Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Greening of New York: Reflections on ad-supported public bikes

Reflections on ad-supported public bikes in NYC

120 years ago the energy-multiplication device we know as the bicycle began its long climb to near-perfection. This simple object may be the best example we have of our ability to become the masters of our material world. It has achieved veneration among physically-fit professionals and, on the other end of the social scale, those who depend upon it for their very survival. In Switzerland, a healthy and wealthy country of six million people, over one million belong to the national cycling organization and it seems like every home has at least two bikes leaning up against the outside wall. It is time for us to catch up with the rest of the world’s love affair with human-powered and human-scale transportation, before it is too late.

The success of the standard model belies its potential to be transformed into a far more useful and ubiquitous aid to our mobility. Now that lithium-ion batteries have arrived, its evolution into the core of our urban transportation systems has begun and needs to be fully engaged immediately. This work, by artists, engineers, designers and others, can be largely self-financed, but the production of strongly durable and well-equipped vehicles will send the cost of some models quite high. It is by spreading out the cost of these vehicles among a great many users, that the cost per ride becomes affordable. Bike-share is our key to the future.

We can begin this design-quest immediately by creating a database of the best attempts to innovate in this field that have been attempted in recent times. We can also issue invitations to those builders, to help us to publicize their efforts and use them as a prod to others to contribute their efforts to this project. The second step is to invite these creative people to visit the former World’s Fair grounds, 1255 acre Flushing Meadows/Corona Park in New York City and bring their machines. We are already operating the boat and bike rental concession there (see LightWheels.com), and are working to secure inexpensive passage and freight from sympathetic shippers, to help these creators to show their work off and to connect to other builders and designers from many places.

Cities like New York are the best places to demonstrate the practicality of a major shift to human-scale vehicles in urban spaces. The upcoming bike-share program is the ideal medium through which the needed expansion in cycle utility and introduction of new elements can take place. This will never happen if the City takes the easy path and simply buys into one of the currently offered, turn-key operations. These companies have every reason to abhor the possible complexity to which cycle evolution is leading us. Their business models demand the greatest economy of scale and the simplest maintenance protocol possible.

Thank goodness a time-out has been called in the rush to create bike-share programs, due to JC Decaux’s cri d’agonie over $5,000,000 worth of losses and damage to its Paris fleet over a period of 1 ½ years. While this may be nothing more than a negotiating ploy with Paris, local governments, including NYC’s, are re-evaluating their options. While it has been universally acknowledged that the proliferation of bicycles and easing their availability are needed and wanted changes, and politicians everywhere are eager to accrue some green points by introducing them, this is a time for caution. The temptation for political leaders to seize on a turn-key system is irresistible, especially since the public is only vaguely aware of the exchange of services like bike sharing for some very large, and many more smaller, billboards, which is at the heart of this arrangement .

The leading companies in this field, JC Decaux and Clear Chanel are the world’s largest billboard companies. The industry began their dominance of New York public space in 1974, in the midst of the last devastating financial crises. They cut their teeth here by supplying barely-functional bus shelters with ads for cigarettes targeting their customers of the future, school-kids who used the buses. As in previous hard times they have the resources to completely equip an entire system without any cost to the contracting city, including an agreement to maintain the vehicles and other elements. They are especially welcome now that the hard times have again arrived for a while.

One advantage of being in an advertising-supported industry is that other advertising-supported businesses, commercial media, both print and electronic, are not eager to find fault with your (their own) product.

This free ride is the reason that very few understand that renting our eyeballs is a business, and hiding that fact from us is the job of everybody in the business. What makes “Out-of-Home” media (billboards) different from every other form of advertising is its coercive nature.

Aside from pock-marking our public spaces with ubiquitous corporate graffiti, it forces us to participate in experiences that we cannot avoid and therefore has a key role in breaking down our perception of ourselves as being in control of our own consciousness.

While local and directory advertising can be both useful and appropriate, (small businesses especially need to let their public know that they are there), endless streams of product ads are considered obnoxious by many and useless by everybody. In some cities like Portland and Philadelphia, there are advocacy groups who will not even allow any more ads on the street, fully aware of how unhealthful products have a way of predominating in low-income neighborhoods. In this case, many people who have embraced cycling because of its health benefits are the same people who find fault with endless rows of beer bottles, or even soda cans.

Bikes are a leveler, and all cyclists suffer from broken pavements and non-existent programs to remove dangerous and disrespectful drivers from the road, but bicyclists are still in a minority. The best way to improve conditions dramatically is to bring the 90% of the population that never or hardly ever cycles, back into the picture. The introduction of electric-assist vehicles and new kinds of recumbent tricycles with multi-passenger capacity, (updated 19^th century “Sociables”), and a continuous ongoing celebration of our ingenuity and creativity, including the chance to actually try these devices out in a big park with no cars, could eventually bring a big part of the entire rest of the public along for the ride, and create real political power and with it real change.

We must not allow long-term contracts with immense companies to gain control over our shared-bike facilities, just at the time when we need to reclaim this activity as our own. Their bottom-line generated priorities will demand strict standardization, which will suffocate the development of the new concepts and designs we so badly need. We cannot afford to lose the potential of the next generation of tiny, safe, fun and beautiful machines, to transform, and humanize, the texture of urban life. If you can help to publicize our efforts or put us in touch with the builders and designers who are already a part of this joyous research project please do it. Think about coming to New York City too, to a World’s Fair of Human-Powered and Shared Transportation.

Steve Stollman

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