A Plan B for New York's Bikeshare System
Mar 30, 2014
Rumors are rampant that New York City's Citibike bicycle share program is struggling financially after one of the worst winters on record. Here's a Plan B for improving and maybe even saving this valuable service.
Now that the NYC Bike-share program is under severe pressure from a weak balance sheet, it is being subjected to a measure of overdue analysis, to seek to improve, maybe even save it. The Mayor has invited Alta, the operator, to explore creative means to continue this program and pay its costs. In 2011, I was one of the 6 bidders for this contract. I partnered with Deutsche Bahn, the German Railway Company, who have maintained the sophisticated “Call-a-Bike “ system for over a decade. Their orientation is transport rather than advertising, so they are not concerned about earning income from sprawling, sometimes very intrusive, banks of “docking stations”, really huge 3-D billboards. They instead, have developed a means for bikes to be found and provided to renters through GPS, so they can be sensibly dispersed throughout convenient and appropriate spaces.
In contrast, the European billboard company JC DeCaux, set the pattern which is deployed here, popularized their version of the phenomenon and demonstrated that it could be done profitably. Their contract in Paris called for them to be given thousands of billboard faces in exchange for the right to put up conspicuous implantations in the most popular and congested sidewalks in the city. Ironically, it was announced, the same week that the distress of the bike-share program has gone public, that DeCaux has purchased the Spanish company who currently holds a 20 year long NYC contract, to build and maintain the 3,000 bus shelters, 300 newsstands and other street furniture here. Nobody would be surprised if they were exploring taking over part, or all, of the NYC bike system too.
The current business model made it possible to attract a $40 million investment by Citibank here, which has resulted in an advertising and PR bonanza for them. The positive exposure that they have gotten from this, all over the world, is invaluable. They can portray themselves as active environmentalists and responsible members of the business community, at the same moment that they are settling immense cases regarding the fleecing of consumers, mortgage holders etc. Regardless, they don't want to put up any more loot for the foundering system and the operators are scrambling for additional funds. Every other form of transportation, from cars to trains, is provided with government funding to various degrees. Half the cost of your subway ride, and a huge percentage of road building and maintenance costs, is borne by the public through government grants and expenditures. Not bikes though. They must be 100% self-supporting to even exist. Does that seem fair?
We need to attract more attention to the potential of human-scale and human-powered transportation to meet our needs. Until we are able to further develop the designs of these vehicles it will be difficult for the average person to visualize this change. Finding ways to encourage this activity, which are also within the range of available financial resources, is important. Here is one plan, to use the upcoming 50th and 75th anniversaries of the New York World's Fairs in 1939 and 1964 to capture the energy needed to launch a web-based celebration of human creativity, ingenuity and inventiveness. We can use all the help you can muster, so get in touch. Check out www.SharingUmbrellas.org. Meanwhile, here is a summary of our initial 2011 proposal, to organize and operate the NYC Bike Share program. The first element declares our willingness to go along with their requirements and proposed architecture. In contrast though, we saw this program as an ideal platform, from which to launch the next generation of high-tech, electric-assisted, weather-protected, cool, beautiful and exciting machines, the first step, rather than the last step, in the process
Our bid will consist of two elements. The first, which we refer to as Plan B, will provide or exceed all of the stated requirements of the current New York City Department of Transportation Request for Proposals:
10,000 identical, durable, bikes equipped with GPS and other electronics
10,000 “docks” capable of securing them throughout Midtown and Lower Manhattan
600 kiosks to enable users to access the system
Suitable locations to place the equipment
The ability to mount a test
Our improvements over the requirements of Plan B
Bikes: Don’t have to be the standard design because locating device can be put on different vehicles
Kiosks: All there but not needed everywhere. Re-configured by local artists to fit into the community.
Docking stations: 25,000 stanchions can go anywhere. No congestion created.
Ads: Primarily for suppliers is optimal. Minimized at least. Local where possible.
Scope: Citywide used by commuters overnight and visitors and residents by day.
Coverage: As many vehicles as needed, 50,000 or more as indicated in the City Planning Comm. study
Diversity: Of design, with common identifiers, and user groups, like kids and the transport-challenged
Participants: Local businesses, community groups, enthusiasts, artists, entrepreneurs, families
We feel that this program has the potential to provide an important new tool for improving this community’s physical health and economic welfare. This enterprise intends to work with local businesses and community groups throughout the city, and in nearby suburbs, to maximize bike availability for everyone and minimize the time it takes to accomplish this. We will also support the designer/maker community’s efforts to creatively explore the potential of slow-moving, human-scale and muscle-powered transportation, to rapidly evolve.
NYC Bike Stores
We have already gained the support of the two largest bike store chains and a number of independents in the NYC area, in establishing a program which would enable stores to cooperate in the development of this program. They derive significant income from rentals and it is possible that this encouragement of cycling may actually do some harm to their survival. Competition from the internet and mass market retailers, as well as current economic conditions has put great pressure on this business already.
The participation in this program of one of the major providers of social networking tools will enable us to organize programs to offer the additional safety as well as other benefits of using this activity as a new and very powerful form of live and in-person, direct social-networking.
Trade show aspect: As a supplement to the 10,000 Plan B bikes, we intend to deploy a large number of others, of the greatest possible variety of cost and type, for the use of travelers. We will invite a good many manufacturers, whose products are known to be of good quality, to provide from 10 to 100 of their bikes for this program. We will make sure that they are provided with adequate and appropriate security in a variety of forms. Some will have GPS devices, some electronic locks, others less expensive but adequate security devices. Each manufacturer will be required to make an arrangement with one or more local bike shops to maintain their equipment while it is in use in this program.
Manufacturers will be paid an agreed upon amount over the course of the three years of their equipment’s use in the program. If there are any significant equipment problems, any product will immediately be removed from the system. Surviving this environment intact will be a badge of honor and sign of quality. Potential purchasers of the bikes will be able, through the GPS system, to track the location at any time of every bike. This becomes the ultimate bike durability testing ground and year-round bike show.
Designer builders: We are missing many features on the current design of bikes, which goes back to the 19th century. Back than they had many features not available today, like the famous side-by-side sociables and we have never had weather-protected or aerodynamic models in popular use. If the work of making these newly evolved vehicles takes place in this city and they are able to be put quickly in wide use, we will see the rapid birth of several new industries. They can provide well-paying jobs to skilled makers, both creators and fabricators of green transportation devices that can be exported throughout the world.
Connections to Transit
We have had conversations with a number of people from the transportation agencies, the MTA, the Port Authority, NJ Transit etc. We have been encouraged on all sides and promised cooperation in the siting of facilities and other matters concerning these efforts. The Director of real estate for the MTA, Jeffrey Rosen, felt that there were numerous ways in which the agency stood ready to be as helpful as possible.
Input from the Community
We have contacted every Community Board in the city and asked them for lists of locations in which they thought would benefit most from a program such as this. The density outside Manhattan is only a third as great in some areas and the usefulness of this program is most evident in the areas with the greatest population and pedestrian traffic. Regardless, this equipment will be welcome all over the city, especially in those neighborhoods with sufficient activity to justify its placement.
Our intention is to make fleets of vehicles available to social service centers on a fixed schedule, so that they may arrange mass bike rides of their members, for excursions, as recreation and for healthy exercise. We will do this on a non-profit basis. This will expand on the social networking potential which bikes encourage.
Connections to Local Businesses
Aside from bike stores, who are to be included in this program to the greatest degree possible, we will also seek the cooperation of other businesses, especially those in the vicinity of sizable emplacements which are open very long hours. While the central system is totally automated, many locations around the city support business that keep long hours, add to the security of the system by their very presence, and who could sell memberships, or provide other key services to the system
Education: There are bike groups in the city, like the 5Boro Bike Club, who have developed programs for helping young people develop safe and sensible behavior while involved with bikes. Plan B, a totally-automated system, ordinarily does not permit the participation of children under 18 years of age. As long as proper conditions are provided, insurance is available for this type of activity and our system intends to maintain a fleet of at least several hundred kid-friendly bikes, that would be provided to registered legal organizations that have collected proper waivers from parents and made other needed arrangements, so that children may spend time on a bike getting some healthy exercise.
There are a number of programs in the city to help young people gain competence in the repair and maintenance of bicycles. Recycle-a-bicycle is the best known but Time’s Up and other organizations all provide opportunities to learn how to take care of bicycles, their own and, ultimately, others’. Some would like to employed by this program to earn some income and advance their knowledge in this field. Others could be on trikes, ferrying bikes around to needed locations from those that are overloaded.
The Creative Element
Decoration: Some find the uniformity of equipment in a program such as this to be reassuring and comforting. Others find the bland uniformity and repetitive commercial messages boring at best. We would like to encourage creative design in the way bikes look. While some common design elements are helpful for those trying to find or identify the equipment, it is otherwise unlike the existing bike culture, where the individuality of bikes is a source of pleasure to many. Giving artists a chance to put their mark on this art-aware city benefits everyone.
Design: The standard “Safety” bike was perfected in the 19th century and has been getting only marginally better for 120 years. It is time to move ahead on a number of important functional, experiential and aesthetic matters. Among them are:
Weather protection. There is a type of human powered vehicles called Velomobiles. Strong but light coverings provide riders with a comfortable journey even in poor weather. Utility. There are already bicycles made for deliveries, three-wheelers, some with freight-carrying boxes, etc.
Transformation. Through the use of advanced design techniques, bikes can be collapsed and folded, fitted with trailers and otherwise made more suitable in dense urban environments.
Access: The ADA appears to require than accommodation must be made for a variety of communities within this program. How to do that exactly is yet to be determined but discussions are taking place with informed and caring members of this community.
Innovative design: There need to be many more vehicles that permit those of varying abilities to ride together in a social environment.
Trikes aid those needing added stability, who comprise a very large group.
“TAB” (Temporarily able-bodied) co-usage: Many vehicles made primarily for the transportation-challenged can well be used by everybody. It would be a good idea for those who are still totally mobile to experience the kinds of vehicles made for those who are not.
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