NYC Risks ‘Bikelash’ as 10,000 Rental Cycles Hit Streets

Tom Holaday adjusted the seat for his 6-foot-4-inch frame, gripped the handlebars and took for a spin one of the thousands of blue bicycles that will begin appearing on New York City streets next month.

“It will change the way we think about streets,” said Holaday, 59, a computer programmer on his lunch break after testing the wheels in his business suit. He was in Lower Manhattan’s Battery Park yesterday for a demonstration of New York’s bicycle-sharing program, which will become the biggest in the U.S. when the rollout is complete in early 2013.

Three years in the making, New York’s bike sharing joins similar programs in more than 200 cities from Boston to Barcelona. It will initially be available from 59th street to Manhattan’s southern tip and into parts of Brooklyn and Queens. All 10,000 Citigroup Inc.-branded two-wheelers at 600 solar-powered docking depots will be operational by early next year, when the rental system expands north to 79th street and farther south into Brooklyn, city officials said.

The Citi Bike program adds to a years-long debate about New York’s increasing promotion of cycling by installing special traffic lanes reserved for riders. While Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other officials tout the safety of cycling and its health benefits, the lanes have been targets of neighborhood groups and taxi drivers, and a fascination of the local media.

‘Crazed Campaign’

The New York Post labeled the Transportation Department’s attempts to expand the bike-lane network a money-wasting “crazed campaign” backed by cycling-advocate groups and their “stooges.” A New York magazine cover story titled “Bikelash” detailed a months-long legal -- and ultimately failed -- attempt to rid a historic Brooklyn thoroughfare of its cycling lanes.

“There are 8.4 million New Yorkers, and I’ve come to believe there are 8.4 million traffic engineers,” Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, the architect of the bike programs, said in a telephone interview. “We’ve really set the table for a new way of getting around the city. Having a bike-share is going to be the mark of a world-class city.”

New York ranks 16th for bike commuting in the U.S., according to 2010 census figures for cities with more than 250,000 workers. A study of the data by Bloomberg Rankings shows that bicycles carry 0.66 percent of 3.64 million workers in the biggest U.S. city. Portland was first, with 5.44 percent, followed by San Francisco and Seattle.

Commuting, Errands

People like Holaday, who says he’ll use a Citi Bike to commute home uptown or run errands, are expected to be the primary users. An annual membership will cost $95 for 45-minute rides, while a 24-hour one will cover 30-minute rides for $9.95. Longer trips are discouraged: The system will charge additional, escalating fees past those set time limits.

Private companies, not taxpayers, are behind the funding for the program: Citigroup, the New York-based bank, is contributing $41 million to be the chief sponsor and namesake of the program, and MasterCard Inc. is behind the $6.5 million payment system.

Since 2007, New York has added more than 290 miles (467 kilometers) to the now more than 700-mile-long bike-lane system, part of Bloomberg’s efforts to tackle two of the city’s most persistent problems: congested roads and ever-widening waistlines. The mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

‘More Dangerous’

Skepticism of the city’s efforts can be found even among bike-lovers who support the lanes and share program.

Chris Johannesen, who rides recreationally near his home in Queens, said the bike-share will succeed only if riders feel safe on the streets.

“I love to bike in the city, personally, though I feel like it’s more dangerous for some people than others,” Johannesen, 34, said on his lunch break in Times Square this week. “If people don’t feel safe riding the bikes in the city, then it may never take off.”

Construction has begun on the extension of existing bike routes on First, Eighth and Ninth avenues and the addition of eight one-way lanes between Eighth and First avenues in Midtown, which should ease the crosstown slog, said Seth Solomonow, a Transportation Department spokesman. Twenty of the 50 miles planned for this year are done so far, he said.

The bike lines along Eighth Avenue between 45th and 51st streets were closed and taped off this week, with work crews painting some of the lanes a sage color.

Fewer Parking Spaces

Mike Ray, a manager at Ray Beauty Supply on Eighth Avenue, said he was concerned that the lanes are hurting business. They’ve cut on down on parking and hindered the ability of delivery trucks to access his storefront, he said.

“New York City was never designed for biking,” he said.

The federal government picks up 80 percent of the tab for the lanes’ installation, said Solomonow, who pegged the cost of the 260 miles done as of late 2011 at $15 million.

He calls it a “cost-effective investment” as streets with bike lanes have been shown to be 40 percent less deadly for pedestrians. Streets with protected lanes -- when the bike lane is separated by a concrete buffer from cars whizzing by -- have seen injuries for all street users go down by 40 percent, he said. Citywide, traffic fatalities are at their lowest since record-keeping began in 1910.

The city had 19 bicycle fatalities and 368 serious injuries to riders in 2010, according to transportation officials.

James Yeh questioned whether the bike-sharing program’s intended audience is enough to sustain it.

“Most of the people I know already ride their bikes and have their own,” said the 29-year-old fiction writer and copy editor from Brooklyn. “It seems recreational. If you were really serious, you’d buy your own.”