The Bikes and the Fury

 

Robert Stolarik for The New York Times

The city’s bike share program is scheduled to begin in May, but the stations, like these in Brooklyn Heights have caused arguments as well as excitement.

By
Published: April 27, 2013

In a very short time, New Yorkers will have the opportunity to show the world that they are just as virtuous, well-intentioned and offended by sloth as people in Copenhagen or Geneva or any other of a number of cities where mindful living and wonderful yogurts reign. The city’s long-anticipated bike share program is scheduled to make its debut in May, allowing New Yorkers to pick up and deposit rental bikes at hundreds of locations, most of them, so far, in some of the wealthiest neighborhoods. Anyone waking up on a Sunday morning in TriBeCa, finding nothing in her refrigerator and hankering to go to Smorgasburg in Dumbo, Brooklyn, for instance, will now be able to do that with relative ease.

Councilwoman Letitia James of Brooklyn held a town-hall meeting on the program in Clinton Hill.

So is this really the time to complain — this, a moment when progressive policy has had such an obvious victory? Virtually everything about the city’s growing bike culture has prompted vigorous argument and even fury. Now that the metal stalls and kiosks where bikes will be stationed are turning up in parts of Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan, the theater of operations in the war among cyclists and drivers and pedestrians has expanded and multiplied and bred new factions, even though the bike share program itself has been shown to have widespread support in polling.

Last week, street vendors in Lower Manhattan protested that racks placed on Broadway and Liberty Street threatened to displace their food carts and would force them to move. Shortly before that, Jacques Capsouto sat down on the curb to protest the placement of a bike rack in front his restaurant, Capsouto Freres on Washington Street, which possibly blocked a service entrance. The Friends of Petrosino Square, in SoHo, have fought the installation of a station close to the park of which they are advocates, believing that it would intensify traffic and impede safety. Such are the tempers in certain quarters that one member of the group created signage that called the Department of Transportation, which began the program, the “Department of Tyranny.”

It is hard to imagine that four decades ago, in early May 1971, fires were set and windows were smashed in the far reaches of Brooklyn in protest of cuts to Medicaid and other social programs, when so often now it is matters of lifestyle and taste that inspire our most expressive displays of contention and ire — our quaint revolutionary gestures.

On Wednesday night, a litany of grievances were heard at a town-hall meeting in Clinton Hill, in Brooklyn, which had been organized by Councilwoman Letitia James to address concerns about the way in which the bike program was unfolding. The undercurrent was the contest between young and old, between churchgoer and heathen, between the preservationist and the futurist, the realist and the skeptic. The bike stations were usurping parking spots — churches depend on street parking. Older people who are more car-reliant than Bianchi-reliant worried about parking as well; they also worried that bike stations positioned in the wrong places could make it harder to navigate sidewalks and cross the streets.

Citibank is the chief corporate sponsor of the bike program, and that fact is hardly obscured on the kiosks and bikes they have paid for. Some in Brooklyn have argued that corporate branding does not belong on landmark blocks; the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission approves of the program, however. It is hard not to feel as though that strain of dispute might have been squelched if the bikes had been brought to us by Whole Foods, rather than an organization whose subprime mortgage dealings helped bring about the financial crisis. On Wednesday evening one cycling advocate rose to suggest that if we were going to get angry about corporate logos in historic districts then cars should be made to disappear, as they are always announcing themselves as Volvos and Fords and so on.

This produced intense exasperation in the people seated next to me, one of them a fire lieutenant who was concerned that the bike stations — some placed on sidewalks, some on the street — would hinder ladder access to buildings’ windows. When an earnest woman took the podium to explain, in a way bound to invite derision, how agonizing it had been to explain to her child why one of the kiosks in her neighborhood had been defaced so quickly — slapped with a few sheets of paper declaring, “Landmark blocks are not for sale” — more frustration could be heard. “Your child will live,” the man seated next to me blurted out, channeling an entire world’s worth of antipathy to the relentlessly kindergarten-centric.

The area of disconnect the bike share program has most egregiously exposed is the one between the city’s understanding of community outreach and the way that information is received and processed in any given neighborhood. Many residents complained on Wednesday night, as they have in Brooklyn Heights and downtown Manhattan, that the metal stalls and kiosks seemed to appear, suddenly and out of the ether.

The Transportation Department has countered that its consultation process has been exhaustive, that it led and participated in nearly 400 meetings with community boards, business-improvement districts and other neighborhood groups and that none of the station placements ought to have come as a surprise.

But even now, in an era of hyper-localization, of neighborhood blogs and Patch sites, many of us have little sense of what our community boards are doing, little time to pay attention, and the boards in turn often are short-staffed and cannot possibly disseminate information on every issue.

A friend of mine, who generally keeps abreast of things, learned of a bike station going up near her apartment in Brooklyn Heights only when she witnessed it being installed. “New York is too mean for this,” she told one of the workers. “We’ll see,” he responded.

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