These Citi Bikes in northern Tribeca were working and available on Thursday evening, but riding them in the snow was impossible for anyone but Evel Knievel. Photo by Lincoln Anderson
BY LINCOLN ANDERSON
With winter storm Hercules bearing down on New York City, the most critical question Thursday evening was whether public schools would be open Friday.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a late-afternoon press conference, said that — as of right then, with snowfall not yet having begun — the plan was to keep the city’s schools open.
On another vital issue — transportation — the plan was to take the city’s extra-long, articulated buses out of service, but to keep a fleet of nearly 3,000 buses — with chains on their tires — running through the storm.
As for the newest cog in the Big Apple’s transportation system, the bike-share program, which de Blasio did not address, the intention was to keep it up and running unless conditions severely worsened. However, bikes were being removed from roadbed locations on major streets.
Dani Simons, director of marketing and external affairs for NYC Bike Share, LLC, the operator of Citi Bike, said, “For now we have started to move the bikes from on-street stations to stations on sidewalks and plazas. We anticipate leaving the system open but are prepared to shut it down if the storm worsens overnight.”
Seth Solomonow, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Transportation, was on the same page with Simons, stating, “NYC Bike Share will relocate bikes from major streets to sidewalk and plaza stations, and workers will shovel out stations promptly. If conditions make biking unsafe, the stations can be temporarily locked down, but service will be restored as quickly as possible once conditions permit.”
NYC Bike Share would be in communication with the city in anticipation of any snow that might require plowing, according to D.O.T. In addition, if necessary, NYC Bike Share would install “snow flags” to indicate on-street bike-docking stations.
According to D.O.T. “following a snow event, NYC Bike Share will immediately start shoveling sidewalk stations and on-street locations, after plowing.”
(The “after plowing” reference would seem to indicate that the Department of Sanitation would plow the street first, after which, NYC Bike Share would come in and dig out the stations.)
It was not immediately clear how many of the thousands of Citi Bikes would temporarily be removed from on-street locations.
The computerized bike-share system can be shut off so that the bikes can no longer be removed from the docking stations. However, if people are still riding around on Citi Bikes when the system is switched off, they would still be able to dock them.
Yet, while the plug wasn’t pulled on the system, for all intents and purposes, it was out of commission, with conditions soon unfit for riding. Unless, that is, one had the balance of tightrope-walker Philippe Petit, pedaling a Citi Bike became impossible, as the snow quickly started to pile up. Around 1o:35 p.m. this reporter tried boarding a Citi Bike that had not been relocated from an on-street docking station at Watts and Greenwich Sts. in north Tribeca (admittedly, not a “major street”). But after a few pedals in the 1 to 2 inches of snow during which the bike slipped and skidded more than it rolled straight, it was right back to the dock. Unfortunately, unlike city buses, Citi Bikes’ tires didn’t get outfitted with chains for the storm.
New York’s pilot bike-share program, Citi Bike is based in Manhattan, from Midtown to Lower Manhattan, as well as parts of western Brooklyn. When the cycle-sharing program was launched this past July, many Downtown Manhattan residents went ballistic, charging the docking stations blocked curbside access for cabs, their own cars, garbage trucks and ambulances, were unsightly and trash magnets, decreased property values and, in some cases, made it difficult for fire trucks to navigate turns. In the weeks after the launch, some of the bike stations were shifted to new sites, or left in place but shortened, sometimes under threat of lawsuit.
However, since weathering that initial frenzied backlash, the nonpolluting and incredibly inexpensive transportation system (an annual membership costs only around $100) has been running smoothly.
Yet, back on July 1, a little more than a month after the system’s launch, a posse of local Manhattan politicians wrote a joint letter to Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, then head of D.O.T., expressing concerns about bike-share, specifically, snow removal.
At this bike-share docking station, on the extra-wide sidewalk on W. Houston St. near Hudson St.., on Thursday around 12:30 p.m., there were only two slots open. D.O.T. and NYC Bike Share said bikes from on-street bike stations on major streets would be relocated for the blizzard — but was there any place to put them? Photo by Lincoln Anderson
While they noted they were supportive of bike-share, the elected officials said the agreement between D.O.T. and bike-share’s operator was unclear regarding who would be plowing snow near the bike-share stations. They noted that at one community meeting, “a D.O.T. representative raised concerns that the Department of Sanitation should not be plowing near bike-share stations, as it would cover the bikes in snow.”
The pols also expressed concern that plows would smash into the bike-share docks if they were hidden by mounds of snow. In addition, they asked “what is the protocol” regarding shoveling snow for building owners who have bike-share stations directly in front of their buildings?
“Are these owners supposed to shovel the snow into the [bike-share] station itself?” the pols asked.
The letter’s signatories were Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Brian Kavanagh (the latter who is actually a Citi Bike annual member), Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, state Senators Brad Hoylman and Daniel Squadron and City Councilmembers Christine Quinn, Rosie Mendez and Margaret Chin.
Sadik-Khan responded to the politicians’ letter on July 17, saying, in part, “Guidelines for snow removal will be similar to those for trash. Property owners should make piles along the sidewalk, and if there is a bike-share station on the sidewalk, they should pile snow at the ends of the station or at any breaks in the station. There are no stations that span the full block segment without breaks.”
As for garbage and snow in and around the actual Citi Bike stations that are located in the street bed, Sadik-Khan wrote, “D.O.T. has also coordinated with the Department of Sanitation on street cleaning and snow plowing. In both cases, NYC Bike Share is required to remove debris or snow for a six-foot radius around a station. This will help to provide an adequate buffer around which street cleaners and plows will be able to navigate.”
(As opposed to the information provided by D.O.T. on Jan. 2, in this case, Sadik-Khan indicated that the bikes would be dug out by NYC Bike Share first, after which Sanitation would plow.)
However, the D.O.T. big wheel added, “In no way would we suggest that the Department of Sanitation should not plow near bike-share stations. If snow is pushed up against a bike-share station, NYC Bike Share will remove it, and in cases of predicted severe storms, bikes will be removed and stations will be deactivated in advance.
“Finally, at the Department of Sanitation’s request,” Sadik-Khan added, “New York City Bike Share is working to develop station identifying devices that can be used in the event of a major snowstorm. These would be deployed before the storm and would help prevent snowplows from striking the end of a station. In most snowfalls, however, the Department of Sanitation should have no more difficulty seeing bike-share stations than it currently does seeing parked cars.”
In a follow-up letter on Dec. 16 to John Doherty, the Department of Sanitation commissioner, Glick asked if the department’s snowplows would be able to navigate narrow West Village streets that have bike-share docking stations (even if the bikes have been removed from them before a blizzard). It was not immediately clear if Doherty responded to Glick’s queries.