Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Now We Have So Many Bike Racks And No Bikes

There’s a strange, wonderful short story by Donald Barthelme about a balloon that appears one day on Fourteenth Street and grows, like a low-hanging blimp, until it covers a good deal of Manhattan. It becomes an object of widespread puzzlement and fascination. Children leap across its surface. Art critics analyze its colors. City officers conduct secret nighttime tests to better understand it.

For the past couple of weeks, Fort Greene has been living out its own strange version of "The Balloon." On a handful of corners, seemingly overnight, bike racks have appeared. And not just any bike racks, but city bike racks. Or is it citibike racks? These, in any event, are the bike racks that we’ve been hearing about for months, the harbingers of New York’s new bike-sharing system—apparently called Citi Bike℠— that will, depending on your perspective, transform the city into either an Elysium of convenience and health or a corporate-sponsored hell-scape.

The bikes themselves, though, won’t arrive until late May. Which means that for a while here, we’re living with a kind of accidental urban art installation. There the racks sit—sometimes on sidewalks, sometimes in what were, just hours before, parking spaces—like rows of water fountains designed by Donald Judd. They have no present function except to irritate, to excite, to bewilder.

My neighbors and I stand peering at them, arms defensively crossed, asking each other, "Who’s going to ride all these things?" "How much will it cost?" "What about helmets?" "What about parking?" I have, in the weeks since the racks appeared, heard more public conversation about gentrification and urbanism than in all the years that I’ve lived in New York. Barthelme’s city-dwellers decorate their balloon with paper lanterns and obscene fliers; we adorn ours with anxiety and indignation.

I’d known that the bike-share system was coming. I’d snorted with mild derision at the delays; I’d imagined, to the extent that I’d bothered to imagine it at all, that this, like the Second Avenue subway or the Big Dig, would be one of those city projects notable only for its state of permanent imminence.

If buttonholed by someone with a clipboard, though, I would have counted myself as a supporter. I’d ridden similar bikes in San Antonio and Chattanooga and, though it was hard to picture how the experience would translate onto Fulton Street, I’d felt a slight future-thrill, as I did the first time I signed a credit card receipt with my finger on an iPhone. I had high but indistinct hopes.

Now that the racks are actually here, though, my response is considerably more shaded. The strange thing about public art is that it isn’t just divisive within communities (see the endless battles over Christo’s plan to "wrap" the Arkansas River); it can be divisive within individual minds. I seem to feel something new about the racks each time I walk past them.

One the one hand: Do they really need to be so large? Must there be seven of the stations within a five-block radius of my apartment? And isn’t there something sinister about those massive blue-glass poles, like the antennas of newly landed spaceships?

This is the part of me that harumphs when what used to be a hardware store becomes a beer garden, or when an intersection becomes an umbrella-bedecked pedestrian plaza. These grumbles are both deeply felt and slightly embarrassed. I’ve enjoyed that beer garden’s pretzels, after all; I’ve spent afternoons happily reading in that plaza. I’ve been living in Fort Greene for nine years now — just long enough to complain about how much the neighborhood has changed, in other words, and just short enough to still count as part of the change that I’m complaining about.

But there’s another, less gloomy part of me that occasionally responds to the racks with something like giddiness.

Remember in 2001, before the Segway was introduced, when there were fevered reports that there was an invention coming that would change the modern city forever? My friends and I used to sit around imagining what such a thing could be—a system of pneumatic tubes, a la the Jetsons? hovercrafts powered by the warmth of their riders’ bodies?—and I distinctly remember the letdown when we learned that the invention was… a two-wheeled scooter.

Well, what if these bikes—these two-wheeled vehicles—really are the innovation that we’ve been waiting for? What if, ten years from now, we’ll look back on that peculiar era when we didn’t all ride around on city-issued bikes, when we didn’t all carry helmets in our backpacks, when we might actually have walked from Fort Greene to Prospect Park, or even taken the G train? Maybe it will be like trying to remember the years before the internet. What did we do with ourselves? Did we really use phone-books? Did we really go to bed, content in the knowledge that the sports scores would be waiting for us when we woke up in the morning?

At these moments I stand before the racks as if they were the heads on Easter Island. How astonishing that people can do such things, I think. What a strange and creative species we are.

At the end of "The Balloon," the story’s narrator confesses that the balloon—the whole twenty-two day, city-consuming operation— as merely his way of expressing that he missed his girlfriend, who was traveling in Norway. Now that she’s returned, he orders the balloon taken down, and trailer trucks drive the deflated thing off to a storage facility in West Virginia. City life resumes as before.

Our bike-racks won’t, of course, be carted away at the end of this interval. On the contrary, they’ll proliferate into other neighborhoods; they’ll become home to fleets of bright-blue bikes; they’ll get dirty; they’ll have price-increases and software malfunctions; they’ll become part of our urban furniture.

So I savor this peculiar stretch before our dreads are confirmed or our hopes are exceeded, in which we don’t yet know whether this experiment will stand as the grandest testament to hubris since Ozymandias’ legs or the greatest urban triumph since the subway system. All we have is the racks themselves. There they sit, gleaming under their own faint blue light, mute and strange—empty of bikes, full of what we think of them.

Ben Dolnick is the author of the forthcoming novel At the Bottom of Everything.

18 Comments / Post A Comment

davidwatts (#72)

There is one of these in front of the liquor store near my house in Bed-Stuy. There is another, a few blocks away, between a cafe that often hosts jazz shows and one of those hot bar places with steaming trays of food you never actually see anyone eat.

Scott Barea@twitter (#243,282)

@davidwatts Until I was stranded sans car I never noticed so many bike racks around my town. Once I did I noticed they were all over the place. Cue NBC logo.

Drawn7979 (#242,134)

@Scott Barea@twitter
yep, liked that logo there..

@davidwatts You live in my neighborhood! Or close to it. Been to the dope new Walgreens yet?

I'm actually amazed and delighted that Bed-Stuy (or at least the western edge of it) was included in the initial rollout, whereas Williamsburg, Park Slope, Cobble Hill and Manhattan north of 59th Street were not. Ours is not a neighborhood used to being on the cutting edge of Rich People Things. I almost feel like it must be some kind of oversight.


Titania (#8,471)

Oh Brooklyn. Of course Fort Greene is living out a surreal, high-tone artistic/philosophical quandary, whereas every other neighborhood in New York that has them is basically…getting on with life? It helps if you think of it as say, the bus/subway station its actually analogous to, and not a piece of public art, which it isn't.

Oh, and if you ever get tired of asking each other basic logisitical questions, Citibike has a lovely website with answers to all of them. "Who’s going to ride all these things?" (mostly tourists, but some residents too) "How much will it cost?" (annual memberships are $95, day passes are $9.95, 7-day passes are $25, all plus tax) "What about helmets?" (buy a helmet) "What about parking?" (park it in another rack, there will be dozens anywhere you're likely to go).

And if you're curious about the long-term effects, ask someone who lives in Paris. It's basically the Velib system. And it will be both better than your fear and not nearly as impactful as you imagine.

lbf (#2,343)

@Titania Yes, and I'll add Bike Snob NYC's FMC's (Frequent Moronic Comments) section, too. One point he makes contradicts you (as does my experience as a Parisian): residents ride bikeshares more than tourists. Because getting a pass for a day or a week is too much hassle for a lot of people, because it's hard to ride when you don't know where the stations, bike lanes and hills are in a city, because most people who own bikes also have a bikeshare card for one-way trips or riding with a friend who doesn't own one.

Also, get a helmet if you want one, or don't if you don't. And don't tell people they must ride with one or without one. The important thing is to ride, which is a whole lot healtier than not riding. End of the helment debate.

Non-Anonymous (#19,293)

@lbf For what it's worth, DC's Capital Bikeshare is also used by residents more than by tourists.

heb (#23,764)

@Non-Anonymous Minneapolis' Nice Ride system is also used more by residents than tourists.

Mount_Prion (#290)

Your neighbors may be peering at them but my concern with this program in NYC is my neighbors peeing on them.

I've been seeing them all over Clinton Hill/Bed-Stuy. It warms my heart to see them already getting vandalized.

That said, I'll probably give it a whirl.

::Grumble:: The nearest one to me across Prospect Park. So much for using it to commute to work.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

"Who’s going to ride all these things?"

Yeah, really good question, considering how we just don't have enough people of diverse enough lifestyles in this small sleepy city of ours.

Smitros (#5,315)

1. The prose is lovely.

2. Along the lines of what's noted above, this will probably become part of the urban fabric, as Capital Bikeshare has in DC in a very short time.

flossy (#1,402)

The crazy thing about this whole system, to me, is that unless you buy an annual pass, you get charged extra if you ride the bike for more than 30 minutes (and even with the annual pass, it's only 45 mins/ride).

I get that they want to prevent people from hogging one bike all day long, but jeez. It might take me more than 30 minutes to ride from my apartment in Bushwick to my office in midtown. Why should I be penalized for that?

julebsorry (#5,783)

@flossy I agree – 45 mins seems so short! It would def take me at least an hour to bike from my house to my work, what with traffic and all.

lizard (#240,819)

if you are a resident why not just buy your own bike? its a lot cheaper

citrivescence (#15,695)

@lizard I'm guessing convenience. If you ride infrequently, you may not want the hassle of shopping for a bike, maintaining it, and finding a place to store it without it getting stolen. An annunal membership is $95.00, which isn't so bad when compared to spending $200+ for a bike that's in good condition.

In other news, did you guys know you need to put air in your tires *every week*?? It's like wow, if I wanted to spend any time whatsoever on maintenance I would have bought a puppy.

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