Gotham's gentry has met its nemesis: shareable bikes. The long-awaited Citibike bike-sharing program is scheduled to debut in New York on May 27, when dozens of empty bike stations already installed throughout Manhattan and west-central Brooklyn will fill up with blue, Citibank-branded bikes. Like similar (and quite successful) programs in D.C., Paris, and Minneapolis, riders will be able pick up a bike at one station and drop it off at any of the rest, making it a healthy alternative, in many cases, to riding the subway.
To the denizens of brownstone Brooklyn and Greenwich Village, however, the Citibike program amounts to an urban insurrection. The residents of at least two co-op apartment buildings, in Brooklyn Heights and the West Village, are suing the City of New York for installing a pair of the program's electronic bike racks nearby. "Another half-dozen challenges are in the works," says the New York Post. Meanwhile the rhetoric deployed to criticize the proliferating stations has veered toward the terroristic. A Friday morning op-ed in the New York Daily News histrionically compared the bike program to "the overreach of Al Qaeda in Iraq," and during a recent meeting among residents of Manhattan's Community Board 2, a prominent speaker likened one installation in a SoHo park to the work of the Taliban:
Sean Sweeney, the director of the Soho Alliance, likened the placing of a bike rack on the spot where public art has been shown in tiny Petrosino Square to the Taliban’s infamously blowing up an enormous ancient Buddha cliff carving. "D.O.T. [the Department of Transportation] should be called the Department of Taliban," he spewed angrily.
According to the neighborhood paper The Villager, some concerns are pretty valid, like bike racks inadvertently blocking access to one side of a building, or occupying a row of parking spaces that local businesses depend on. But as Gothamist reported in late April, New York's Department of Transportation has already begun modifying select installations to appease neighbors' complaints. Which makes sense! These racks aren't heavy apparatuses — they're mostly made out of thick plastic, and draw all electricity (for credit-card processing) from a solar panel — and can be installed or dismantled within a few hours.
But the overheated tone of the recent outcry — al Qaeda! the Taliban! — suggests New Yorkers are about to enter yet another proxy war over the city's infrastructure, especially the streets where bikes and automobiles negotiate terrain. The issue here isn't so much bikes as it is the dense geography of New York, especially southern Manhattan, where every inch of publicly-owned asphalt is fought over. (Williamsburg witnessed a small preview in 2010, when newly-arrived cyclists battled the neighborhood's established Hasid population over painting dedicated bike lanes.) Indeed, the aforementioned Sean Sweeney told The New York Times in 2011, when Citibike was still being planned, that "he liked the idea of a bike-share program." Just not in SoHo.
It's too soon to say whether these skeptical New Yorkers will make peace with the Citibike invasion. You see cyclists everywhere in New York, of course, but this program is designed to add thousands more. Still, there's reason to be hopeful. D.C. residents had the same debate — during which the National Park Service argued, in utter seriousness, that bike sharing stations would "destroy the nature of what makes the National Mall an American institution" — and the program wound up being wildly popular. "If you'd told me that bike share was going to change the entire landscape of transportation in D.C., I would have slapped you in the face," wrote D.C. transplant Lauren Evans at Gothamist last week. "But it has. The bike share program there is a success—that much is obvious from the sheer number of them on the street."