyone is pleased with the two-wheeled development around town. Lawsuits have been filed by buildings and neighborhood groups upset at the large stations of bike racks that are quickly becoming ubiquitous.
One 80-foot rack was removed from the front of a West Village co-op after a story in the New York Post claimed an ambulance couldn't access the building in an emergency (The New York Fire Department later denied that EMS workers had difficulty accessing the building). The Post identified at least four additional locations where the kiosks have been removed or cut down for safety reasons or due to pressure from property owners.
City Comptroller and mayoral candidate John Liu spoke out against one station that displaced a public art space in Soho, despite being a member of Citi Bike himself, saying, "I don't oppose bikeshare, but let's get it done right without taking things from other people."
Despite the criticism, proponents of the program predict New Yorkers will grudgingly embrace the convenience of the program. Indeed, biking is growing in favor among commuters. Almost 20,000 New Yorkers commuted by bike in 2011, double the rate in 2006. Mayor Bloomberg and his administration have aggressively expanded bike lanes throughout the city, with more than 300 new lanes opening in the past five years.
"Citi Bike will offer New Yorkers an affordable way to get around today and contributes to the green-collar job base of tomorrow," said Dan Cantor, Executive Director of New York's Working Families Party. "It's a new sector based on New York's strength as a growing biking city, and today every job matters."
The author is a contributing writer to Beijing Review, living in New York City
How Citi Bike Works
The bikeshare program, privately funded by sponsorships from Citi Bank, MasterCard, Goldman Sachs and supported by $95 annual memberships, offers riders unlimited 45-minute rides initiated by a swipe of a key card at any of the 330 stations.
A one-week pass will cost $25 and a 24-hour pass will cost about $10 for unlimited 30-minute rides. Rides that extend past the time limit incur overtime charges, and organizers suggest riders looking for longer-term rentals are better off with private rental companies. Anyone who is at least 16 can check out a bike and a credit or bank card is required for a deposit in short-term rentals.
Helmets are not offered or required, as officials say it would discourage participation, but riders are encouraged to ride safely and wear protective equipment. The 45-pound bikes feature three gears, a rack and front strap to store bags. Safety lights are automatically activated by pedaling.
A free app for Apple and Android devices has also been launched offering Google-maps of station locations, as well as their bike and dock availability. The app also offers riders bike-friendly navigation to their destinations and will offer location services for nearby restaurants, shops and events later this summer.