On a recent spring evening at Lighthouse International on East 59th Street, a meeting room looked as if it were holding a board game meet-up. More than 40 people clustered around tables in groups of five or six, placing small green and red arrows on a laminated map of city streets. All the attendees were residents of Manhattan’s Community Board 8, who were there to not only hear short presentations by representatives from the Department of Transportation (DOT), but to help on its newest initiative: the highly anticipated bike share program, scheduled to launch this summer.
Workshops like this around the city, sponsored by the DOT and community boards, have included residents in many aspects of the bike share discussion, down to asking them where they would locate bike share stations in their community.
In the fall, the DOT announced its partnership with Alta Bicycle Share, a company running similar programs in Boston, Chicago and Washington. No tax dollars are being used for the program — Alta is footing the bill, aided by annual membership that will cost less than a monthly MetroCard. Unlimited trips for up to 45-minutes in length are covered under that membership plan, and one-day and other membership plans will also be available. The first phase of the project rolls out 10,000 bikes and 600 stations, and will initially serve Manhattan below 81st Street, and extend into Brooklyn as far as Park Slope, Bedford-Stuyevsant and Crown Heights.
Bike lanes in New York City, while popular, have been contentious in some places, even leading to a high-profile lawsuit in the case of the Prospect Park West bike lane in Park Slope, Brooklyn. However, public controversy over the bike share program is virtually non-existent.
Craig Hammerman is the district manager for Community Board 6 in Brooklyn, which covers Park Slope. While Hammerman says “any bicycle-related mention” sparks debate in the community that often hinges on both a cultural and generational divide, bike share has been “nowhere near as big an issue” as the Prospect Park West bike lane, or the installation of any permanent bike lane.
Hammerman says the inherent flexibility of the program — none of the bike stations are permanently installed, for example — makes it less of a threat.
Rob Perris, district manager for Community Board 2, which covers Downtown Brooklyn and its surrounding neighborhoods, said the initial response of the transportation committee for the community board was mixed.
“There was a presumption that the people that would utilize it would be novice cyclists, tourists and the occasional rider. People who have a poor sense of how to get around and an even poorer sense of the rules of the road,” he said.
But once the DOT visited with the community board, the fears dissipated. When asked if the DOT was being more open with the community when it came to the bike share program, Perris said “cautious” was a more appropriate word.
“Bike share is a big project –– monetarily, geographically, programmatically –– and DOT wants, nay needs, it to succeed,” he said. “If there is push-back on a bike lane, DOT can shelf the idea and bring it out again later. Bike share has to work, system-wide, on roll-out.”
The fact that the Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan is bike-friendly does not guarantee the project’s success. The department has relied heavily on outreach to see the bike share program come to fruition.
“We perform robust community outreach on our projects and have held dozens of public demonstrations, community board presentations and workshops for bike share over the last six months,” said department spokesperson Seth Solomonow. “Outreach like this is critical in developing improvements to our streets and a key reason why many successful projects have been developed and implemented.”
At the bike share presentation on East 59th Street, some concerns about safety arose. One attendee, Madelaine Piel, wondered about cycling accidents.
“What about accidents? Will they sue the city? I would say that’s a major concern,” she said.
A DOT employee responded that the city’s corporation council had reviewed the contract with Alta Bicycles and there was no need for concern.
In Chinatown and the Lower East Side, where multiple cycling-related deaths have occurred, the response to bike share has also been positive. According to David Crane, who chairs Manhattan Community Board 3‘s transportation committee, bike share is one of the only transportation issues that has been “non-controversial.”
“No one has taken the opportunity to complain,” he said, adding that if there was something to complain about, community members would do so.
The main concern in the neighborhood, he said, is that the stations are located where they are most needed.
“A large part of this neighborhood is a 10-minute walk from the subway, at least,” he said. “We want to make sure there will be depots along Avenue D and at the NYCHA housing projects.”
Interest in the program has been extremely high as well, with multiple community boards reporting dramatic attendance at bike share meetings.
For the next couple of months, DOT will work with community boards on where each bike station will be located. Come summer, the bicycles should be ready for New Yorkers.