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.

  • Great response. Thanks for doing this. 

  • J

    It’s a sad state we’re in when the Times relies mainly on Sean Sweeney and a failed bikeshare bidder from Queens with no bikesharing experience. What is propelling such biased and poorly-researched articles?

  • From what I recall during my time living in Montreal, and still continuing to visit as frequently as my paychecks will allow, Montreal has had nothing but success with their bike share program. I guess NY Times editors don’t want bikes getting in the way of their cars?

  • J

    Has the Times published the letter from Alta Bikeshare. Has anyone written a thoughtful letter to the editor in response to this piece of garbage?

  • Mark Walker

    Also “plagued by questions of its viability”: the automobile in the post peak oil era.

  • Westchesterite

    Not surprised that Michael Grynbaum contributed to the New York Times story.  The Times story about the garages failing was so optimistic in comparison.  Look at all the bondholders can do now with the garages!

  • Anonymous

    Good point.

    This is the freaking NYT.  Are even their reporters too lazy to break their own stories?  They need their “sources” to just tell them what to report. 

    I wonder, if this type of reporting can be attributed to a lack of diversity in the newsroom make up.  I don’t mean to personally call out Michael Grynbaum, and perhaps he didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth.  

    But, when I think of the South Bronx Parking Garage story, I think the tragedy is the lack of public space in the South Bronx, the high incidence of Asthma, that the South Bronx is the home of the Yankees but of the millions spent inside the stadium, very little is spent outside of it.

    And he’s writing about how we can make the bondholders “whole.”  A big hotel right next to yankee stadium.  F–k the bondholders.  What about the people who live there.  Or are they just there to absorb exhaust for all the Yankee’s fans driving to the game. 

  • A Guest

    Please send this to the public editor at the Times. If there is a word limit, edit to fit. Otherwise, do not assume anyone there will see or care about this — excellent and thoughtful as it is.

  • Westchesterite

    More on Christine Haughney: “In 2008, she moved over to the metro desk to cover the Frontiers beat, which explored neighborhoods throughout the city affected by the building boom and recent slowdown.”  
    You would think, given the controversy about the DOT’s pedestrian and bike improvements, that Haughney would have written a story describing whether the ped/bike improvements helped or hurt real estate values during the recent slowdown. 

    But you would be wrong.  A quick search on the Times site of her 349 articles shows only one (!) reference to the word “pedestrian” (in a snowstorm story) and only four (!) references to the word “bicycle” (one of which mentions a young child riding a small bike around his apartment.  

    More importantly, she doesn’t have a byline talking about how commercial real estate has held up very well after the Times Square improvements.  Yet, does have references to car parking in 23 articles.

    No wonder she needed Grynbaum and Sean Sweeney to spoon feed her the story.  She knows nothing about the subject! 

  • Streetsman

    For what it’s worth I’m sure the editors picked the headline and probably chose the slant the story would take so I wouldn’t lay all the blame at Haughney’s feet. I just can’t believe that after months and months of unsubstantiated assault against bikes and DOT by Murdoch’s right wing rag the New York Post, frequently with more than 5 hackjobs a week, the Times is following suit with articles like that sham profile of the commissioner they put out the day before NBBL’s Propsect Park West lawsuit, and this piece of trash, which might as well be headlined “Before Bike Share Effort Starts, Shadowy Opponents Position Negative Press to Cast Doubts”. Really disappointed in this sorry article.

  • pbsinnyc

    Ben,

    First, I agree with you that the Times piece is shoddy, but it doesn’t matter.  As I have already told you, a few of your colleagues, and Janette Sadik-Kahn, that if a bike sharing program is launched in NYC according to the current time schedule set by NYCDOT, and if it continues to operate for the next 5+ years, then the livable city/streets movement in NYC will be set back SIGNIFICANTLY!

    Do you really think that because bike sharing programs in other cities are successful, that a bike sharing program in NYC will be successful?  If you answered yes, then chances are you are probably correct.  NYC most likely will share the same successes as the other cities, however, the livable city/streets movement encompasses more than having a successful bike sharing program.  There are other aspects to the livable city/streets movement, and if a bike sharing program is launched too soon, regardless if it becomes successful or not, those other aspects will be negatively affected.

    When the time comes, I will challenge city planners, livable city/streets advocates, transportation experts, people who have many more years of experience than I in the transportation industry, or anyone who claims to be an authority on transportation issues to prove me wrong in regards to my claim.  In the end, the people will decide.

    Now regarding Alta, since they are clarifying issues regarding their business, I’d like some clarification on their treatment of their employees.  Specifically, I would like to know if there is any truth to a comment made by a supposed employee of Alta.  The comment can be viewed here:

    http://disqus.com/cnn-83cf98e89d79236b6be75b9288/

    Lastly, I’m curious as to why you didn’t reveal that OpenPlans, a division of Streetsblog’s parent organization, was part of the Bcycle bid in your other articles regarding the media’s attack on NYC’s bike sharing program?  Is that not something that should be disclosed from the beginning?  In any case, thank you for revealing that tidbit.

  • Eric McClure

    Well done, Ben.

    Bike share is going to take curb space away from cars. The haters may as well get used to it.  New York City will be a better place as a result.

  • Pbsinnyc

    test

  • Arnold

    Huh?

  • J

    Um… Is this rant based on a single internet comment? 

    How would bike sharing set back livable streets? It has been shown to boost regular bicycling, and it gets more people out on bikes and walking. It results in fewer taxi trips and will likely ease congestion on subway lines, especially at big choke points.

  • Denis Byrne

    Overall, I’m very disappointed about this NY Times article. Horrible and one sided reporting, it is akin to the crap usually written in one of Murdoch’s rags. Bikeshare will be successful in NYC as long as it is managed well.

  • Anonymous

    hmmm, 
    If (i) Bike sharing is successful (which I think it will be) then (ii) the streets will be flooded with new bikers which will lead to (iii) increased emphasis on actual good, usable and viable bike infrastructure.  

    They’ll be begging to put in a protected lane on 1st ave and 2nd ave between midtown and uptown. 

  • Anonymous

    “A Guest” is absolutely right. Writing a thoughtful letter to the Public Editor at the New York Times is a  good use of time.

    Whatever faults the Times has, it has taken its internal policing very seriously since the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller messes. At the very least, you’ll get a thoughtful letter back. Who knows, it might even be the subject of a column taking Haughney and/or Grynbaum to task for not doing their homework completely or getting past a bias.

    Either way, it seems more productive than endlessly venting spleens and preaching to the converted.

  • Pbsinnyc

    nattyb, J, and yes even you Arnold,

    All of your questions/comments will be answered/addressed when the time comes.  I can’t give you an exact time, but it will be a few months before or after the launch of NYC’s bike sharing program.  I’m still debating which time would be best to start things rolling in order to have the greatest impact.  Obviously, the time may change if NYCDOT alters the time schedule for the launch of the bike sharing program.  But know this, I genuinely want what’s best for the people so that’s why I’ve been working very hard on what the livable city/streets movement sorely needs–a royal flush.

     

  • J

    The Times has printed several correction to this poorly-written piece. They can be viewed here:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/07/pageoneplus/corrections.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=bike%20share&st=cse

  • kaushik ganesh

    Are the bikes electric or are they manual ? 

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