Summer of the Citi Bike: Lower East Side Edition
Our July/August print magazine cover story focuses on New York’s wildly popular — and controversial — bike share program.
For a lot of longtime Lower East Side residents, Frank Arroyo is like family. If you grew up around here, he’s probably the guy who made sure that first bike you rode as a kid was the perfect fit. So it goes without saying that anyone who’s perceived to be messing with Arroyo, who has operated Frank’s Bikes at 553 Grand St. for 37 years, is asking for trouble.
Given Arroyo’s status as a Lower East Side institution, it’s not too surprising that a New York Post reporter, in search of an early Citi Bike victim, ended up on the eastern end of Grand Street several weeks ago. It’s also not very surprising that a May 27 story prognosticating Arroyo’s potential demise, due to the close proximity of a bike share station, ignited a spirited neighborhood debate and inspired dueling online petition drives.
“This decision is blatantly disrespectful of a long-standing and loved business,” wrote Leila Rosen, one of more than a thousand petition signers who urged the city to move the station from the intersection of Grand and Henry streets. Other local residents, loyal customers of Arroyo among them, strongly disagreed. A high-profile Citi Bike defender, former mayoral spokesman Stu Loeser, commented on The Lo-Down, “Frank is a lovely guy who has treated my family well; [but] someone should explain to him that scores more [local residents] biking regularly is good for his helmets and accessories business.”
Since the Memorial Day weekend launch of New York’s bike share, the largest in the nation, conversations like this one have been taking place across the city, as 330 docking stations and nearly 6,000 bikes hit the streets. The initiative, which the New York Times called “the crowning, valedictory piece of Michael Bloomberg’s extensive investment in cycling,” is in some respects already a hit; the system clocked more than 500,000 trips since launch. But on the flip side, the program has faced technical and mechanical glitches, criticized for inadequate outreach to low-income New Yorkers and derided by legions of bicycling foes as the latest imposition from an imperial mayor.
It remains to be seen how effectively the city can overcome the start-up issues and win over critics in this notoriously tough town. But the promise of bike share — New York’s first new form of public transportation in generations — is enticing. The Lower East Side, with its diverse demographics and large number of bike stations, is serving as a living laboratory, one of several neighborhoods helping to determine whether Citi Bike is merely a summer sensation or the start of a transit revolution.
LES resident Noah Wildman is one of more than 50,000 Citi Bike annual members. A serious cycling enthusiast with eight bikes of his own, including a tricked out “Knish Mobile” used for his fledgling food-service business, Wildman is a classic early adopter. Many days last month, he hopped on a Citi bike on Stanton Street and pedaled to his office at 56th Street and Third Avenue. Wildman, who’s had four bikes stolen in New York, likes the convenience of pulling into a docking station without having to worry about theft or how he’s going to get his own bike home if, for example, it’s raining.
“It allows me a new level of flexibility,” he explained.
If convenience is a top Citi Bike selling point, Alta Bicycle Share, which runs the program in New York, may have reason for concern. On the first Sunday the system was fully functional, four out of nine stations visited by The Lo-Down were not working properly. At one location alongside Corlears Hook Park, the kiosk was not recognizing credit cards. After 8 minutes and 32 seconds on the phone with customer service, a Citi Bike representative admitted, “we’re having a lot of technical problems,” and asked, “can you try another station?” At the Pike Street and East Broadway docking station, located on a center island also used by the Yo! interstate bus service, would-be cyclists were becoming frustrated. Several people tried to work the touchscreen to no avail, as bus customers sitting on empty bike docks looked on in amusement. A similar problem plagued the station on Division Street, near Bowery, where more than 30 bikes were lined up on the sidewalk along with a large number of passengers waiting to board three commuter vans and a Boston-bound bus. The screen had gone completely blank.
This experience was not unique. While the city has refused to disclose information about system failures, an analysis by WNYC radio showed that about 10 percent of docks were failing on any given day last month (although the failure rate dropped significantly in a followup check). Many blame new software developed before Citi Bike’s launch. Reuters financial reporter Felix Salmon, a bike share proponent, wrote in an early June column, “I hope it gets fixed soon, but I have to admit I’m a little bit pessimistic.”
Other complaints concern the location of certain bike share stations, where some residents have groused about the elimination of parking spaces or argued that designated bike share docks have been wedged into overly congested areas. One trouble spot is located on Elizabeth Street, below Hester Street, in Chinatown. The DOT eliminated a half-block of parking to create the station in front of several small businesses, including a grocery, jewelry store and beauty salon. Inexplicably, the station was dormant for three weeks before becoming operational last month.
Overall, the reaction on the LES and in Chinatown has been muted. Local elected officials and Community Board 3 report there have only been a handful of complaints so far. One possible reason: a fairly comprehensive community outreach program conducted over a three-year period.
Department of Transportation officials note they hosted 12 meetings and public informational events within Community District 3 before Citi Bike’s launch, soliciting feedback about potential locations. In an interview, City Council member Margaret Chin, whose office has received about 20 negative calls and emails about bike share, said she supports the program because it’s an important transit supplement in sections of the LES lacking easy access to subway and bus service. But now that Citi Bike has launched, she feels some tweaks are in order.
“It’s true that the city did a lot of outreach,” said Chin, “but it’s also clear that some of the sites that were chosen are not in the best locations, and there needs to be changes.”
Beyond the site-specific issues, bike share faces other obstacles, including a perception among some residents that it’s elitist. The tenant leadership at the LaGuardia public housing complex fought the installation of docks there, arguing that the bikes would be “just a toe in the door” for the growing number of affluent residents snapping up apartments in the neighborhood. Several media outlets have pointed out that most Citi Bike locations are in affluent areas, bypassing immigrant and low-income communities.
One of the few exceptions is the Lower East Side, one of New York’s most economically mixed neighborhoods. Among the more than 20 Lower East Side bike share stations below Houston Street, several are alongside public housing, including docks adjacent to the Alfred E. Smith, Vladeck and Seward Park Extension complexes. Yet when bike share debuted, it was apparent that these stations were seeing relatively little use compared with locations, for example, near the Grand Street cooperatives and other residential buildings with a high concentration of middle- to high-income residents.
Over the past couple of years, Local Spokes, a LES-based coalition promoting bicycle use in underserved and immigrant communities, advocated for bike share locations accessible to low-income housing developments. A coalition member, Dylan House of Hester Street Collaborative, acknowledged the city’s efforts, including discounted memberships for residents of public housing and members of the LES People’s Federal Credit Union. But at the same time, he said, “there is no real strategy for making it accessible to low income residents not in NYCHA.” House noted that signage at Citi Bike stations is English-only, with no Spanish or Chinese translations.
“Our focus now is going to be on pushing for more outreach and more publicity, really explaining what the bike share program is all about, especially in ethnic communities,” he said. Council member Chin agreed, saying, “more education is needed, more feedback is needed from the community.”
Within NYCHA, many community activists have noted, this is the summer of discontent, as the agency moves forward with a controversial plan to build market-rate apartments on public housing property. The Citi Bike stations popped up just as the debate over that contentious issue was heating up, and was perceived by some as another unwelcome private incursion.
Mayor Bloomberg has repeatedly highlighted the fact that New York’s bike share is almost entirely funded by private industry. Citibank is paying $41 million for sponsorship rights, while Mastercard kicked in $6 million. What the mayor sees as an innovative funding model for the cash-strapped city, critics find misguided. In particular, they find it galling that New York has handed Citibank, a much-maligned corporation that received a $45 billion federal bailout, an invaluable branding opportunity and a chance to repair its image.
When it comes to outreach, including within NYCHA, the Department of Transportation says its efforts have been unprecedented. Scott Gastel, DOT spokesperson, told The Lo-Down 435 helmets were distributed at the Rutgers Houses in early June, and more events are planned at public housing developments throughout the summer. Around 200 cyclists had signed up for discounted annual memberships at press time.
“We did at least 17 meetings and demos specifically [geared for NYCHA residents in the past three years], including the Smith Houses, and in both Spanish and Chinese, in addition to English,” Gastel said. “There is a bike share station within one block of all 29 NYCHA properties in the service area and bike share was featured in the NYCHA newsletter.”
Community Board 3’s transportation committee will hold a public hearing this month, giving residents an opportunity to sound off on the bike share program.
In the meantime, New Yorkers are learning to adapt. On Grand Street, Frank Arroyo is doing just that. In a conversation a few weeks after he became a tabloid sensation, Arroyo said he’s been busy def lecting countless overtures from Citi Bike foes, determined to recruit him as a spokesman for their cause. While the bike share location up the block from his shop was temporarily removed June 21 to accommodate utility maintenance, city officials say it will be back. Arroyo said he’s less concerned about its presence than several stations around the neighborhood’s hotels, the source of almost all of his rental business. When we spoke, he was planning to contact the hotels to make sure they’re still sending tourists his way.
“Bike share’s not going away,” Arroyo conceded. “I’ve just got to deal with it.”
Citi Bike demonstrations are scheduled at many locations through August. See the schedule here.
Community Board 3’s Transportation Committee will hold a hearing regarding Citi Bike locations on July 16 at 6:30 p.m. at I.S. 131, 100 Hester St.