(c) Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Nobody wants to have the debate about the Totalitarian Bikes, ever since Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal said they were "totalitarian" and got mocked (see also below) -- but of course, they are.
"Do not ask me to enter the minds of the totalitarians running the government of this city," she snapped to the horror and fascination of the left -- but she was right about some things because we never got to vote on them.
This is very hard to admit, given that they are ubiquitous now, "accepted," and lots of yuppies and hipsters and tourists love them and ride them around. But I've been documenting a half dozen of them around my apartment buildings ever since they came out, and I'm here to deliver a bitter critique of them. (I will find and put up some of my pictures soon.)
First of all, why do I call them "totalitarian"?
Because we didn't get to decide democratically about them.
They were imposed on us. I don't recall a single assembly member or council member or borough president saying, hey, do you like this bikes idea? Ever. In our lives. Just didn't happen. It was sprung on us. No discussion. No prelude -- just arriving one morning out of the blue, literally.
We didn't get a say on their cost, implementation, maintainance, or impact, and that's a huge problem. Why?
Because there are issues with them which don't seem to be getting discussed.
Oh, sure, there are adulatory pieces in the yuppie and hipster press, on blogs, on local websites, and they -- oh, sell coffee or boutique food truck offerings...or something.
There's some articles, for example this one, that lets us know WHAT A LOSS it has suffered from poor management, weather (Hurricane Sandy!), balancing issues, etc. We learn that this yuppie hipster health heaven cost us $9 million. That is runs at a loss.
DeBlasio has ruled out any city investment in this black hole -- funny, that, coming from this health/pet/socialist. But there it is -- he thinks business should shoulder the burden, even though it does nothing for Citibank or any other businesses that have incurred losses -- I suppose, except the bike supply business.
1. There is an implication that the system is run by Citibank, or Citibank has kicked in all the money for them, or the city pays for them, or that their revenues go to pay their upkeep and even provides funds for other city programs -- but there's the thing: I found that in fact there is a German company involved, evidently as supplier, and I have this on absolute authority. Naturally, to stay in business they need to make a profit from this venture. There's nothing wrong with that, but was there a bid? Was there a democratic discussion about this business model? I can't say more but there it is -- it must be investigated so we understand "who benefits". I don't see any guarantee that the city of New York benefits -- it may be that the Germany company wins, we take a loss, and Citibank gets free advertising.
UPDATE: This source (very informed and well-placed) said "German company" but could they mean Canadian? The supplier is Bixi, and it's going bankrupt -- a story that is removed from the web site but I found it in Google cache. What's up? And Bixi is not the only company involved; Alta in Portland, OR is another company involved in running it (see below). Just how many companies are behind the scenes?
2. The bike costs are high -- only the affluent or occasional user can really justify that, but given that we have such a high percentage of affluent in New York City, they get high and visible use -- except where they don't. No effort was made to "load balance" or make the system flexible enough to remove or move. There are pockets where they sit unused, however, in poorer areas. I see rows and rows of them unused on a daily basis.
3. Every night, these bikes are washed. Yes, a crew of night workers comes around and hoses them all down with soap and water, mops them with big mops, and moves on to the next one. The people who do this get minimum wage or slightly above. I've talked to them. There appear to be only a few crews for the entire city as they can quickly go through them. But they do cost money.
4. The bikes sat out in the open in the snow and sleet all winter, and now are sitting out in the mud and rain in the early spring. Yes, they sat there, in the snow. So they rust, they need repairs/replacements -- and yes, trucks come for them in the middle of the night (caught above) and replace them -- more expense. Yes, I've caught them bringing new bikes out of those vans into the existing racks -- and I've also seen broken bikes sitting in the racks, sometimes with home-made signs on them.
5. The bikes take up parking spaces -- oh, do they take up parking spaces! I see 5 or 10 at a pop on each of these stands, and as I said, I have about six of them just in my immediate walking area. So yes, this means 30-60 parking spaces simply removed from an area that cannot afford them -- the parking lots even in the buildings where you live and pay rent are ridiculously expensive; the day parking lots are prohibitively costly; the monthly open-air parking lots are still expensive -- people struggle to park on the street, and struggle with the insanity of alternate-side-of-the-street parking in New York City. Yuppies and Hipsters might take the bus or ride the bus; it's the working stiff that has to put in a day as a claims adjuster in an insurance company who needs a car, or in fact an MTA worker who has to drive to the bus yard. These people need cars; they now have less place to park them for free, without risking tickets, and that's awful.
6. The bikers are dangerous to themselves and others -- the whole bike lane thing is something that never really grafted on to the narrow and busy streets of NYC, which already had to endure the capture of part of them as bus lanes some years ago. With the parking now put a length away from the curb and cars coming and going and car doors opening, you can't always see bikes whizzing by, and they can't always see cars and doors. We don't see any statistics on injuries or accidents -- it's an invisible topic for the media because they are yuppie boosters of the bikes as an environmental and health concept.
7. We also don't get any reporting on what real help they are to air pollution. People who have cars tend to really need them to drive to Queens -- as I just said -- and bikes won't really do, it's too long a trek. A lot of people don't even have cars in NYC, they take public transport (like me). So you're denting the population not with cars (who would want to tend to keep and drive their personal cars), you're denting the population taking public transport, particularly buses for shorter distances or cross town. So let's say a bus holds 60 people -- 10 people opt to take the bike -- that same bus still goes out, polluting the air, only holding 10 less people now and therefore functioning at less efficiency. There aren't *so* many bike-riders as to remove the necessity for buses or make for less busses -- there probably never will be because...
8. The cost of the bikes are just too high, but worse they have a PUNISHMENT built in to them to gouge more money out of the user which is a significant brake on its use and reveals it just to be ultimately a cash shake-down machine. Here's the problem: you can't just pay $9.99 and go for an hour, and then pay another fee hourly or daily at a reduced but steady rate when you're ready to bring it back.
If you don't get the bike back to another Citibike station within half an hour, you will be wacked by the next hourly fee if you are late by a minute. This is hugely annoying because it means you can't just go for a spin -- say, pick up the bike and ride around on -- hey! -- the bike path along the East River or Hudson River and then just pay an hourly rate that debits when you return.
In fact, the Citibike system is designed as a disincentive to ride the bike for long periods up and down the huge traffic-free and stoplight free paths along the rivers -- and is especially a disincentive to stop and have a picnic or read a book. Because you are punished with additional fees if you *don't get the bike to the next station*. The bike is socially-engineered to FORCE you to ride it to work, or to some specific destination within 30 minutes, and leave it at the next drop-off. This is the single main reason people won't use it -- and BTW, it doesn't work this way in other cities where bikes are either free or at an hourly rate billed for usage or debited if you never bring it back -- but not slamming you after such a short time.
9. The bike is capturing and storing all your travel data, which is of course captured with your name and credit card information. I've asked question of the managers when they came on a Reddit AMA and asked elsewhere about "what they do" with this data -- I never got an answer. No doubt they claim they disaggregate it which is what all data-scrapers do.
But you can see why this system was forced into place, undemocratically, with huge loss of parking an additional upkeep expenses and annoyances: somebody thought it was just a great system to gather lots of Big Data to play with -- they are now awash in it and having the time of their lives -- it's a geek's dream. They know how many people use the bikes, when, where, for how long, etc. There's no evidence that they're using this practically to retire some of the bike stations never used or reduce them in size to stop taking up parking. They're just grabbing data -- and PS that data is about how healthy you are, too.
UPDATE: I suspected that there is software malfeasance back of all this -- the frenzy about start-up bike sharing is the coder's socialist people-engineering dream come true as I know from seeing various systems demo'd at TechCrunch -- and I was right. This article says the software made by 8D Technologies isn't up to snuff and there were problems. "Both Citi Bike and Divvy, in Chicago, are withholding payments to Bixi because the software is not up to snuff." Hmm, open source cultism or lazy start-up culture? I hate to ask for the programming budget on this monster, I bet it's a killer.
But Ben Fried, editor-in-chief of Streetsblog, which is at Ground Zero for the biking lobby and socialist undemocratic urbanism, claims the problem is that Bixi ditched 8D Technologies, a Montreal-based company, and then Bixi itself went bankrupt, making it appear as if the problem was Bixi's ditching, not the software.
I'm totally skeptical. I am wondering why there are so many companies and suppliers and sub-contractors on this caper -- and all outside our city! That makes it hard to monitor and manage with a customer-intensive operation like this -- and truly, why are Canadian companies are brought in when New York City needs business like this. What's up? Was there a bid? Did they come in cheapest or best? or it is computer cronyism? How were the companies selected?
10. The system, of course, has more than a little nanny-state feel, for which our former Mayor Bloomberg, who was supposed to be a libertarian, became infamous in his later years (he was also going to limit the size of Big Gulp drinks out of the 7/11, which was insane, because people would just then buy two anyway). The idea is that we would all just grab a bike, ride to work or to the store or to friends, and get in shape by using it at least 30 minutes a day. But while some segment of the population may do that, others find it too expensive, too risky, too annoyingly restrictive, and too much of a loss compared to other things we need in this city -- like parking.
11. If you asked the public (me, for example), what they'd like to do with X million dollars for the public, I'd prefer after-school programs for kids that had playground equipment, gardens for planting, various games, educational activities, etc. So many of these programs were closed, or moved to outrageous costs a few years ago. Having people, especially young people, kept engaged in those crucial hours of 3-6 before their parents get home for work, and when they are likely to make trouble or get into drugs or alcohol -- that's more important than having the hipsters get healthy when they can afford to buy their own bikes and go on the existing bike paths for exercise. Riding in stop-and-start traffic in exhaust fumes doesn't strike me as a health addition.
These bikes don't serve me -- and I like bikes, I have gone biking on vacations the last few years, and we all happen to have used or new bikes in our family to ride on the bike path, as do most of our friends or family. Used or refurbished bikes -- if you're not going in some marathon race -- aren't that expensive, truly.
And then there's the issue of helmets. When you have your own bike and you're on the path, you tend to wear your helmet. Nothing in the Citibikes encourages helmets. They aren't for rent. There are no ads for even purchase of them nearby. Nothing. How many are getting injured without them?
So at this point, I'd like reporting, I'd like numbers, I'd like real democratic and transparent debate -- and I'd like change. At the very least, tear up the bike racks that don't get used, and don't put them every few blocks --- that's nuts. The same yuppies who want the exercise in the first place can walk a block or three, my God.
My bottom line on this: I don't want reporting from biased papers like Streetblog and boosters of undemocratic socialism. I'd like mainstream, critical press to run these numbers and look at the performance of these companies.
Yes, there have been short, anecdotal articles like this blog in the liberal NYT that is mainly an uncritical booster of the program:
The hard truth lurked behind the gates of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where employees of Citi Bike were tasked with testing the program last spring after nearly a year of delays.
As workers soon realized, the system was not completely ready, plagued by fussy software and managed by an Oregon company that strained to tame its sprawling New York City arm.
Privately, officials in the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg were urged to consider another delay. But with less than a year left in office, they were clear in their response: Perfect or not, Citi Bike’s time had come.
Yet another indication that this utopian project was software-driven, by coders and their choices, and not consumer-driven with actual field data and feedback. The signs were everywhere -- and they are now bearing out.
But what I mean by investigative journalism would be something much more thorough that studied the background for how companies were chosen, whether there were bids, how performance was judged, where the funds are coming from, where the revenue is going, etc. Charts, graphs, with real revenue from credit-card payments, annual memberships, maintenance cost (they do say $10 million in damages from Sandy was incurred!), etc.
To be sure, we have gotten this gem from the hipster NYT reporters:
The Alta team, based in Portland, Ore., has at times been frustratingly disengaged, supporters of the program say. Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a rider advocacy group that helped bring bike sharing to New York City, said the company appeared “content just to sort of let the New York system founder.”
The reason why the system doesn't work is obvious now: it's designed and run from Portlandia.