Better Bike Sharing

Some interesting and encouraging news on New York’s Citi Bike program: it’s doing great!  It’s beating benchmarks from other large cities, most likely because it’s really well-suited for the public transit system.  Nobody really wants to commute across the city on a bike; but a lot of people might prefer a 5-minute bike ride to a 20-minute walk or 10 minutes spent idling waiting to transfer to another subway line.  New York, with its dense transit network, is probably an especially good fit for a bikeshare program.

While this is encouraging news, it’s actually a little discouraging for urbanists.  It’s another reminder that in urbanization, path dependency is really important and success begets success.  Bike share works better in New York because it’s a complement to its other transit options and in some small way the bike share is similarly enhancing the value of the New York City subway system.  You can’t just plop a bike share down in Austin or Raleigh and expect similar results.  Bike shares are complementary to the overall technological package that is the modern city, definitely not a supplement for more serious transit options.  For that, you really have no choice but to bite the bullet and put in the heavy rail (subway) that makes the whole thing work.

For an optimistic case, Citi Bike is a great bed to see if successful public programs really do create constituencies.  Rich people went balls-to-the-wall to stop Citi Bike, but Bloomberg pushed them through.  Now that they’re actually here, commuters have adopted them with aplomb.  And I kind of like them too – all the people zipping around on the bikes do actually lend the place more of a communal neighborhood-y feel (especially when you’re outside of Midtown and the people on bikes are actually residents).  It will be interesting to see whether this becomes a self-reinforcing program.  If so, it’s a neat test bed and suggests that urbanists should fight hard for small practical projects rather than “one big shot” projects, because the projects that get built in a timely manner will strengthen their constituencies and make the next step easier.

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