Citi Bike has me on a roll, and it’s not very pretty

BY BILL WEINBERG  |  As a long-suffering New York City bicyclist, I really want to take heart in Mayor Bloomberg’s controversial measures to accommodate human-powered transport. But since the very start, it has all smelled suspicious.

Five years ago, the “congestion pricing” plan to charge motorists to enter Manhattan seemed a prescription for accelerating the transformation of the island into a sort of Manhattanland tourist theme park. The closing of large sections of Times Square to cars has coincided with administration of this “public” space being turned over nearly completely to the Times Square Alliance business improvement district; adding pedestrian plazas to the west side of the East Village’s Cooper Square is similarly concomitant with delivering the historic plaza over to Cooper Union college and the new Grace Church High School as a virtually privatized space. And now, the new bicycle-sharing program vindicates my worst fears…

Let’s start with the name — which is not merely an aesthetic issue, but one that hits the core theme of private and corporate colonization of the public sphere.

By now we all know that these blue bicycles that New Yorkers are riding around on are dubbed “Citi Bikes,” with each one sporting the goddamned Citibank logo. Isn’t there something fundamentally perverse about Citibank cashing in on the opportunity for a little greenwashing, courtesy of City Hall? Are we supposed to forget that Citibank was the most intransigent opponent to sanctions on South Africa in the 1980s — the last U.S. bank still functioning in the apartheid state before it finally succumbed to a worldwide activist campaign and pulled out in 1987? It was only activist pressure that dissuaded the company from opening a branch in totalitarian Burma 10 years later. Even now, Citibank defies a campaign demanding that it condemn the “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda, another unseemly regime with which it happily does business. And the banking giant recently reached a deal to take over “Peru’s Chernobyl” — the metal smelting complex at La Oroya, one of the world’s most polluted sites, which local peasants are demanding be shut down.

And while the pricing scheme for the Citi Bikes has been modified to make it more affordable, there continues to be a $9.95 base price for single-day use. This allows unlimited half-hour rides, but with an additional $4 for the second half hour of any ride. And the price goes up to $9 and then $12 for subsequent half hours. So a one-time, hour-long ride will cost… 14 bucks? By my math, a four-hour ride would cost $49! Operating the payment system and also kicking in a few million dollars for the program is MasterCard — a company now facing a European Union antitrust probe over its inflated transaction fees.

So, a double insult! Having some sinister corporation get to splash its logo all over the bikes would be bad enough. And having the program be ludicrously overpriced (for those who don’t want to buy a $95 annual membership) would be bad enough! But… both?!

The bicycle-sharing programs in many European cities are free or moderately priced. (The baseline for daily use in Paris is under 2 euros.) How many contemporary Citi Bike users know that the first bike-sharing program was pioneered in Amsterdam in the ’60s by a radical counterculture group, the Provos? Before the city government got on board later, the Provos’ “White Bicycle” initiative was an “underground” program launched in spite of the authorities, and celebrated in the 1968 acid-rock anthem “My White Bicycle.” Now, two generations later, it has come to… this? Like all of Bloomberg’s supposed pro-bicycle measures, this represents elite, corporate recuperation of progressive, revolutionary ideas.

I’m increasingly convinced that these measures are doing more harm than good. Even as they spark a backlash from reactionary motorheads, they may actually be restricting the freedom and safety of cyclists. I’ve already heard stories of cyclists being ticketed for not being in the bike lane. Motorists meanwhile seem to think they are not obliged to respect any cyclist’s right to the road on streets that don’t have bike lanes, which is the overwhelming majority of the city’s streets.

A few months back, I was riding on one of those streets, Brooklyn’s Myrtle Ave., when (yet again!) a bus driver cut me off and came within inches and micro-seconds of killing me. When I caught up with him at the next bus stop and got in his face, I didn’t just get the usual arrogant and dismissive ’tude — he had the nerve to say, “There’s no bike lane on this street!” As if any cyclist on a street with no bike lane is nothing but roadkill waiting to happen.

You’d think it would have occurred to Bloomberg to instruct his notoriously pro-bicycle Transportation commish, Janette Sadik-Khan, to have a little talk with the M.T.A. chairperson (until recently, the now-mayoral candidate Joseph Lhota) and tell him to make sure bus drivers know that bicyclists have a right to the road! Instead, the M.T.A. seems to be instructing their drivers that cyclists have no rights.

This very tendency was acknowledged by Sadik-Khan in her move to eliminate those futile “DON’T HONK” signs from around the city: She argued that motorists may have been assuming it was O.K. to honk on streets where there was no sign. This of course raises the question of whether the city will take other, more effective measures to crack down on the incessant, maddening, aggressive horn-leaning. But more to my particular point: Will Sadik-Khan  understand that the same logic applies to bike lanes — motorists now think it is O.K. to terrorize bicyclists on streets that don’t have them?

Another illustration of how bicycle lanes are counterproductive: I recently had to swerve out of the bike lane and into the traffic stream because there was a parked car blocking the bike lane. (This happens all the time.) The motorist behind me (in a big Mack truck, no less) actually sped up to intentionally menace me, while yelling, “Get into the bike lane!” And then (of course), the light at the intersection was red anyway, so he was just hurrying up to sit waiting a few extra seconds for the light to change. He gambled with my life completely gratuitously.

Obviously, this is inherently irrational behavior, yet it is practically universal. Systems theory tells us that the function of a system is what it does. We may think that the function of the automotive transport system is to move people around, but endless gridlock tells us that it is actually a very poor way of doing that. In its actual function, this system serves to A.) take carbon from the bowels of the earth and put it in the atmosphere, thereby destabilizing the planet’s climate; B.) displace greenery and communities with seas of choking asphalt; and C.) turn people into insensitive jerks. The kind of people who will kill to wait at a traffic light.

The Transportation Department has put up signs at certain dangerous intersections with an image of a bicycle and the words “SHARE THE ROAD.” Some do-gooders have left white-painted “ghost bikes” at places around the city where cyclists have been killed. It is all an exercise in futility that makes no impact on the mentality of motorists. I even had a motorist cut me off while indicating the sign and shouting at me: “SHARE THE ROAD!” — as if the sign were admonishing bicyclists to share the road with motorists!

The bicycle-sharing program was held up last year when Comptroller John Liu warned that it could be both a safety and financial liability for the city. In a report to the Transportation Department, he noted that in 2010, there were 368 bicycle-related crashes in the city, 19 of which resulted in a fatality. From 2004 to 2009, the city had the highest fatality rate for bicyclists in North America. I can’t go along with Liu’s call for mandatory helmets for Citi Bike users, because this could set a precedent for applying this to cyclists generally, and there are already enough restrictions on cyclists’ liberty, thank you. But I thank him for bringing these statistics to the public’s attention.

The automotive transport system is inherently irrational and life-destroying. We must dare to dream of its abolition. The counterproductive compromise measures ultimately only forestall the inevitable solution: banning cars from New York City.

And, eventually, the world.


Weinberg blogs at 

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14 Responses to Citi Bike has me on a roll, and it’s not very pretty

  1. Let me guess: When the truck stopped at the red light, you just went right on through. This is your model for biking in NYC.

  2. No, I stopped to get in the driver's face for threatening my life, of course.

  3. Sounds like you wish to live in Amsterdam, in the 1960's. Quite right, Citibikes are another deceptive ploy by Bloomberg and Big business to hasten the end of civilation. Boycott Citibike and don't wear a helmet. That'll show them..

  4. That truck driver would have cut you off whether there was a bike lane or not. Some drivers, perhaps only 1 percent, are complete homicidal maniacs, looking for people to abuse and harass. Any excuse will do to justify their madness. Shimmy, you may be one of them.
    As to the name – so call them Shitibikes, if that will make you feel better. A rose still smells or stinks the same. Citibank dumps a fortune in advertising each year. The spend it on buying thousands of blue bicycles and you complain. Would you rather it was spent on blue billboards and millions of blue pieces of paper? It's not like they won't be spending it on something.
    Bikeshare was not delayed by John Liu, even if he wanted to. It was first delayed by Alta's software problems, and then by Hurricane Sandy. Liu's complaints were him spitting into the wind. Had no effect on the wind, just got his own face wet.
    Your last point is key, motorists, not cyclists are killing more people in this city than handguns and the police, DAs and judges are doing nothing to protect us. NYC DOT is doing what they can, but the rest of the system has to finally join in with them.

  5. Lora Tenenbaum

    I agree that the DOT's plans have set up expectations of privilege in the wheeled community. A good example is what we see in Petrosino Square now that the DOT placed a bike share dock station in the pedestrian/art square portion of the park. Bicycle riders (both bike share rentals and private) now seem to feel it completely permissible to ride on the pedestrian walkways and sidewalks of the park. And ride on the sidewalks and in the plaza they do. When asked to please walk the bikes to the street, they stare in surprise and express their outrage. After all, they have a right…..

  6. great article, I'm not much of a cyclist, i don't think i would survive riding in NYC traffic, I tend to walk most places if I can, the creation of bike lanes also has also increased tensions between pedestrians and cyclists, now when I see cyclists moving en-masse through a red light, i know they won't stop for me because there is strength in numbers, i often cross against the light because that's the only time cars are not turning towards me. I don't blame cyclists but it's made things more difficult for me and i can only imagine for seniors and other people who cannot move quickly out of the way, just another example of how bloomberg has made NYC a crappy place to live.

  7. "Isn’t there something fundamentally perverse about Citibank cashing in on the opportunity for a little greenwashing, courtesy of City Hall?

    You hit the nail on the head, Mr. Weinberg.

    CitiBike is a deliberate marketing ploy by CitiBank – aided and abetted by DOT's commissioner Sadik-Khan and a former Bloomberg deputy mayor, Ed Skyler – to redeem itself following the beating it took during recent Financial Crisis, when it took two federal bailouts to prevent it from going belly-up due to mismanagement.
    (This is, of course, only one of many misdeeds of CitiGroup, only a few of which you have listed.)

    Skyker, now VP for Public Affairs at CitiBank, teamed up with Sadik-Khan to "green" the bank's dirty image.

    Read the entire exposé here at Crain's NY Business, a journal as much pro-business as the Wall Street Journal.

    Folks should remember this scheme the next time they feel compelled to grab a CitiBike – with its gaudy coroporate logo of a bank group that for decades has supported authoritarian regimes throughout the world, while freeloading off the American taxpayers.

  8. These totalitarian blue bikers are a serious political issue; a vast conspiracy unleashing 10,000 kamikaze advertisements for corporate greed to mow down innocent pedestrians who cross against the light, or simply can't jump out of the way. BP and Exxon must be green with envy. What does Christine Quinn plan to do about it if she's elected? What do Elliot Spitzer and Arthur Schwartz say about it? What did Deborah Glick not do about it that Arthur Schwartz can't forgive her for?

  9. as existential as all of your arguments are, isn't it a fact that more people are using bikes now vs.buses and subways. is that a good thing or a bad thing in your opinion? bc bottom line is that i couldn't perceive any way of this happening w/o some sort of corp sponsorship.

    • uninvited guest

      It's done in Montreal without corporate sponsorship, and no advertising: a publicly owned and operated program, implemented for the benefit of the public.

      Here, on the other hand, Citibank is paying a measly $41 million over 6 years (about half of what CEO Michael Corbat earns before bonuses) for a green-washing advertising bonanza worth hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.

      Thanks to Mr. Weinberg for reminding the public of the unsavory regimes Citibank has partnered with in order to meet its profit objectives.

      Let us also not forget that Citibank benefited off the backs of the American people to the tune of billions and billions of dollars in a couple of little bailouts a few years ago, meanwhile having sustained regulatory fines since then which, relatively, are the pocket-change or pin-money price of doing business for this banking behemoth.

      No, this is not a pretty story, and let's not white wash history or delude ourselves in order to make it so.

      We are all responsible.

      On the other hand, some are more responsible than others. It is DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan who is the mother of this monstrous invention. Who besides Mayor Michael Bloomberg would have ever thought this woman suitable for a significant position of public service?

  10. Citibank stumped up the cash to pay for the program. If the city had been willing to fund it out of tax dollars (it was not), then it could be run without corporate advertising.

    Four hour on a Citibike? Give me a break! They're meant for short trips. And if you want to take a longer trip, you can return the bike to a rack and take out another one.

    And please don't complain about closing Times Square. Studies have shown that the traffic has IMPROVED, and drivers are now getting where they need to go faster. Meanwhile, peds, bikers, sunbathers and tourists all have more space. So what's not to like about it?

  11. Excellent piece.

    As a regular, daily NYC cyclist of nearly 30 years, I think Janette Sadik-Khan and the Department of Transportation Alternatives have set us back significantly with their so-called bicycle "infrastructure". But that's true of the Bloomberg admin in general, pushing aside the locals in favor of high-spending tourists and transplanted hedge funders.

    Back in the 80s, most drivers believed that bikes had no place on city streets, and regarded you as just a bug on the windscreen if you got hurt. Idiot, whattaya doing out here on a bike, anyway? Try bungee jumping instead!

    Over time, that changed, and those sort of interactions happened less and less. Cabbies and bus drivers and people who regularly drove in the city began to accept the fact that cyclists did indeed have as much right to use the public roadways as they did. You still had to be careful, and there was always some moron who'd pull right behind you and lean on their horn until you moved over, but you could usually assume that drivers who saw you would give you some room.

    And then Michael Bloomberg appointed a lawyer from a bicycle lobby group to run the Transport Dept. Thanks to JSK and her inner circle of "bicycle activists" shoving ineffective so-called "protected" bike lanes and mega-sized citibike stations all over town, bicycling has been politicized; and their heavy-handed "we know best" attitude generates a lot of negative press, which finds it's way to motorists like the bus driver you encountered on Myrtle.

    It's virtually guaranteed that whomever gets sworn in on New Years Day will not keep the current DoTA cabal on. Lets hope that the next admin will remove the segregated lanes, drastically downsize the citibike docks and send the surplus uptown and into the other boroughs. It's the only reasonable, liveable way forward.

  12. Let me get this straight, Citbank invested $31 million to buy thousands of bicycles that we can use all that we want to (limiting each ride to 45 minutes, but swapping for another bike at no charge when we want to ride longer) for just 26 cents per day, and you hold it against them?

    There seem to be serious hardware and software teething pains with the CitiBikes, but they are a wonderful addition to our city and I, who have no special love for banks, say THANK YOU to Citibank for their support of them. I realize that the hardware and software behind the Citibikes has nothing at all to do with the bank, but I could only wish it worked as well as the Citibank ATMs and web site.

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