What’s really the issue with bike share?

April 28, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Chicago recently announced that it will be the next major American city this year (after New York) to receive a bike-sharing system, which I’ve posted about before (more coverage also over at Streetsblog). Stations for Citi Bike in New York have already been popping up in Brooklyn.

However, as is usually the case with anything involving bikes, there is the loud NIMBY minority, with disdain coming from both residents of “historic” neighborhoods (something Streetsblog NYC has been good at discussing), as well as street food vendors in Manhattan (as if there aren’t enough streets in Manhattan). There’s a New York Times piece about it.

So many have already elegantly debunked the illogic about taking some parking space for bike share, but it is worth pointing out that most people on residential streets do not pay for parking (or pay a small sum for the privilege of “permit parking”, a sum which does not even begin to cover the cost of the valuable space). But this is not even worth explaining to a driver who likes their free parking, because, taxes.

Hubway bike share in Boston on Boyslon St. That’s 17 public bikes in the space of about 4 cars. Credit: Cityphile.

We will hear more of the same thing in Chicago when Divvy stations start appearing. Some have already complained about the price. Yes, $22 million is a chunk of money to spend on some bikes. Or is it? We’re already spending $420 million on a downtown freeway interchange that will benefit only those who use it, or billions on a new freeway out in the suburbs. For some perspective, the cost of those two projects could fund Divvy for over 125 years.

In New York, there is opposition to having a bank’s name plastered all over the bikes and stations. This is something I can’t argue with; I do not like corporate sponsorship on “public” property. Citi is paying for the system, but there is opposition to the corporate branding. Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C. does not have corporate sponsorship plastered all over the bikes. Neither does Vélib’ in Paris; however, French advertiser JCDecaux has rights to some billboards in Paris in exchange for paying for the system. That’s a little sweeter of a deal – with tens of thousands of bikes and tons of users, there is no advertising on any of the bikes or stations, but it’s still privately funded.

While Divvy doesn’t have any corporate sponsorship now, Mayor Emanuel has said he hopes to in the future. I hope not. I personally would not like to ride around on a “BMO Harris Bike” or similar.

Finally, the typical “cyclists don’t follow rules” complaint comes up. A video like this or a 15-minute walk in most urban neighborhoods reveals that many drivers don’t either:

Most drivers “stop” at stop signs at the same speed as people on bikes do.

All petty disagreements aside, what I feel is the biggest issue with bike share is how safe riders will feel when using it. I consider myself a “confident” rider in that I’m not afraid to ride around on streets in the city, but I still get shaken up when riding to work in the morning and home at night. Just this Friday I was honked at by taxis and drivers, and witnessed several drivers yelling out their windows at other people riding their bikes downtown. One woman told a pair of cyclists riding side-by-side (on a 3-lane, one-way street) to “move over!” repeatedly while honking her horn.

This isn't enough room for drivers? Clark near Illinois. Credit: Google.

This isn’t enough room for drivers? Clark near Illinois. Credit: Google.

This kind of verbal and physical harassment (it’s “physical” when a driver uses their multi-ton car to threaten you) is not something that will make riders feel safer.

We need to seriously ramp up our bike lane construction. The only protected bike lanes in Chicago that will be near the Divvy stations this summer are going to be around downtown, and the only protected bike facilities aren’t much to call home about. More are scheduled to come downtown, but we don’t have a lot of options elsewhere. With the Participatory Budgeting process almost done in my ward, fellow Community Representatives in our streets & cycling group quickly found that the City and State makes it very difficult to put safe bike facilities on most streets. Where they can be put, they’re fragmented. For example, a new protected bike lane on Broadway from Leland to Montrose will be built in the coming months. This is only a distance of about 3 blocks! Many residents expressed interest in cycle facilities that would extend south on Broadway into Lakeview, but the street south of Montrose is too narrow (roughly 36′). This is too narrow for even sharrows. CDOT said it would be possible to build better bike facilities if parking were removed.

Yeah, right.

Broadway near Belle Plaine Ave is "too narrow" for sharrows, even though every street should technically have sharrows. Credit: Google.

Broadway near Belle Plaine Ave is “too narrow” for sharrows, even though every street should technically have sharrows. Credit: Google.

It’s too bad to see that so many people want better bike facilities, but our fragmented, shortsighted government won’t build them in a meaningful way. The same city that wants to  increase it’s number of cyclists is powerless to change the driving school curriculum or test, how hard it is to obtain a license, or to meaningfully change the behavior of drivers.

Safety for people on bikes comes in numbers. Hopefully, Divvy and other bike-share systems will get more people interested in riding a bike for practical urban transportation, and this will lead to a change in how we prioritize roadway funding and space allocation. Time will tell, and it’s usually kind: When’s the last time you heard someone complain about the Dearborn protected bike lane?