Tomorrow is the start of New York City's "Summer Streets Program" - where some of our arteries will be temporarily un-clogged, and handed over to pedestrians. As part of that event, a bunch of companies who are running successful bike-sharing programs in cities around the world - or have visions of becoming the city's self-propelled transportation vendor - will be demonstrating their two-wheeled wares and trying to convince New Yorkers to implement the program.
The eco-hawking happens on 26th and 47th Streets, between Park and Lex. Check out Biria and Batavus from Manhattan Hub, a local bike store. There's also a tire-kicking demo from Collegiate Bicycle Company, whose bikes are used in Montreal's Bixi and Rio's Samba programs. They use the same technology that's incorporated in Velib, the Parisian system that was launched in the summer of 2007 and is generally viewed as a success.
I'm rooting for this two-wheel experiment to work and that a bicycle culture takes hold in Manhattan, and beyond. Its benefits are broad, from reduced emissions, to a healthier population, to increased productivity. And it's been said that drivers in Paris have actually reacted to sharing the streets with velocipedes.
There are all sorts of knotty issues to scaling a bike-sharing program, as you can imagine. There's the delicate supply/demand balancing act. There's the fight over colonizing a lot of street parking. There's vandalism and cost. (The French system is theoretically funded by advertising revenue, but the government had to kick in some funds due to unexpected vandalism.)
It's fitting that the test coincides with this summer's publication of "Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City." The book documents the battle between Jane Jacobs - the fierce advocate of small-scale urban living - and city-slasher Robert Moses who never saw a public works project he didn't like. As Alice S. Alexiou noted in "Urban Visionary", her biography of Jacobs, "Instead of riding the subway to work, she rode her bicycle from Greenwich Village."
I was in Paris in September and from what I could see, Velib has taken the town by storm. The racks are ubiquitous in large areas of the city, and the streets are well stocked with furiously pedaling Parisians. There are young people going to school, shoppers balancing baguettes, businesspeople with briefcases sitting atop neatly folded suit jackets (grown-up French people still carry old-school attache cases: backpacks are for schoolchildren.)
Cities are complex collisions of the communal and the private. Sweaty proximity and the hot press of humanity create an urban public theater of shared experiences. But that kind of continuous exposure also turns us into zealous defenders of whatever private space remains free from mass hegemony.
The French are clearly more private than Americans; as many observers have pointed out, you can know someone for years before you get invited to their home. But paradoxically, they are very much a culture of sharing, possessing a loosely socialistic view of the world that's consistent with the Velib experiment.
Whether New Yorkers will adopt bike-sharing depends on how these conflicting sociologies get sorted out. We are faster to change than the tradition-bound French. That's a plus. We are mad about speed and convenience. That's a plus.
But we're defined by the remnants of that rugged individualism thing, and don't like to share. That's a minus. We don't like government programs with their attendant rules. Another minus. We are more spoiled than the French; we like our taxis and our cars and don't want to be out there with our coat flapping in the cold and the rain. Big, perhaps fatal minus.
"People are hungry to use their streets differently," Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of our Department of Transportation, was quoted as saying in a news conference. "This is the first time that we'll have a bike-share program in the city."
I don't know how ravenous that hunger is. But if bike-sharing ever happens in New York in a big way, I propose that we ditch those neologisms and portmanteau words and call it "Murray" after Murray Kempton, the legendary, lapidary columnist who died in 1997 and was famous for navigating the city exclusively from bicycle height. I quote the first paragraph of his obituary from "The Independent" at well-deserved length.
"New York is in mourning for Murray Kempton, the reporter on his bicycle, negotiating in his seventies the hazards of Manhattan's avenues, moving between assignments as though they were his first and only and listening, always, to his classical compact discs that hung around his neck like some kind of tribal necklace, a sign that he was of a different caste. And what a caste it was. 'The man has brought more honour to newspapers than anyone in my lifetime,' said his fellow columnist Jimmy Breslin, who should know."
Subway. Bus. Taxi. Murray. We'd be richer for it.