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BY BILL WEINBERG | As a long-suffering New York City bicyclist, I really want to take heart in Mayor Bloomberg’s controversial measures to accommodate human-powered transport. But since the very start, it has all smelled suspicious.
Five years ago, the “congestion pricing” plan to charge motorists to enter Manhattan seemed a prescription for accelerating the transformation of the island into a sort of Manhattanland tourist theme park. The closing of large sections of Times Square to cars has coincided with administration of this “public” space being turned over nearly completely to the Times Square Alliance business improvement district; adding pedestrian plazas to the west side of the East Village’s Cooper Square is similarly concomitant with delivering the historic plaza over to Cooper Union college and the new Grace Church High School as a virtually privatized space. And now, the new bicycle-sharing program vindicates my worst fears…
Let’s start with the name — which is not merely an aesthetic issue, but one that hits the core theme of private and corporate colonization of the public sphere.
By now we all know that these blue bicycles that New Yorkers are riding around on are dubbed “Citi Bikes,” with each one sporting the goddamned Citibank logo. Isn’t there something fundamentally perverse about Citibank cashing in on the opportunity for a little greenwashing, courtesy of City Hall? Are we supposed to forget that Citibank was the most intransigent opponent to sanctions on South Africa in the 1980s — the last U.S. bank still functioning in the apartheid state before it finally succumbed to a worldwide activist campaign and pulled out in 1987? It was only activist pressure that dissuaded the company from opening a branch in totalitarian Burma 10 years later. Even now, Citibank defies a campaign demanding that it condemn the “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda, another unseemly regime with which it happily does business. And the banking giant recently reached a deal to take over “Peru’s Chernobyl” — the metal smelting complex at La Oroya, one of the world’s most polluted sites, which local peasants are demanding be shut down.
And while the pricing scheme for the Citi Bikes has been modified to make it more affordable, there continues to be a $9.95 base price for single-day use. This allows unlimited half-hour rides, but with an additional $4 for the second half hour of any ride. And the price goes up to $9 and then $12 for subsequent half hours. So a one-time, hour-long ride will cost… 14 bucks? By my math, a four-hour ride would cost $49! Operating the payment system and also kicking in a few million dollars for the program is MasterCard — a company now facing a European Union antitrust probe over its inflated transaction fees.
So, a double insult! Having some sinister corporation get to splash its logo all over the bikes would be bad enough. And having the program be ludicrously overpriced (for those who don’t want to buy a $95 annual membership) would be bad enough! But… both?!
The bicycle-sharing programs in many European cities are free or moderately priced. (The baseline for daily use in Paris is under 2 euros.) How many contemporary Citi Bike users know that the first bike-sharing program was pioneered in Amsterdam in the ’60s by a radical counterculture group, the Provos? Before the city government got on board later, the Provos’ “White Bicycle” initiative was an “underground” program launched in spite of the authorities, and celebrated in the 1968 acid-rock anthem “My White Bicycle.” Now, two generations later, it has come to… this? Like all of Bloomberg’s supposed pro-bicycle measures, this represents elite, corporate recuperation of progressive, revolutionary ideas.
I’m increasingly convinced that these measures are doing more harm than good. Even as they spark a backlash from reactionary motorheads, they may actually be restricting the freedom and safety of cyclists. I’ve already heard stories of cyclists being ticketed for not being in the bike lane. Motorists meanwhile seem to think they are not obliged to respect any cyclist’s right to the road on streets that don’t have bike lanes, which is the overwhelming majority of the city’s streets.
A few months back, I was riding on one of those streets, Brooklyn’s Myrtle Ave., when (yet again!) a bus driver cut me off and came within inches and micro-seconds of killing me. When I caught up with him at the next bus stop and got in his face, I didn’t just get the usual arrogant and dismissive ’tude — he had the nerve to say, “There’s no bike lane on this street!” As if any cyclist on a street with no bike lane is nothing but roadkill waiting to happen.
You’d think it would have occurred to Bloomberg to instruct his notoriously pro-bicycle Transportation commish, Janette Sadik-Khan, to have a little talk with the M.T.A. chairperson (until recently, the now-mayoral candidate Joseph Lhota) and tell him to make sure bus drivers know that bicyclists have a right to the road! Instead, the M.T.A. seems to be instructing their drivers that cyclists have no rights.
This very tendency was acknowledged by Sadik-Khan in her move to eliminate those futile “DON’T HONK” signs from around the city: She argued that motorists may have been assuming it was O.K. to honk on streets where there was no sign. This of course raises the question of whether the city will take other, more effective measures to crack down on the incessant, maddening, aggressive horn-leaning. But more to my particular point: Will Sadik-Khan understand that the same logic applies to bike lanes — motorists now think it is O.K. to terrorize bicyclists on streets that don’t have them?
Another illustration of how bicycle lanes are counterproductive: I recently had to swerve out of the bike lane and into the traffic stream because there was a parked car blocking the bike lane. (This happens all the time.) The motorist behind me (in a big Mack truck, no less) actually sped up to intentionally menace me, while yelling, “Get into the bike lane!” And then (of course), the light at the intersection was red anyway, so he was just hurrying up to sit waiting a few extra seconds for the light to change. He gambled with my life completely gratuitously.
Obviously, this is inherently irrational behavior, yet it is practically universal. Systems theory tells us that the function of a system is what it does. We may think that the function of the automotive transport system is to move people around, but endless gridlock tells us that it is actually a very poor way of doing that. In its actual function, this system serves to A.) take carbon from the bowels of the earth and put it in the atmosphere, thereby destabilizing the planet’s climate; B.) displace greenery and communities with seas of choking asphalt; and C.) turn people into insensitive jerks. The kind of people who will kill to wait at a traffic light.
The Transportation Department has put up signs at certain dangerous intersections with an image of a bicycle and the words “SHARE THE ROAD.” Some do-gooders have left white-painted “ghost bikes” at places around the city where cyclists have been killed. It is all an exercise in futility that makes no impact on the mentality of motorists. I even had a motorist cut me off while indicating the sign and shouting at me: “SHARE THE ROAD!” — as if the sign were admonishing bicyclists to share the road with motorists!
The bicycle-sharing program was held up last year when Comptroller John Liu warned that it could be both a safety and financial liability for the city. In a report to the Transportation Department, he noted that in 2010, there were 368 bicycle-related crashes in the city, 19 of which resulted in a fatality. From 2004 to 2009, the city had the highest fatality rate for bicyclists in North America. I can’t go along with Liu’s call for mandatory helmets for Citi Bike users, because this could set a precedent for applying this to cyclists generally, and there are already enough restrictions on cyclists’ liberty, thank you. But I thank him for bringing these statistics to the public’s attention.
The automotive transport system is inherently irrational and life-destroying. We must dare to dream of its abolition. The counterproductive compromise measures ultimately only forestall the inevitable solution: banning cars from New York City.
And, eventually, the world.
Weinberg blogs at WorldWar4Report.com