Bike-share: What would Jane Jacobs do?

Shirley Secunda, chairperson of Community Board 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee, gave this index card, filled out by Charles Komanoff, to The Villager following last Thursday evening’s discussion at P.S. 41 on bike-share and the new bike docks all over the neighborhood. It was one of only two comments submitted that were wholly in favor of the program. Of the many speakers who testified at the meeting, only a handful were strongly in support of the bike-share program and the new bike-docking stations. Almost everyone else who spoke voiced some complaint about the bike-share stations and/or the entire bike-share program.

Shirley Secunda, chairperson of Community Board 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee, gave this index card, filled out by Charles Komanoff, to The Villager following last Thursday evening’s discussion at P.S. 41 on bike-share and the new bike docks all over the neighborhood. It was one of only two comments submitted that were wholly in favor of the program. Of the many speakers who testified at the meeting, only a handful were strongly in support of the bike-share program and the new bike-docking stations. Almost everyone else who spoke voiced some complaint about the bike-share stations and/or the entire bike-share program.

BY CHARLES KOMANOFF | I didn’t get to speak at the Community Board 2 meeting last Thursday night to discuss bike-share — I stayed outside too long kibitzing on W. 11th St., so my speaker card landed at the bottom of the stack. Here’s what I would have said:

I live in Community Board 1, on Duane St., but my first New York apartments were in or just outside C.B. 2, on W. 15th St. and Minetta St. My kids were born across the street at (now-shuttered) St. Vincent’s Hospital. My two sisters lived a few blocks away. And there were timeless evenings at the Village Gate, the Village Vanguard, etc. So there’s a lot of Greenwich Village in me.

I don’t quite know what to make of the uproar and upset from so many of my neighbors last Thursday evening. I think I’ll try to channel Jane — Jane Jacobs, the immortal author-activist who led the insurrection that stopped the Lower Manhattan Expressway and whose “Death and Life of Great American Cities” laid the intellectual foundation for today’s livable streets movement. Jane famously lived at 555 Hudson St., a stone’s throw from where last Thursday’s C.B. 2 meeting was held. I met her just once, in Toronto, in 1990 or 1991, where Jane had moved in 1968, the year I moved in to the Village. Obviously, I didn’t know her well. But I’ve studied her life and her work enough to venture what Jane might want to tell us.

To start, I think Jane would have understood that for Citi Bike to succeed it has to be done “at scale.” So far as I know, Jane didn’t use the term “network effects,” but that idea pervades her work, as blogger Timothy B. Lee points out:

Jacobs doesn’t quite put it this way, but “Great American Cities” is really a treatise on the importance of network effects to urban wealth creation. The reason people flock to noisy, dirty, crowded cities like New York and Chicago is because most of the things we value are provided by other human beings, and being in a large city puts us in close proximity with many more of them.

Network effects apply to systems as well as populations: Telephone systems are based on them, since the value of your phone depends on my having one as well. Indeed, “network math” posits that while the cost of a network rises in linear proportion to the number of instruments, the network’s value rises geometrically in relation to that number. Just so, with bike-share. A Citi Bike won’t be fully useful unless there’s a full-blown network of stations where you can find a bike and then leave it at the end of the trip.

In short, without scale, forget about bike-share, Jane Jacobs the analyst might have said.

Without question, Jane Jacobs the urbanist would have wrapped bike-share in a bear hug. Jane would have relished the opportunity to always have a bike at the ready and to be unencumbered by it at her destination. She would have delighted in the sturdy, interchangeable and utterly utilitarian machines themselves. And she would have appreciated the access to cycling the system would have provided everyone — not just those fortunate enough to live within easy cycling distance of work, as Jane did, but the throngs of workers and visitors who come in from the boroughs and the suburbs.

Where my channeling gets a tad murky is with Jane’s neighborhood-activist part. I’m sure Jane would have shrugged off the NIMBYs last Thursday night who kvetched that the bike stations block “their” streets but never organized against the cars that until a week ago filled the same curb space 24/7. And she’d have scoffed at the idea that bike-share users will be endangered by speeding and fast-turning cars and cabs. Why not go instead after the miscreant drivers who threaten everyone? But some of the micro-adjustments sought at the C.B. 2 forum — a gap in the line of bike docks for a truck loading zone, shifting a bike station from a side street to an avenue around the corner — might have tugged at her.

Yet on this point, I’ll venture that Jane would have consulted her political part, looked at the calendar, and said something like this:

“Mayor Bloomberg has eight months left, and then he’s gone, along with the political and administrative power to deploy this potentially transformational program. One or two or a dozen siting changes may make individual sense, but to open the program to them now is to jeopardize the intricate schedule of startup and expansion involving hundreds of stations and thousands of docks.

“Robert Moses spent billions and uprooted hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers in a 40-year, highway-auto makeover that bled the life out of the city, and came this close to turning it into a cadaver. You know this. You know that we fought back. Some of you fought with me, or are the inheritors of those who did.

“We always said that reversing Moses’ monstrous legacy wouldn’t happen overnight. It won’t happen without some pain, either, even some loss. And the restored world won’t look exactly like the old. But it will be a lot better than what he left us with.”

Jane concluded “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by proclaiming that “lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration.” Thanks to bike-share, New York is poised to become even more lively and more diverse, and to keep on regenerating.

Komanoff is an energy-policy analyst, transport economist and environmental activist. This column first appeared on Streetsblog.

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7 Responses to Bike-share: What would Jane Jacobs do?

  1. Jane was the ultimate NIMBY. How ironic that people like you criticize locals who have the audacity to chafe at having large portions of their streets taken away from them. What a hypocrite.

    • criticize locals who have the audacity to chafe at having large portions of their streets taken away from them. What a hypocrite.

      I'm a local. "small" portions of the streets are being returned to people. You realize locals can use these bikes? You realize the vast majority of West Village residents do not own cars?

    • Matt,
      I'm a "local" who finds Komanoff's imaginative channeling to be insightful and intelligent. Only people who own cars and think they own their parking places (on public land) are having anything taken away. For the rest of us it makes no darn difference and to me it looks like an interesting experiment that should be allowed to run its course. How hypocritical that residents of the village, supposedly an exceptionally educated and sophisticated population would object to an experiment in zero carbon transit. Undoubtedly many of these same folk idolize european cities such as Paris, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. If not, they ought to move to New Jersey where they can actually "own" their parking place.

      • you are simply wrong, I am a local I neither drive nor own a car, I do own a bike, there is no reason I would rent one from citibank, I do worry about the many seniors in my building who now will be competing with tourists and others for the already cramped sidewalk space, I also wonder why I have 4 of these stations in the 2 block radius around my block. I would not be opposed it it was distributed more evenly and if the city actually did it and so it was a truly public service not an advert for a bank

      • everyone who lives here already has a bike. these are another perk for tourists and outsiders. keep drinking your Kool Aid.

  2. It is not unexpected that cycling zealot Charlie Komanoff has no better argument to use in defense of his position than to put words in the mouth of a dead woman and to reduce his neighbors to the pejorative term, NIMBY.
    Ad hominem attacks become him.

    The reason that Komanoff refused to testify (after all, the meeting went on for hours) is that he lacks the cojones to stand in front of his neighbors and say to their faces what he puts on paper in the safety of his TriBeCa loft.

  3. john wetherhold

    These are not bike stations, they are advertising installations. If you read Crain's you will know that the citicorp people who promoted this viewed it as a huge branding campaign for the bank. Otherwise, why put 5 citicorp logos on each bike. This is the largest privitization of public space since bloomberg started priviatiziing the parks. It should be trreated as a very major thing and a departure from all previous public policy (at least before bloomberg). It should be discussed, argued and debated in a transparent way. It was not.
    So many are not needed in the narrow streets of the village with very little public parking space. It will interfere with pedestrians and service vehicles and sometimes garbage pickup.
    If this is truly a public project, paint the citicorp logos on the bikes and stands over. Otherwise admit it for what it is, a seizure of public space to benefit a huge private corporation (and one that helped cause the financial crisis.)

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