Bikes can be an ideal urban transportation system. They are cheaper than cars, and often public transportation. They don’t run on a schedule. They are better for the environment, and healthier for you. And bike-sharing programs, e-bikes and bike lanes have made them easier than ever to use in big cities.
There’s a new policy consensus, and an emerging political consensus, about changing our transportation priorities in New York City, and ending the dominance of the car. That includes a historic congestion pricing plan to charge drivers who enter much of Manhattan during peak hours, as well as a hugely ambitious new statewide plan to reduce carbon emissions. Bikes make sense, and their revival seems well underway. The questions is who that revival leaves behind.
Bikes here have a class problem, as wealthier urbanites have flocked to them. New York City is filled with elites whose bikes cost more than a used car and who live in neighborhoods where bike lanes are more than a painted line, and a ride to work is reasonably brief.
At the same time, too many people in working-class neighborhoods don’t have local access to safe lanes or Citi Bike, the city’s corporate sponsored share program, and bike theft has been on the rise.
According to a 2017 report from NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation the vast majority of Citi Bike riders, who need a credit card to use the bikes docked through much of Manhattan and growing swathes of Brooklyn and Queens, have six-figure incomes. While the program offers steep discounts to SNAP users and public housing residents, only a relative handful of those eligible have signed up.
The city is working to make biking more accessible, releasing a 2018 report that calls for more bike lanes, changes in left-turn lanes, and shifts in traffic patterns. It also calls for continued shifts for street parking to better insulate bike lanes to make them safer as part of its “Vision Zero,” effort to limit pedestrian injuries and deaths from car crashes. The city is vowing to do more after a 14th cyclist was killed this year — up from 10 in all of 2018. (Notably, 10 of the 14 deaths this year were in Brooklyn, where there are fewer bike lanes altogether, and far fewer of the protected lanes that actually separate bikes from cars.)
The city needs to create the infrastructure and also provide bikes where people could use them most, as working-class populations have shifted greatly in New York City due to gentrification. Whole sections of Manhattan, Harlem and Hell’s Kitchen, as well as Williamsburg, Red Hook, and Bushwick in Brooklyn have seen working-class residents pushed further out—often out beyond the Citi Bike map, where longer commutes and the lack of infrastructure make bikes that much less appealing.
There’s no one answer here, but one good step would be a Citi Bike dock at every public school, and accessible, at no charge, to every student. That would get many more working-class New Yorkers pedaling, and change our bike culture.