Dictator of New York for a Day

05/25/2011 12:00 pm ET

So I'm walking through midtown the other day and in the race between me and the cab-jammed river, it's no contest. The cabs are going zero miles an hour - and my rivals look pissed. Stressed out, wasting money, doing no exercise, and pumping greenhouse gases into the air. That's when I decide on my first project, for the day I wake up to find out that I've become Dictator of New York. Bicycles. On its face, New York's an ideal bike city. Distances are short (relative to, say L.A.), it's flat and the climate's mild. What if the city made biking really, really safe and cheap and easy? Why couldn't all these stress-cases whiz by on bikes, like these characters, instead of sinking into the asphalt in two tons of steel? Well, for a bunch of reasons. But most of them are fixable. Here's how it works.

First, dramatically increase the network of dedicated bike lanes on half a dozen avenues and a bunch of cross streets, well beyond current plans. Then, contract out to a company that can put in rent-a-bike racks, like the cart racks at airports. Swipe a card, bike to work, deposit the bike at a rack near work, done.

Far-fetched? Well, so are concept cars and runway fashion. But without them, we wouldn't have production models or street-wear. Bear with me.

The benefits?

1) Reduce CO2 emissions. Car exhaust is one of the biggest contributors to the greenhouse effect that is causing climate change.
2)Less air pollution, cleaner lungs.
3)Less noise pollution, clearer heads.
4)Get around faster. Than driving, anyway. New York's flat - easy biking. Ninetieth Street to 50th in five minutes during rush hour - no problem! No more sitting in traffic, late for an appointment, while blood pressure rises with the taxi meter. And when you factor in the time it takes to find a cab, or park a car, or switch trains, biking will be about as quick as other modes of transportation, no matter what time of day.
5)Get some exercise.
6)Get some green in your life. On a nice day, bike through the park - a great antidote to living in a cement canyon.
7)Save money.
8)Keep New York cooler on hot summer days. Reduce the urban oven effect that makes the city much hotter than greener areas around the city.
9)Attract tourists. Notoriety from this bike-system would create media buzz, and New York would be even friendlier to tourists wanting to get around the city.
10)Attract residents. So you're weighing New York versus, say, Boston, or Chicago or San Francisco. Living in New York has so many pluses - except it's so damn hard to stay healthy, or get outside. But wait, with these bike paths, suddenly the equation's changed ...
11)Set an example for the world. Whether you like Bloomberg's second-hand smoke initiatives or not, it's led others, like Italy, Ireland and even France, to follow suit. Surely this program is less controversial than banning smoking. Post a win here, and it's reasonable to believe that bike paths would blossom around the world.
12)Cut down on parking problems. No more circling the block looking for a parking spot, only to give up and pay $40 to a garage.
13)Reduce dependence on foreign oil. What better city to take a bold step than one attacked by oil-funded terrorists?
14)De-congest the roads, so that those who do need to drive can get around faster.
15)Soften the town's reputation for cynicism. Every mode of transportation adds its flavor to the city. The gruff, eccentric cabbie of movie-cliché; the rush hour subway platform's Darwinian crush. Whether bad-ass or child-like, bikers seem to me a wholesome, sincere group: Lance, E.T. and Elliot, the guy from The 40-Year Old Virgin.
16)Stimulate sidewalk culture. How much nicer would it be to sit in a sidewalk cafe if you didn't have suck down noise and car exhaust with your beer?

To do this right, of course, you'd need to make the system quick, reliable and effortless. O.K., tomato-wielding cynics, hold your fire. Let me explain why the obstacles really aren't:

1)Are you kidding me? You think Masters of the Universe are going to trade in their limos and Porsches to be seen on ... rent-a-bikes? O.K., granted, Gordon Gekko won't be pedaling up Fifth Avenue anytime soon. But every Gekko doesn't need to adopt this for it to work. And Green and Energy Independent are becoming more and more fashionable (as this Vanity Fair Green issue attests). Draft enough celebrities and kingpins to your marketing campaign, and who knows - tipping point? Hush Puppies weren't exactly cool - until suddenly they were. Besides, if you want to flash around in your Porsche Carerra, there's always East Hampton.
2)The racks'll be too far from where I need to go. That's why we'll heed the Network Effect. A network with one phone's useless. Add 10, or 100 and it's geometrically more useful. Same goes here - wherever you decide to roll this out, there'll have to be lots and lots of bike racks, as close together as (co-located with?) subway stops, so no one has to walk too far once they drop off their bikes.
3)It'll take too long to get a bike. Nope, it'll be easy: swipe, adjust seat, get on, go.
4)It won't be reliable - half the time, I'll go and there won't be a bike for me. No worries. You can reserve bikes by remote, Moviefone-style (and on a regular basis - i.e. I want a bike every weekday at 7am). It won't be hard for us to network these rental racks. A database will show real-time usage and inventory levels across the city. Whoever manages this program can load bikes onto mini-vans and move them around to avoid surpluses and shortages.
5)I can't fit all my shopping bags on the bike. Fair enough, bikes won't work for big days at, say, Bed, Bath and Beyond. But if you request, we can rig them with racks, crates or panniers for extra baggage.
6)Bikes have to be fitted to size. Well, sure, if you're planning to compete in the Tour de France. But for pedaling around town to your next meeting, two frame sizes, with adjustable seats and handlebars, should cover just about everyone.
7)Nowhere to park the bike. That's easy - we'll put in plenty of bike racks where people can lock up easily, and encourage auto garages to allow people to park their bikes.
8)The weather's too unreliable. Easy fix. Put an awning over the bike lanes. They'll be useable all year round. New York has a pretty temperate climate.
9)Biking isn't safe in New York. That's why a comprehensive network of protected bike lanes is key.
10)I don't want to show up to work all sweaty. Fair point. This'll be a problem for some, especially during the summer. But there's at least one decent fix here: contract with Health Club networks so people can get partial memberships to use their showers. Health Clubs are everywhere - and are always hungry for traffic. Plus, if this catches on, office building locker rooms'll become standard fare. Also, for a quick trip to a meeting, you can go easy enough to avoid working up a sweat - or at least no more of one than you would hailing a cab or packing into the subway.
11)There's no room for the bike racks. Reduced auto congestion will free up space and the need for parking, so we should be fine. And how about a vertical stacking system, so the footprint is small? You click your bike in and a conveyor belt lifts it up - ten bikes stacked sideways would only take up a few feet of sidewalk space.
12)Bikes are a dangerous. A common belief, but wrong. Bikes are less dangerous than cars. And with a network of dedicated bike lanes, you wouldn't have the problem anymore of bikes zipping in and out of traffic. And, yes, we'll give bikers tickets if they're reckless.
13)Yeah, but what about those of us who commute into the city? First of all, if you don't want to bike, you'll be glad to know there's less congestion on streets, buses and subways. If you do want to bike, there's an easy fix: put enormous parking lots by the city's bridges and tunnels, with plenty of bike rental racks, so people can drop their cars off on either side and jump on a bike.

O.K., O.K., put your tomatoes down. I know this is a bit of a pipedream, particularly when you read this NYT Op-Ed on how slow the city has been to lay down bike lanes. But why should New York lag while Chicago announced a plan this year to put all three million of its residents within a half-mile of a bike path? Or what about Davis, CA, whose bike paths are so comprehensive that the city has eliminated its public school buses? Does anyone remember the hype around how Segways were going to revolutionize cities? Well, anything a Segway can do, so can a bike - at a tenth the cost. And the nice thing about this plan is that you can build to it incrementally. Start with a pilot program on one route that's popular and which the public transportation system doesn't serve well. If that works, expand, eventually to all five boroughs. From there, well, just look at Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker cover. Stretch the bike baths a little further and you're in California, Asia, the world.

So there it is. A block of marble, smooth and utopian. Pragmatists, chisel away.