Friday, March 13, 2009

So how do we get New Yorkers on bikes?

In light of the MTA’s recent budget nightmare, and local politicians’ unwillingness to commit to transportation infrastructure, policymakers need to explore other strategies to improve mobility. - Eric Goldwyn [], New York City, USA


Congestion on streets, subways, buses, highways, and in airports robs the local economy of valuable productivity, and creates undue stress and discomfort for users. In 2006, the Partnership for New York City published Growth or Gridlock? The Economic Case for Traffic Relief and Transit Improvement for a Greater New York, a study that quantifies the financial impacts of congestion in the New York Metropolitan region. Growth or Gridlock? takes special care to distinguish between congestion and excess congestion.

Excess congestion is defined as: “traffic that costs more in losses to the economy than the benefits provided by accommodating additional shoppers, truckers, commuters, tourists, etc., on crowded roads.” Excess congestion implies that a certain level of congestion is desirable, from an economic point of view, as it indicates that there is high demand for New York’s businesses, attractions, and real estate. But, as delays prevent the maximum number of tourists, shoppers, and workers from gaining access to their end destination, worker productivity suffers, potential sales are never realized, and new jobs fail to materialize. In sum, the report claims that excess congestion robs the metropolitan region of $13 billion per year. (This estimation is debatable, but it’s clear that excess congestion is a serious problem that requires mitigation.)

Originally, the Partnership’s findings were used to galvanize support for congestion pricing. These findings, however, should continue to serve as a rallying-cry for anyone interested in improving mobility in New York City and the metropolitan region. The cost of doing nothing is too high, and unacceptable when other cities are successfully tackling the issues of congestion and mobility.


To attract new jobs and residents to New York City, local officials must invest in transportation infrastructure to improve mobility. Without a fluid transportation network that provides cheap, fast, and reliable access to jobs, attractions, and housing, New York will stagnate and lose population, jobs, and tourists to cities that make the necessary adjustments. Without decking the FDR drive or constructing costly subway tunnels, it is improbable that New York could accommodate additional car or subway traffic. Faced with these financial and physical limitations, policymakers need to reexamine the city’s existing infrastructure, and maximize its output. For policymakers to achieve this important task, they must think creatively about existing capacity, and incentivize New Yorkers to select modes of transportation that most efficiently move the greatest number of people.

Bike Share

Cities like Paris, Barcelona, Stuttgart, and Lyon have begun to address their mobility issues by developing a virtually ubiquitous and cheap bike share program that enables users to take out and return bicycles throughout each city. While these programs are still in their infancy, by and large, numerous studies and reports have outlined how bike share has contributed to reductions in vehicular congestion, improvements to air quality and quality of life, and have become an integral part of each cities larger public transportation network. Since bikes are significantly smaller than cars, they allow a greater number of people to move through the existing network of roads without building costly new capacity. A robust bike share program that draws people out of cars, subways, and buses will alleviate congestion by providing an additional transportation option.

Paris’ Vélib bike share program has helped combat congestion, and recorded 25 million trips in its inaugural year. Vélib, the largest bike share program to date, serves as a model for public-private bike share systems. The advertising firm JC Decaux paid roughly $115 million in start-up costs to purchase the bikes and install docking stations throughout the city. JC Decaux also agreed to pay the city of Paris $4.3 million per year and give the revenues generated by Vélib to the city in exchange for the right to control all 1,628 city-owned billboards. JC Decaux maintains and operates Vélib through its subsidiary Cyclocity. Since Vélib’s inception, Paris has seen a reduction of 6000+ vehicle miles traveled (VMTs). By curbing VMTs, Paris has seen faster travel times, improved air quality, and valuable savings due to the reduction of gas and road repairs. Through this partnership with JC Decaux, Paris has improved mobility and added transportation capacity by directing the revenue created by Vélib to improve bus and metro service, and build infrastructure dedicated to bicycles.

In its simplest form, bike share allows users to take a bike from point A and return it at point B. As bike share has evolved from an informal and unregulated amenity into an organized arm of urban mass transit strategies, new systems have developed techniques to encourage users not to abuse the privilege of cheap bikes, and incentivize short trips to maximize usage. New programs ensure user accountability by charging members a nominal subscription fee and requiring members to register a credit card in the event that they damage or steal one of the bicycles. As a means to extend participation and discourage users from hoarding bicycles, many programs start charging users after the first thirty minutes of a trip. By “giving away” the first thirty minutes of a trip, riders are given a strong economic incentive to use the bikes for short trips thereby encouraging a steady exchange of users. By combining cheap and easy access with accountability, Paris, Barcelona, Stuttgart, and Lyon have seen millions of people incorporate bicycles into their daily routine.

Barriers to Cycling

The primary barrier to cycling is safety. Interviews and studies show that the perception of danger discourages people from cycling. A recent study conducted by Jennifer Dill, a professor at Portland State University, confirms that both male and female cyclists view vehicular traffic as a major deterrent to cycling.

To combat the perception of danger, promote cycling, and bring public acceptance to cycling, it is imperative that cities install bike-specific infrastructure that prioritizes bikes over cars. Through a combination of bike-specific infrastructure improvements, public opinion and perceptions about biking will change—96% of bike share users in Lyon never biked in the city-center prior to the implementation of its Vélo’v program, which now boasts 4,000 bikes and 340 stations. The New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) has already begun its campaign to double the number of bike lanes by 2009, and has rolled out an impressive array of dedicated lanes.

There are other measures, however, that NYCDOT has instituted that confer important advantages to cyclists. A bike box, which allows cyclists to move in front of vehicular traffic at a stoplight, is one such measure that benefits cyclists by acknowledging their right to the road [insert photo]. These advancements are a great step toward making cycling more attractive to New Yorkers; however, safety will only come once cyclists take to the streets en masse.

The issue of critical mass presents a classic chicken or egg-type of dilemma: without the necessary bike-specific infrastructure, people avoid bicycles and without the necessary number of cyclists, bike-specific infrastructure appears wasteful. In Tom Vanderbilt’s new book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us), he explores the reasons why American streets and roads pose a threat to pedestrians and cyclists. Based on interviews, studies, and empirical evidence, he concludes that danger to pedestrians and cyclists stems from drivers’ inexperience with sharing the road. Since vehicular traffic dominates roads and highways, drivers ignore other users.

Vanderbilt goes on to explain, however, that when large volumes of pedestrians or cyclists already inhabit a portion of the street, drivers respect their space and the frequency of accidents decreases. Not surprisingly, New York City is the safest place in America to be a pedestrian. Due to the overwhelming presence of pedestrians in New York, drivers navigate the city’s streets deliberately, and keep a watchful eye for pedestrians in the crosswalks and in the streets. Without a similar prompt from cyclists, however, cars neglect to cede space in the roadbed to them. Vanderbilt ends his discussion on driver recognition of pedestrians and bikes with a simple aphorism that expresses why people pay attention to the things they do: “when you see more of something, you’re more likely to see that thing.” This logic suggests that the more bikes and pedestrians drivers see, the more likely they will be to recognize their right to use the street.

So how do we get New Yorkers on bikes?

Bike Share and New York City

New York City is an ideal candidate for a comprehensive bike share program because of its relatively flat topography and intense residential and commercial density. Because so many New Yorkers cluster around the city’s central business districts, biking will continue to grow in popularity as bus and subway service declines, vehicular congestion increases, and gas prices remain expensive. (NYCDOT reports that cycling is up 35% from 2007.) While macro-indicators augur well for cycling, data from the 2000 Census suggests that New Yorkers are an untapped group of cycling enthusiasts.

Specifically, policymakers should be encouraged by the fact that 1.4 million New Yorkers live within a bikeable 5-mile radius of their workplace. A breakdown of commuter habits shows that 1.25 million workers drive to work. Data released by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council claims that bicycle ridership has increased by nearly 400% since 1980. In combination, these facts suggest that there’s a large segment of the population that would welcome an additional short-haul transportation option like bike share.

When one looks at how other bike share programs have faired, it is clear that some users trade in their old commute for a bicycle, but more often, users incorporate the bikes into a broader multi-modal commute that includes traditional mass transit. In areas of the city that lack reliable public transportation options, for example, users could take a bike from a nearby docking station for the first portion of their commute and return it at another docking station located by a convenient train station or bus stop for the second portion. At the Bedford Avenue stop in Williamsburg, NYCDOT eliminated three on-street parking spots, and converted them into space for bike parking. On any given day, it’s not uncommon to see more than 40 bikes parked by the entrances to the station.

To reinforce this idea of a multi-modal commute, imagine that a commuter who lives on 81st street and East End Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side needs to get to the 6 train on 77th street and Lexington Avenue. Rather than walking a mile to and from the train every day, our imaginary commuter would take a bike from a docking station on East End Avenue and bike to and from the train station, before and after work. In this instance, the user saves time by biking the first and last portions of his or her commute. While bike share makes the most sense for commuters, bikes will also be used for leisure trips. A survey of Paris’ Vélib program shows that only 61% of bike share trips were used for commuting to work and school, while the other 39% of trips were used for leisure rides. The flexibility of bike share enables users to imagine their own outcomes and experience the city however they choose.

New Yorkers and policymakers should embrace bike share because it creatively deals with the costly and complex problem of congestion and mobility. For every person who exchanges his or her car for a bike, more capacity becomes available for everyone else; thus, everyone’s commute improves and congestion eases. When policymakers and experts debated the benefits of congestion pricing, one of the main talking points from the pro-congestion pricing side was that the geometric relationship between reduced congestion and travel times provided a substantial incentive to reduce congestion. During a typical 50-minute commute for someone driving into Manhattan, a 5% reduction in vehicular traffic will result in a 10% savings in travel times.

Over the course of a month, this reduction in traffic will generate a savings of over 3-hours per driver. (As congestion lessens, the relationship between reduced congestion and travel times scales back and the removal of each additional car yields a smaller benefit to drivers.) Bike share can help serve the same purpose of reducing congestion by removing cars from the street, and giving commuters an additional option.

As the current global financial crisis evolves into a municipal fiscal crisis in New York, the city needs to build transportation infrastructure to spur on job growth, accommodate new residents, and remain competitive as a global city. In this environment, it will be impossible to finance all of the worthy transportation projects that the city desperately needs, like the construction of the Second Avenue subway, Fulton Street terminal, Calatrava PATH station, Eastside access, and 7-train extension. Bike share, however, offers an inexpensive opportunity to capitalize on existing infrastructure and improve conditions for every New Yorker.

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Contribution by the author to the world wide collaborative project “Messages for America: World-wide experience, ideas, counsel, proposals and good wishes for the incoming Obama transportation team”. See for latest version of this report of the New Mobility Agenda.

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