Citi Bike’s Arrival Just The Latest Signal of Changing New York Bicycle Culture

By Jeremy Unger

Dash Hoying is similar to the used bikes he works on; now in his late 40s, he is as much a product of a previous generation of New Yorkers as the bikes he works on. The bikes Hoying has toiled away at for years come from a time when biking in New York was a fringe activity, one done more out of absolute necessity rather than convenience. With his tattered blonde hair falling in front of his face, Hoying continues to work outside on a bike as he talks adamantly about the shops he works at, Bikes by George, which is an institution of the East Village bicycle scene.

“These shops, the one’s that have been supporting the community for years, they’re so important because they have seen everything that’s happened, we know the importance of biking and its relationship to the city,” said Hoying.

George’s, which is so cluttered with bikes that Hoying has to do most of his work on the street, is one of many stalwart shops that now face competition from a changing New York bike landscape. Today, bicyclists are almost as common as taxis, hundreds of bike shops are popping up in New York, and this spring, Citi Bike, New York’s bike share program, will be launched with one of its 600 stations just a block from George’s. With Citi Bike’s release, a biking culture that has dramatically changed in the last few years will face serious division, as biking begins to head to the forefront of New York transportation. It is this effect, the sudden appearance of thousands of new bikers on the streets, which has everyone, from bicycle advocates, to bike storeowners, to veteran cyclists divided over the future of two wheel travel in New York City.

Yet the idea of a New York bike share program seemed impossible just five years ago, when bicycle ridership was less than half of what it today, according to the Department of Transportation’s Bicycle Screenline Count, which monitors bicycle traffic at key avenues, streets, and bridges to estimate total bicycle ridership. This year the DOT has seen Bicycle Screenline Counts jump to nearly 35,000, up from 19,900 in 2007.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push to make New York a world class bicycling destination changed the city’s landscape, with new bike paths increasing the total to more than 500 miles and new protected bike lanes introduced to protect bicyclists from other users on the road. While advocates still call for more changes to laws to protect cyclists from theft, taxis, and other dangers, it’s hard to ignore what has happened in so little time to bicycling.

“What the city has done, its changed the culture here,” said Brendan Brogan, who works at Recycle a Bicycle in Alphabet City. “Now everyone wants a bike.”

And with the massive boom in bicycle sales, the number of businesses selling bicycles and parts also quickly rose to more than 200 stores, according to Crain’s New York.

The culmination of New York’s bicycle transformation, Citi Bike, seems to be the tipping point for some members of the biking community. The program, which was originally scheduled to open last summer, is now expected to begin this spring after a series of delays, including some caused by Hurricane Sandy. Styled in the manner of European bike share programs like those in London and Paris, Citi Bike will eventually supply New Yorkers with more than 10,000 rental bikes at side walk stations throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens and will be accessible for fees of $95, $ 25, and $9.95, for annual, weekly, and daily passes, respectively. Anyone with a membership will be able to pick up and drop off a bike at any kiosk in the city, alleviating the need to store bikes in apartments or on the street, where they run the risk of being stolen or damaged. The program, which is being paid for entirely by main sponsor Citi Bank and through user costs, is bringing both positive and tentative responses from the bike community.

Bike shops, which are adjusting to new competitors as well as different consumer options such as Craigslist and the coming Citi Bike, are now more often faced with looking towards niche markets in order to sustain sales. Specialty shops, such as high-end seller Continuum in Gramercy and non-profits like Recycle a Bicycle, aren’t as concerned about a potential market dip.

“I don’t think it’s going to affect our bottom line, even though we’re going to have one (Citi Bike station) right out front of our store,” said Brogan. “It’s a different market than us.”

One market that will suffer is daily bike rentals, which many shops rely on in order to stay afloat. With Citi Bike’s easy access (swiping a credit card releases the bike from its station), comparable prices, and a big marketing push planned by the city, many of these stores’ revenue likely will suffer.

“There are a couple of them (rental shops) right around here, that offer great prices. But people, especially tourists, are going to go for the bike share because its easy and right outside the door,” said Hoying.

But the one positive that bike storeowners see in Citi Bike is its possibility to be a gateway drug of sorts for new cyclists, who will eventually purchase their own bicycles.

“If they get on a Citi bike and see that they like it, then a commuter might get hung up on paying every year for their bike and come over to our shop to get something cheap instead,” said Recycle-a-Bicycle Manager Patrick Tomeny.

Although long time bike stores may see the varying impacts of today’s changing bike culture the most, the more vocal concerns seem to be emanating from the most avid riders in New York.

“The danger with something like Citi Bike is that you’re going to have thousands of new, inexperienced riders out in New York trying to navigate with cars, pedestrians, and other bikers,” said Danny Isaacson, a New York resident and aspiring professional triathlete. Isaacson, who trains for the bicycle portion of his races at Central Park, often deals with numerous rental bike riders during his loops around the park.

“I think the situation in Central Park, where you have tourists crashing into experienced riders all the time, could be replicated all over the city with Citi Bike. People need to understand that biking in New York is still not the easiest thing in the world to do, and these new riders aren’t just putting themselves at risk, they are putting everyone else on the road in danger as well,” said Isaacson.

Even with all the additional bike lanes and other protections, new inexperienced riders are helping bike related deaths remain on the rise, with 176 bicyclists and pedestrians killed between July 2011 and June 2012, up from 158 the previous year, according to New York City’s Mayor’s Management Report.

But Miller Nuttle, a spokesman with public transportation advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, believes that new riders will actually help make New York safer for riders.

“Its like what we’ve seen in Europe with bike sharing. As we get this, for lack of a better word, critical mass of people riding bikes, people will just continue to feel more safe and see bicycling as a legitimate form of transportation,” said Nuttle.

“New riders are actually some of the most careful riders on the road, and the more careful riders out there, the more other cyclists will be careful and start obeying traffic laws.”

For all the unknowns ahead, cyclists, owners, and advocates alike seem excited to see bicycles finally get their place in the spotlight. As Dash Hoying talks about the new bike share program, he moves to work on an old fixed gear Schwinn, which he says is, “exactly what those hipster kids in Williamsburg want. Something simple.”

While Citi Bike may add a new cycling population of tourists and short distance commuters, the bike market, and bicyclists in general, will continue to hold on to the long held culture that remains alive even after all the changes.

“Today all we’re talking about is used bikes and these new riders that are just making do with what they have. But soon you’re going to have the convenience of a bike share program, and I think it (the bike share) will definitely impact sales, but whether that effect is positive or negative, we just have to see,” said Hoying. “But people like to have their own bike, whether its high end or vintage 10-speed. There will always be a market for people who want their own personal pony.”

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