July 18, 2007
New York Times
The Path of Least Congestion
By DAVID HASKELL
CONGESTION pricing came to a halt after a head-on collision with Albany on Monday. The New York State Senate decided not to take up Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s plan to charge a fee to drivers entering the busiest parts of Manhattan, causing New York City to miss a deadline to apply for federal financing that would have been essential for the program.
If Mr. Bloomberg is serious about reducing automobile congestion and carbon emissions, he has two options: discourage car trips, or encourage other trips. To date, he has embraced the first of these two solutions. What’s more, he has very specifically modeled his vision for New York’s future on London, where a congestion pricing plan has operated for several years.
But now the prospects of adopting a London-style plan look bleak. If it turns out that New Yorkers are not yet prepared to embrace congestion pricing, and if Albany remains its intransigent self, Mr. Bloomberg should get over his fascination with London — and look instead at what’s happening in Paris.
Last week, Bertrand Delanoë, Paris’s maverick and popular mayor, introduced the world’s largest and most ambitious bike-share program: 10,600 bikes (scaling up to 20,600 by the end of the year) available at 750 “docking stations” situated every 1,000 feet. With a swipe of a credit card and a modest fee, Parisians (and tourists) can now pick up or drop off a bike in any neighborhood in the city. Riders no longer need to worry about storing their bikes in tiny apartments. The program’s high-tech stations make theft virtually impossible. And with about twice as many bike stations as Métro stops, a free bike is pretty much always within reach.
New York’s subways and buses are already at capacity, and as we prepare to add one million new residents by 2030, our existing mass transit will require improvements that will take years (if not generations) to put in place. Mr. Bloomberg has fewer than 1,000 days left as mayor. His best chance at securing an environmentalist legacy is to embrace bike-sharing.
Sure, the mayor could start with a small and inexpensive bike-share program as early as next summer (say, on Governors Island). But really, what’s that going to achieve? Shouldn’t our mayor, a man who is supposed to be above politics, act more boldly? Once the Paris program demonstrates that bike-sharing can get people out of their cars and off the transit grid, Mr. Bloomberg should grab a page from the Parisian playbook and transform New York into the most bike-friendly metropolis in America.
Take Manhattan south of 86th Street (the exact parameters of the proposed congestion pricing zone). Imagine introducing 10,000 bikes, with stations at every avenue and every four streets. Now imagine taking a bike, at virtually no cost, from the Metropolitan Museum to the Metropolitan Opera, from Union Square to Chelsea Piers, from the Upper East Side to Wall Street, or from Times Square to Battery Park City.
Even a program as extensive as this would be much less expensive than any other transportation alternative on the table. One industry expert suggests that the cost to manufacture, install and maintain a program for 10 years comes to about $8,000 a bike. The program described above would cost New York about $8 million a year (which could be reduced depending on whether the city would be willing to allow advertising on the bicycles). In perspective: that’s a minuscule fraction of the estimated $2.1 billion cost of the 7 line subway extension now under way.
Keep in mind, too, that New York City travel is uniquely suited to such a program: most automobile trips in the city are under five miles, well within reach of even out-of-shape New Yorkers.
Of course, if New York were to add thousands of bikes to its streets, it would also need to create hundreds of new bike lanes. But this is not a financial or engineering challenge — just a political one. All that’s needed is to reallocate one automobile lane on each avenue and most cross-town streets, and the mayor can do that without having to win Albany’s approval.
For a mayor whose disdain for cars is already on record — and an administration already committed to adding new bike lanes — this shouldn’t be any more daring to introduce than congestion pricing.
Last week, I organized an experimental bike-share program in SoHo, with the Storefront for Art and Architecture. We offered free, 30-minute bike rentals to any adult with valid identification. Over five days, hundreds of people expressed their support. These weren’t just cycling activists — in fact, the most excitement came from people who didn’t even own bikes because they couldn’t stand the hassle of trying to store one in the city.
This small experiment seemed to me to be a clear sign that the ridership for a bike-share program is ready and waiting; all that’s needed is some mayoral leadership. With the London model all but dead, Mr. Bloomberg would do well to pay a visit to Paris.
David Haskell, the executive director of the Forum for Urban Design, is the founder of the New York Bike-Share Project.