Citibank owner Citigroup has paid $41 million for one of the splashiest ad campaigns in recent history: The company has bought the naming rights for New York’s new bike-sharing program, Citi Bike. This week, New York’s Department of Transportation will unveil a map showing where all 600 stations and 10,000 bright-blue Citi-logoed bikes will appear by next summer.
Will Citibank get its money’s worth? That depends in part on how well Janette Sadik-Khan has done her job. Back in November, The New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman wrote about a ride-along that he did with Sadik-Khan, who is the city’s transit czar. She has led the charge to turn the city into a more bike-friendly place, and she has her work cut out for her. “The resistance of New Yorkers to new transportation ideas harks back, as Ms. Sadik-Khan likes to point out, to protests against the introduction of the IRT subway a century ago, and to the implementation of the grid street plan a century before that,” Kimmelman wrote back in November. “Progress can be hard to accept.”
His prescription was hard to accept for many readers, as he followed up to say the next day. “Boy, there’s a load of free-floating anger out there,” Kimmelman wrote. (As if this were some great revelation about New York.)
That bikes might assume a larger share of the room now occupied by pedestrians and cars naturally rattles those who don’t bike. But surely, as in other big cities, a richer streetscape can evolve from a new, permanent architecture that includes bike lanes. They already have increased safety where they have been installed, if we’re to believe the transportation department.
Last I checked, there is no constitutional right that turns our roads exclusively over to cars or that guarantees parking spaces to drivers.
Arguably, though, this mind-set is in fact locked in at the policy stage. Kimmelman advocates for “the permanent and consistent architecture of lanes needed to increase safety, reduce car traffic and encourage more people to ride.” But reducing car traffic won’t happen so long as developers and policymakers insist on statutory parking minimums, as they do in most cities. Sadik-Kahn’s well-manicured bike lanes cannot do as much to reduce car traffic as reducing the parking minimums that drive up housing costs, stymie density in urban interiors, and serve as a regressive subsidy for car owners. (All of those things are bad for building a critical mass for public transit options such as bike ridership.)
Bike lanes could help to bring about a change to this policy mind-set, though. Matthew Yglesias notes in Slate that renters in Chicago don’t appear to want as much parking as the city insists on through its parking minimums. There are efforts in Seattle and Cincinnati to roll back parking minimums or eliminate them altogether.
Ultimately, Citigroup is partially subsidizing a new form of public transportation. Enforcing the rules regarding bike lanes (rules that New Yorkers routinely ignore) will help to make that stick. But to change the urban fabric of New York City will require a look at the statutory reasons that no big American city resembles its big European counterparts when it comes to bike ridership. As for the New York anger-management issues, biking may be the perfect anodyne for neurotic rage.