NEW YORK — New York City is in a headlong rush to catch up with the more culturally advanced District of Columbia, but it’s got a problem. The city is full of New Yorkers, and New Yorkers don’t agree on much of anything.
You got your Yankees and your Mets, Knicks and Nets, bagels and bialys, Upper East Side and Upper West Side, Carnegie Deli on 7th and Katz’s Deli on Houston.
You looking for an argument? Bring it on.
Bicycles? New Yorkers love them, and they hate them.
Now they are about to get 6,000 more of them, when the city launches its own bike-sharing program Monday, rolling out the same sort of lumbering machines that have made Washington the bike-sharing capital of the country.
But compared with Capital Bikeshare, Citi Bike isn’t exactly gliding into hearts and minds, and that tells you plenty about the temperament — and the topography — of the two cities.
In the District, the scheme that lets people rent bikes for short hops caused scant hand-wringing, most of it over the lack of bike helmets. In New York, it’s causing a big fuss.
Like most New York controversies, it is louder than it is large. Average New Yorkers take things in stride. The rest of them complain. And then they file lawsuits.
“It’s typical New York. They don’t want change,” says Anthony Amato, 39, while walking his Boston terrier, Pandora, down West 77th Street. “And they don’t want it in front of their building.”
Most of the ruckus has been about this “it.” When were asked about the city’s relatively new web of bike lanes, two out of three New Yorkers said they liked them, far more than when Mayor Michael Bloomberg began installing them. About a third of the people surveyed recently by the New York Times said they might try the bike-sharing program.
Then “it” began to appear: long rows of gray docking stations for the bikes, sometimes 50 to 60 of them in a single block in midtown Manhattan. Worse than that, some of the almost 330 stations were installed on narrow neighborhood streets in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
It’s hard to find streets that narrow amid the handiwork of Pierre L’Enfant’s Washington. Wide downtown sidewalks and wide-enough neighborhood sidewalks leave ample space for pedestrians and bike stations to coexist in the District
Not necessarily so on Bank Street in the West Village. It’s about as wide as an alley, and it’s where the first big legal kvetch came.
A station and a stone slab to protect it were installed in front of 99 Bank Street, where studio condos go for upward of $500,000 and a one-bedroom sold for $815,000 last year. The lawsuit calls the docking station “street furniture” and a “vending machine” that’s bound to hurt property values.
What’s more, the suit says, it will block deliveries, pose a danger to children and the elderly, and generally annoy people on the 11-foot-wide street. Already, it’s collecting garbage and poop from dogs and birds, the suit says.
The plaintiffs demand $3 million for the damage allegedly caused by “it.”
“They’re popping up all over,” says Louis Changchien, 37, while chaining his bike to a signpost outside the Second Stage Uptown theater on the Upper West Side, where he’s acting in “The Tutors.” “Some of them are on narrow streets where there are precious few parking spaces.”
The narrower streets are safer for riders, he says. “But our city’s not built for this. D.C. has those humongous, wide boulevards.”
There are many things that New Yorkers could learn from the cultural oasis of wide boulevards, where the bike-sharing concept has flourished in almost three years of existence, growing to 22,200 members and 1,800 bikes.
(It should be noted, before Washingtonians put on airs, that Hangzhou, China, has about 61,000 bikes at more than 2,500 bike-sharing stations. And more than 500 other cities have bike-sharing programs.)
The biggest lesson, says Chris Eatough, who runs Capital Bikeshare’s Arlington operation, BikeArlington: New Yorkers will adjust after a while.
“We had some people here who didn’t want it in their neighborhood at first,” he says. “Then it switches, once they’ve seen it, from ‘We don’t want it on our doorstep’ to ‘We want more bikes, we want more stations, can you please put in a station right here?’ ”
These days, Eatough says, developers approach bike-sharing organizations with offers to pay to have a bike-docking station installed on their properties.
So, from the lips of New Yorkers, hear the fears and anxieties about the Memorial Day launch of a swarm of blue bicycles (and the lessons learned from Washington and a couple of the other cities where bike sharing has been established).
Robert Catarra is standing at the corner of 54th and Broadway, holding a long pole so that his sign appears to float above the crowd that parts around him. “Bicycle Rentals,” the sign says.
“We can’t do nothing, and it’s really going to hurt us,” he says, the sun glinting off two diamond-studded rings in his left ear and a grapefruit-size crucifix that hangs from a chain around his neck.
Perhaps not. Bike sharing in New York, as in the District and elsewhere, is priced for the short hop — 30 minutes or less. People who rent bikes from shops are looking for a more leisurely pedal around Manhattan. In the District during the spring and summer, about 50 percent of bike-sharing riders are one-time users, and half of them may be locals rather than tourists.
Two blocks away, at the very shop for which Catarra is the street-corner shill, everybody disagrees with him. They are, after all, New Yorkers.
“It’s for New Yorkers. We deal with tourists,” says Wolfgang Zernick from behind the cash register.
“It’s really going to hurt the yellow cab drivers,” offers Winton Bryan, another of the shop’s street shills.
Really? Perhaps so.
“It’s gonna be a mess, and it’s not good for the cab drivers,” says Mohamed Mady, an Egyptian who, after a decade driving a yellow taxi, is as fluent in talking with his hands as he is with any language.
In the District, regular bike-sharing riders use taxis 60 percent less often than they might otherwise.
“But New Yorkers ride in taxis a lot more than D.C. residents as a matter of course, because many more people don’t own cars in New York,” says Lori Diggins, a transportation consultant whose survey of Capital Bikeshare members was released last week.
Mady, who malevolently slams the brake and then the gas pedal as he weaves up Broadway, doesn’t think bike sharing will cost him money.
“Most of cab riders are women. They have high heels. Some of them take a cab to stay on their cellphones so they can do business,” he says.
He confesses that he is not fond of people on bicycles. Twice, his passengers have opened doors into cyclists. Does the passenger get ticketed? No, Mady does.
“Will these bikers be insured? Will they stick to the bike lanes?” he worries.
Which brings us to the father of the groom, standing in formal wear, libation in hand, in an arched alcove on Broadway that serves as shelter from a spitting Saturday morning rain.
“There’s a bike lane with a traffic light and they ignore it,” says Joe Rindler. “Already they don’t ride in the bike lane. This is only going to make it worse.”
The wedding photographer has just asked his son to pose in the middle of the new bike docking station.
In Washington, complaints that bike riders ignore traffic laws are a regular refrain. Observation would suggest, however, that people who ride the 45-pound bike-sharing leviathans are less prone to reckless riding than those on more nimble bicycles. Capital Bikeshare is past the 4-million-trips mark, and Eatough says 69 accidents have been reported, none of them fatal.
To the groom himself, New York’s bike-sharing plan is no cause for alarm. Even between father and son, New Yorkers harbor differences of opinion.
“They put one in front of my apartment building in Chelsea,” says Tyler Rindler, 36. “I hear people are suing and upset. I don’t see it. Are New Yorkers going to ride these? We’ll see.”