Moving on From Vandalism Fears, Times Tries New Bike-Share Scare Tactics

In its apparently boundless desire to see transportation innovation fail in New York City, the Times ran a remarkably shoddy and one-sided piece over the weekend on the city’s developing bike-share plans. Perhaps having realized that successful bike-share systems are cropping up in too many cities to keep on referring to the same image of Parisian public bikes “hanging from tree limbs or floating in the Seine” (Washington, Denver, and Minneapolis have had almost no problems with theft and vandalism), the Times is sowing doubt in other ways.

Before contractors have even been selected to run NYC’s bike-share system, the Times has duly reported that the project is “plagued by questions of its viability.” To bolster the argument, reporter Christine Haughney quotes no transportation planners and cites no experts on the economics of bike-sharing. Instead she lets perennial SoHo crank Sean Sweeney set the tone for a piece full of speculation and mistakes.

To create the perception of a “plague” of uncertainty, Haughney first turns to star source Sweeney, faithful opponent of bike lanes, public space amenities, and car-free streets. Sweeney actually raises a legitimate concern — whether bike-share stations will occupy curb space or sidewalk space. But Haughney never mentions Sweeney’s history of reflexive opposition to change (he recently leaped into action to prevent pop-up cafes from adding more seating and pedestrian space to SoHo sidewalks), and she never explains why the question of station placement constitutes a threat to the system’s viability, rather than just one of several planning details that will be addressed as the project proceeds.

On the financial side, Haughney dwells on the absence of bids for the NYC bike-share contract from Cemusa, Clear Channel and J.C. Decaux. What she never mentions is that all three companies are in the business of outdoor advertising — their bike-share systems are basically means to generate more ad revenue. The two finalists — Alta Bicycle Share and B-Cycle — are actually in the bike-sharing business. NYC’s proposed bike-share model depends much more on memberships and user fees than advertising, so it makes sense that the ad companies stayed home.

Together with the Public Bike System Company, which is part of the Alta bid, B-Cycle and Alta are increasingly dominant in the North American bike-share market, supplying and operating systems in Denver, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and soon Boston. (Disclosure: a division of Streetsblog’s parent organization, OpenPlans, is part of the B-Cycle bid.) These companies are based on what experts call a “mobility-driven” business model — they are interested in gaining bike-share customers and thus in making their systems as useful as possible.

Compare that to a company like Clear Channel, whose advertising-driven business model basically led it to stop trying to expand its D.C. bike-sharing venture, known as SmartBike, beyond an initial trial phase, because it had already secured ad space it could profit from. SmartBike didn’t last long. Now Alta and the Public Bike System Company operate Washington’s continually expanding and in-demand successor, Capital Bikeshare. Haughney reports only that Clear Channel “started the Washington program but later abandoned it.”

The rest of the Times piece draws heavily on the financial status of the Montreal-based Public Bike System Company, which recently received $108 million in long-term financing subsidized by the Montreal government. But Haughney’s write-up plays fast and loose with the facts, stating that Alta Bicycle Share “has run into financial problems in Montreal.”

Alta is demanding a correction from the Times. In a letter to the editor, the company writes:

Alta Bicycle Share has no financial problems, and has no involvement in the Montreal bicycle share system. In addition, as stated in the article, Public Bike System Company’s (provider of equipment to Alta) financial issues have been resolved.

If the Times wants to write about Bloomberg administration transportation boondoggles, there’s no shortage of fodder out there, but whoever assigns stories is looking in the wrong place. The folly of lavishing tax giveaways on stadium parking garages, for instance, is becoming apparent for all to see, but you’d never know it if you only get your news from the Times.

The city’s new East River ferry service, which will operate with $9.3 million in subsidies over three years, will require more of a financial commitment from the city than bike-share is projected to, and follows in the footsteps of many failed attempts to sustain waterborne transit on similar routes. Yet the Times ferry coverage has been positively bullish.

There’s an interesting story to be written about what it will take to operate a profitable bike-share system in New York, as the city has set out to do. Why did the Bloomberg Administration opt for a profit-making system rather than a larger, subsidized one? What would a successful system look like, and what will be the challenges to implementing it? How would New Yorkers use such a system?

None of those questions were answered in the Times this weekend. To write such a story, you would have to speak to transportation experts and people who want to get around the city by bike, which Times transportation reporters and their editors seem loath to do.