Bike-Share in The Village: What Would Jane Jacobs Do?

I didn’t get to speak at the Manhattan Community Board 2 meeting last night to discuss bike-share — I stayed outside too long kibitzing on West 11th Street, so my speaker card landed at the bottom of the stack. Here’s what I would have said:

Image: front cover of "Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Glenna Lang and Marjorie Wunsch, on ##http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51mtII7-SAL._SY380_.jpg##Amazon##

I live in CB 1, on Duane Street, but my first New York apartments were in or just outside CB 2, on West 15th Street and Minetta Street. My kids were born across the street at (now shuttered) St. Vincent’s Hospital. My two sisters lived a few blocks away. And there were timeless evenings at the Village Gate, the Village Vanguard, etc. So there’s a lot of Greenwich Village in me.

I don’t quite know what to make of the uproar and upset from so many of my neighbors tonight. I think I’ll try to channel Jane — Jane Jacobs, the immortal author-activist who led the insurrection that stopped the Lower Manhattan Expressway and whose “Death and Life of Great American Cities” laid the intellectual foundation for today’s livable streets movement. Jane famously lived at 555 Hudson, a stone’s throw from where we’re meeting tonight. I met her just once, in Toronto, in 1990 or 1991, where Jane had moved in 1968, the year I moved in. Obviously, I didn’t know her well. But I’ve studied her life and her work enough to venture what Jane might want to tell us.

To start, I think Jane would have understood that for Citi Bike to succeed it has to be done “at scale.” So far as I know, Jane didn’t use the term “network effects,” but that idea pervades her work, as blogger Timothy B. Lee points out:

Jacobs doesn’t quite put it this way, but Great American Cities is really a treatise on the importance of network effects to urban wealth creation. The reason people flock to noisy, dirty, crowded cities like New York and Chicago is because most of the things we value are provided by other human beings, and being in a large city puts us in close proximity with many more of them.

Network effects apply to systems as well as populations: Telephone systems are based on them, since the value of your phone depends on my having one as well. Indeed, “network math” posits that while the cost of a network rises in linear proportion to the number of instruments, the network’s value rises geometrically in relation to that number. Just so, with bike-share. A Citi Bike won’t be fully useful unless there’s a full-blown network of stations where you can find a bike and then leave it at the end of the trip.

In short, without scale, forget about bike-share, Jane Jacobs the analyst might have said.

Without question, Jane Jacobs the urbanist would have wrapped bike-share in a bear hug. Jane would have relished the opportunity to always have a bike at the ready and to be unencumbered by it at her destination. She would have delighted in the sturdy, interchangeable and utterly utilitarian machines themselves. And she would have appreciated the access to cycling the system would have provided everyone — not just those fortunate enough to live within easy cycling distance of work, as Jane did, but the throngs of workers and visitors who come in from the boroughs and the suburbs.

Where my channeling gets a tad murky is with Jane’s neighborhood-activist part. I’m sure Jane would have shrugged off the NIMBYs here tonight who kvetch that the bike stations block “their” streets but never organized against the cars that until a week ago filled the same curb space 24-7. And she’d have scoffed at the idea that bike-share users will be endangered by speeding and fast-turning cars and cabs. Why not go instead after the miscreant drivers who threaten everyone? But some of the micro-adjustments sought tonight — a gap in the line of bike docks for a truck loading zone, shifting a station from a side street to an avenue around the corner — might have tugged at her.

Yet on this point, I’ll venture that Jane would have consulted her political part, looked at the calendar, and said something like this:

“Mayor Bloomberg has eight months left, and then he’s gone, along with the political and administrative power to deploy this potentially transformational program. One or two or a dozen siting changes may make individual sense, but to open the program to them now is to jeopardize the intricate schedule of startup and expansion involving hundreds of stations and thousands of docks.

“Robert Moses spent billions and uprooted hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers in a 40-year highway-auto makeover that bled the life out of the city and came this close to turning it into a cadaver. You know this. You know that we fought back. Some of you fought with me, or are the inheritors of those who did.

“We always said that reversing Moses’ monstrous legacy wouldn’t happen overnight. It won’t happen without some pain, either, even some loss. And the restored world won’t look exactly like the old. But it will be a lot better than what he left us with.”

Jane concluded “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by proclaiming that “lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration.” Thanks to bike-share, New York is poised to become even more lively and more diverse, and to keep on regenerating.

  • Anonymous

    Charles, you’re a gem as always. I think this following statement illustrates the importance of respecting the process.

    “Mayor Bloomberg has eight months left, and then he’s gone, along with the political and administrative power to deploy this potentially transformational program. One or two or a dozen siting changes may make individual sense, but to open the program to them now is to jeopardize the intricate schedule of startup and expansion involving hundreds of stations and thousands of docks.

    I was sympathetic to the persons who spoke about how the stations limited their mobility and I hope DoT can make appropriate and necessary accommodations. But people should at least wait for it to start to really see if it’s as burdensome as they make it out to be. We cannot expect every stake holder to have a veto right over every particular location.

    Absolutely agree on the network effect. We simply cannot have “well, for Washington Square Park, we want a smaller station for aesthetic reasons,” because we need sufficient capacity for the network to function.

  • Anonymous

    Charles, you’re a gem as always. I think this following statement illustrates the importance of respecting the process.

    “Mayor Bloomberg has eight months left, and then he’s gone, along with the political and administrative power to deploy this potentially transformational program. One or two or a dozen siting changes may make individual sense, but to open the program to them now is to jeopardize the intricate schedule of startup and expansion involving hundreds of stations and thousands of docks.

    I was sympathetic to the persons who spoke about how the stations limited their mobility and I hope DoT can make appropriate and necessary accommodations. But people should at least wait for it to start to really see if it’s as burdensome as they make it out to be. We cannot expect every stake holder to have a veto right over every particular location.

    Absolutely agree on the network effect. We simply cannot have “well, for Washington Square Park, we want a smaller station for aesthetic reasons,” because we need sufficient capacity for the network to function.

  • David Gurin

    I was a friend of Jane’s, both in New York and in Toronto, where I lived for 20 years, and I am sure that Charles Komanoff is right — Jane would have loved bike-share.

  • JK

    Charlie, thank you for this insightful, informative and very humane piece. The most logical response to this demand for relocating and shrinking bike stations is to have DOT pledge to address the totality of community concerns after bike share is up and operating — and forever keep adjusting as needed going forward. The genius of these bike stations is that they are easily moved, they’re based on wireless power and communication. These are not buildings, where you can’t change anything once they’re built. Let’s see how the system works over a month or two, and then fix what needs fixing.

  • Hold strong, New York. The rest of the country is watching. We in San Francisco especially need your bikeshare system to be successful and transformative to hold up as an example. Can’t wait to use it myself.

  • Rich K

    No question – network effect is a key part of what makes bike-share work (and telephones, too).

    I happen to use bike-share in London several times a year, and the prevalence of docking stations makes it possible for me to rely on the system to get to meetings, to my hotel, to nighttime socializing, etc.

    I tried to use it once in Mexico City, but there’s no network effect there – their bike share system is limited to just a few neighborhoods, so it was regrettably useless as a way to get around the city.

    BTW, as for bike-share in NYC, before I joined, I checked the station locations to see whether the NYC bike share system would actually create a network effect for my own pathways around NYC – my office, my errands, offices where I often have meetings, etc., and it passed with flying colors. This was especially nice to see because I don’t live or work in the neighborhoods (e.g., the West Village that was the subject of Charlie’s post above) that have gotten the most attention.

  • Paul

    The composition of Greenwich Village has changed since Jane’s time. It used to be a much more mixed-income, working class neighborhood. Now its mostly those who can afford the privilege of living there. I think the folks in the East Village would be much more understanding.

  • Anonymous

    Am I the only one disturbed by this “Jane Jacobs” cult? She was not a scientist that worked with defined testable empirical models like many others in the field of engineering did, to begin it. Therefore, you can’t use an non-defined model to argue about modern issues.

  • @andrelot:disqus – The word “cult” reveals nothing but your own bias.

    Her ideas were formed in trailblazing activism, and nobody can model that until it happens. Of course, the nationwide spread of the Freeway Revolt has given us additional data. Plenty of models afterwards have borne out her insights.

  • KeNYC2030

    No she was not a scientist or engineer, and thank goodness for that. And people in cities aren’t molecules or atoms that obey rigid physical laws, either.

  • What would she have thought about corporate branding – am I waiting for “CitiBike” to become the generic for a bike share bicycle? – and greenwash – if Jacobs was a Facebook friend would I post on her Wall – closest I could get to channeling her – that in 2012 the “… top three U.S. financiers of the coal industry [including Citigroup] collectively financed an estimated $9 billion for mountaintop removal mining companies and the most coal-intensive power utilities…”? http://understory.ran.org/2013/04/29/extreme-investments-2013-coal-finance-report-card/

  • Jared Rodriguez

    Someone please post some evidence that Jane went head to head with Robert Moses. I read the Power Broker and there is no reference to Jane. She may have been part of the “stroller pushers” in Moses’ words. Not totally sure – I would love some references.

  • AcuBill

    An absolutely brilliant post, Charles. I think you’re completely right, and I agree with the JaredAF that your reasonable but principled response to individual concerns, namely, that we should birth the baby before taking any additional steps, is the only way to move forward constructively. Your explanation of the network effect is also critical. Jane would have loved this. Thanks.

  • Village Robert

    NO BIKE SHARE! What’s wrong with you people who are in favor of this? Haven’t any of you read the full bylaws of this so called bike share? Here are some of the interesting tidbits that I’ve heard.
    1. If you have a bike share outlet in front of your building, and the rider takes a bike out, gets hurt, your building is responsible for the damage to the person and the bike.
    2. If you want a package delivered, and there is a bike rack in front of your building, UPS and Fed Ex WILL NOT DELIVER. You will have to go to the nearest UPS and Fex Ex spot (which is now their distribution center at either JFK or Newark) to retrieve your package. Or, you can have your package dropped off between midnight and 4am. Look this up if you don’t believe me.
    3. All bikes are assigned to people who live in the buildings that the share racks are in front of. This means that each resident has to personally take care of bikes. Everyone look this up if you think I’m lying. This means painting bikes, oiling chains, changing tires, patching seats, etc.
    4. Each co-op that the bikes are assigned to is responsible for delegating a resident to fix the bike rack machine and credit card reader. HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO THIS?

    Look this up!! It’s insane the deal the city has worked out with these bike share nazis.

  • Can’t tell if you seriously believe this or you’re just maliciously spreading crazy bull****, but I’m going to leave your comment up as an example of the insane things that bike-share opponents are saying.

  • Funny thing is this person could easily find out that none of these things are true. But i suspect that is not the goal.

  • VILLAGE ROBERT

    IT’S ALL TRUE!!!! BEN, WHY ARE YOU BUYING THE NAZI KKKKKK GARBAGE THE CITY IS CELLING?????

  • I can guess that Jacobs would ask this person if they want a hug….

  • Anonymous

    Wow. I mean, wow.

    Bike share just officially became the Agenda 21 of New York City politics.

  • I’m still not convinced Robert isn’t a fake persona cooked up by a too-clever bike-share supporter.

  • Maybe provide a link where we can “look this up.” Might help bolster your case. And I use “might” in only the loosest of ways.

    Although on second read, I agree with Ben. Better than the Onion.

  • Maybe provide a link where we can “look this up.” Might help bolster your case. And I use “might” in only the loosest of ways.

    Although on second read, I agree with Ben. Better than the Onion.

  • Maybe provide a link where we can “look this up.” Might help bolster your case. And I use “might” in only the loosest of ways.

    Although on second read, I agree with Ben. Better than the Onion.

  • Maybe provide a link where we can “look this up.” Might help bolster your case. And I use “might” in only the loosest of ways.

    Although on second read, I agree with Ben. Better than the Onion.

  • Anonymous

    I thought it was satire at first, but now I’m getting more convinced it’s trolling.

  • Anonymous

    You can tell when someone’s lying by the details. This one is just crazy enough to be legit. I’m usually good at fake trolling but this really is a tough one . . .

    I think this is legit because of the gripe about the [imaginary] affirmative obligations imposed on residents.

    One of the loudest applause lines last night was for the lady imploring getting rid of bike share to spare her lovely door men from having to clean up the garbage off the stations. And that it’d create all this extra work for them. Huge applause line. Even though, it’s not true.

    But this makes me think it’s a fake troll:
    You will have to go to the nearest UPS and Fex Ex spot (which is now their distribution center at either JFK or Newark)

    Every west sider who’s had to pick up a package knows about the UPS station at Houston and Hudson. And FedEx is also on the far west side in Hell’s Kitchen (which is really far from the train and perfect for bike share).

    ***
    Though, to be fair to the critics, most critics aren’t this crazy.

  • Anonymous

    Reading it through again, I’m inclined to agree with you and Ben: this is likely someone having a good time. For me, “Here are some of the interesting tidbits that I’ve heard” is the give. That’s the phrasing of someone who likes irony. And compare it with the “CELLING” business below. The writer can’t figure out how literate to make the character.

  • Because the fact that bike share is already “successful and transformative” in half of North America’s 16 largest metro areas (Mexico City, Toronto, Miami, Boston, Washington, Guadalajara, Montreal, and Monterrey, all more populous than the Bay Area), plus hundreds of other cities worldwide from Salamanca to Shanghai, doesn’t provide enough examples to hold up?

  • Anonymous

    Ever hear of the Lower Manhattan Expressway? There’s a decent brief on it in Wikipedia. A terrific longer narrative in Anthony Flint’s “Wrestling with Moses.” IIRC, Flint asserts that Caro had to cut hundreds of pages from his “Power Broker” ms. (don’t laugh!), and his text on Jane walked the plank.

  • Andrew

    Source?

  • TomG

    Classic instance of Poe’s Law.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The reference to Jane Jacobs is thoughtful, given that the NIMBYs who care foremost about their own use of public space for parking probably believe they are channeling her as well. It says a lot about what happened to the idealism of her time, once the silent majority stopped being silent and took over.

  • Eric McClure

    Folks, this is CLEARLY satire.

  • Anonymous

    Hooray!

    We saw the bike-share program transform the life of city dwellers first-hand in Paris and Barcelona. Give it a chance. You will not believe how great it is.

  • Eric McClure

    I’m sure half the bat-shit crazy cranks at last night’s CB2 meeting would swear they used to drink with Jane Jacobs at the White Horse Tavern back in the day, fighting “the man” when they weren’t at Woodstock or pelting the cops during Stonewall. Sadly, though, the reality is that they just grew up and became their Nixon-backing parents.

  • It’s really well-done. Bike Snob quality.

  • Eric McClure

    Speaking of Jane Jacobs, Doug Gordon and I are leading a “Jane’s Ride” this Saturday, at noon, of new and planned Brooklyn bike infrastructure in and around Park Slope, as part of the Jane’s Walk NYC program. If you’re interested, please join us, and if you know people who might find it interesting, please spread the word. It’s free and there’s no need to RSVP. More info here: http://mas.org/walk/bike-to-the-future-brooklyns-burgeoning-bicycling-infrastructure/

  • Hear, hear.

  • JK

    So much for Jane’s merry band of cultists — by far the most dominant cult in American urban mis-planning is that of the traffic engineers and parking planners. They utterly ignore empirical evidence, and use methods that would be laughable if they weren’t so destructive. There is a brilliant, 1000 page demolition of their hookum called the “High Price of Free Parking” written by a planner actually grounded in evidence. And, importantly, unlike bike share, the mistakes these cultists build are built in stone for the next century or more.

  • JK

    So much for Jane’s merry band of cultists — by far the most dominant cult in American urban mis-planning is that of the traffic engineers and parking planners. They utterly ignore empirical evidence, and use methods that would be laughable if they weren’t so destructive. There is a brilliant, 1000 page demolition of their hookum called the “High Price of Free Parking” written by a planner actually grounded in evidence. And, importantly, unlike bike share, the mistakes these cultists build are built in stone for the next century or more.

  • JK

    So much for Jane’s merry band of cultists — by far the most dominant cult in American urban mis-planning is that of the traffic engineers and parking planners. They utterly ignore empirical evidence, and use methods that would be laughable if they weren’t so destructive. There is a brilliant, 1000 page demolition of their hookum called the “High Price of Free Parking” written by a planner actually grounded in evidence. And, importantly, unlike bike share, the mistakes these cultists build are built in stone for the next century or more.

  • Jennie Baker

    I don’t think so

  • San Francisco has much greater population density than all those cities. Of cities over 150,000 people, it is second in population density in North America only to New York City.

    Anti-bikeshare propaganda is already beginning to show up in our media. If New York’s bikeshare were to fail spectacularly (which I don’t think it will) it would be very hard to counter the crazy anti-bikeshare opposition that is starting to crawl out of the anti-bike woodwork here.

    I like Boston’s bikeshare–I had a chance to use it last fall–but I didn’t see many of its bikes on Boston’s streets, and the system isn’t all that visible to the average tourist. New York’s system will be highly visible. Washington DC’s system is good but that city doesn’t have the density of San Francisco so it can be discounted.

    New York is harder to discount. Very often here people will refer to Times Square as a positive example of reclaiming public space from cars. There are probably a hundred other successful examples nationwide, but that one is on people’s radar. As to the rest of the cities, people in San Francisco will discount what happens three blocks away because they’re sure what works for one pocket neighborhood can’t possibly work in another. No, they will not take cities in Canada and Mexico seriously, even though they should.

  • McDonalds will fund a public square and in opening day promotions show Jacobs eating a Big Mac — but it seems like Streetsblog readers will not object too much…..

  • Well, station-based systems are very expensive. Unfortunately BAAQMD seems to have decided that that was the thing when it created start-up funding for this… seemingly before looking alternatives.

    Look around SF… heavy bikes are unpopular. This is not only because many bring bikes upstairs at home (since there is no program for residential long-term parking aside from in new builds) but because of topography. The stations will not be in hilly areas…. City CarShare has SFMTA-funding for an e-bike program but not only will a second membership be necessary, but also a driver’s license. Why is the SFMTA funding an e-bike that will require a driver’s license?

  • Giving a thumbs up because I know it’s satire. This line gave it away “All bikes are assigned to people who live in the buildings that the share racks are in front of. “

  • Richard Miller

    Charlie,

    I think your discussion of network effects is brilliant (no surprise there), but does that really mean the system can’t be tweaked as time goes on. As someone who works for Con Edison (probably the largest network in the city), we have to tweak our network all the time in ways that make it less efficient, but to accommodate some other need. I love bike share, but I don’t see why it should be any different.

  • Craig S.

    NYC does not need to be ‘transformed’ by the bike share program! You holier-than-thou bike militants make me sick! You are all so patronizing with your numerous posts about how all the ‘bike’haters’ will yell at first but then find they love the program.

    You are all pedestrian-haters, neighborhood-haters, historic district-haters, delivery truck-haters and car-haters.

    BTW, if you won’t allow for delivery trucks, how will you extreme Vegan cyclists get your supplies?

  • Craig S.

    This is not ‘anti-bike share propaganda’ in New York City! this has little to do with the media. This is about real everyday New Yorkers being outraged about the hundreds of huge bike corrals planted overnight in their neighborhoods and the prospect of thousands of bicyclists clogging our streets. When will you get this!!

  • I think there is only one reason to believe it is satire (tho a good one): It was posted at streetsblog.

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