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 ##

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

    Please. How juvenile. Read the responses to the initial announcements:

    And you’ll see that you’re, you know, wrong.

    Here the Citigroup business is just a red herring. This is good old-fashioned NIMBYism, put forward by people who only seem cable of marshaling ludicrously dishonest arguments.

  • Totally agree. If this had been taxpayer funded, the same NIMBYs would be screaming that they shouldn’t have to pay for it, that drivers pay for roads, and that the city should have gotten one of “Emperor Bloomberg’s” corporate buddies to foot the bill.

    This is about three issues: parking, parking, and parking.

  • Craig S.

    What a insult to Jane Jacob’s memory to be so presumptious as to assert how she would view NYC’s Bike share program. I mean how low will you stoop in your continuing propaganda?

    Meanwhile, I just realized what you militant bikers remind me of: Born-again zealots from any religion or movement. The leaders make up the script, and the followers just parrot the same lines like robots.

  • Anonymous

    What a [sic] insult to Jane Jacob’s memory to be so presumptious as to assert how she would view NYC’s Bike share program.

    How do you think she would’ve viewed it then?

  • Anonymous

    Thousands of bicyclists could REALLY clog your streets if we all got into cars and drove around, or tried to anyway.

    But explain please how bicyclists can clog streets on bikes? By demanding that ‘one cyclist = one driver’ and demanding respect and space for our bikes? Or what is the outrage? Sorry, I don’t get this. I really don’t.

  • Anonymous

    We are all pedestrians at times, even you drivers. We all have neighborhoods, and love them better when they have fewer cars and car alarms going off to disturb our peace. Many of us do live in Historic Districts and support historic preservation in other ways.

    I even love delivery trucks when they doublepark in traffic lanes and inconvenience drivers like you. It’s only when they block my lanes that I get annoyed. I’m sure you understand how that is. LOL.

  • Anonymous

    Have you actually read anything Jane Jacobs wrote? Maybe even browsing the Wikipedia entry would be enuff to help you.

  • Anonymous

    More precisely, it’s about “my parking!”, My parking!”, My Parking!” and “me, Me, ME!”

  • Anonymous

    Robert Caro is thru Volume Four of his L.B.J. biography. The man sure knows how to write!

    Glad Caro and his publishers didn’t try L.B.J. in one volume.

  • Anonymous

    Science domain is not limited to natural sciences. You can study human phenomena with scientific rigor. It is not entertaining, it it not fun for the layperson and requires attentive data collection and observation.

  • Ian Turner

    Does somebody need a hug?

  • In each of the bikeshare cities I’ve visited (e.g., Boston, Mexico City, Miami Beach, Montreal, Toronto, and Washington), the areas served by bikeshare have very high population & employment density — since that discounts outlying areas of lower-density neighborhoods and large parks. For example, Boston’s CBD is 20% larger than SF’s, and Washington’s is twice as large; Miami Beach’s winter population density (much of its housing stock is seasonally occupied) is reputed to be higher than San Francisco’s.

    And if supposedly open-minded San Franciscans can’t take a lesson from other cities, then that’s too bad for them — and in those instances, what happens in NYC probably won’t matter, either.

  • Being from Montreal, I can assert with authority that the bike sharing program is one of the best things that ever happened up there. It changes the way people behave and commute, for the better. The only people that have a legitimate grievance are the taxi drivers, because they will lose out on some fares. Everyone else is either misinformed, or willfully ignorant.

  • Rhubarbpie

    Re: “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

    This is where I think you’ve taken a wrong turn. Are you suggesting that the DOT never makes a mistake? I agree that the program shouldn’t be delayed, but if there are siting or other changes that can be made before the program starts (or after, if necessary), then why not? Otherwise, the City and advocates really do come off acting like the arrogant jerks opponents accuse them of being. Sometimes it is okay to be an arrogant jerk, but this doesn’t seem like one of those times.

  • guest

    I think you have to distinguish between siting changes that are made fix measurable problems after installation — traffic, emergency response time, etc. — and individual gripes that can never be satisfied, such as a loss of parking or problems with the look of the stations. If you have to subject each location to some sort of popularity contest before the system goes live, you’ll wind up with endless delays. Which may be the point of some of the loudest complainers.

    DOT, like any city agency, makes mistakes. But unlike a lot of mistakes, any problems with individual stations will likely be temporary, since they can be moved quickly and relocated with no construction costs or physical damage to the street.

    Most advocates I know are advising patience, not blind fealty to DOT.

  • Charles M. Fraser

    From my jaundiced point-of-view, it’s hilarious the too-expensive, socialism-for-the-rich, bike-share program has brought disdane from those who can afford to ignore the necessary evolution of a more politely efficient New York City traffic scheme. Good for them, those who have no use for a more comprehensive mass-transit system either. May the powers-that-be continue to be forced to excuse the elite’s preference for their own comfort over the stifled prosperity of the masses?

  • Anonymous

    Finally, some jaundiced person is speaking truth to power: at barely over a quarter per day for the yearly pass, $3.57/day for the weekly pass, or under fifty cents an hour for the 24-hour pass, the bike share program truly is outrageously expensive. WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE!

  • What am I wrong about? I am happy to have a bike share system of some sort in NYC.

  • I am no NIMBY. I don’t even live in NYC.

  • Anonymous

    The claim that “Streetsblog readers would not object too much” to corporate branding. There were and are real objections to that, as those comment threads illustrate.

  • Jared R

    I wish he hadn’t cut those pages!

  • Nathan

    Relax man, the author only ventured to guess what Jacobs might have said. Those of us who truly care about cities know that cars need to be tamed and biking needs to start carrying its load of commuters. Otherwise we’re going to have nasty cities like Houston, São Paulo, Delhi, Beijing and Miami all over the world.

  • RGD

    You’ve never read anything Jane Jacobs wrote, have you? I suggest you start with “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” which has become a classic not just within planning circles but is also becoming more important outside of planning circles. I think you will find that she was a very different person from whoever you think she was.

    If you do not want to sink the money into it, go here for further reading:
    Having spent much time gleaning what I could from her thoughts, it is a very common sense sort of thought pattern, based on real life thinking. She often expressed herself rather bluntly, but I find that what she says rings true.

    She did not limit herself to urban planning, either. She ventured into the field of economics. I think she led an Urbanites’ Civil Rights Movement of sorts.

  • RGD

    Sorry. Here’s her best quote, which was from a response to an interviewer who asked her to respond to something like this: “I can find reasons to love you and hate you from all sides of the political spectrum, left, right and center. What do you say to that?”

    Jane Jacobs: “…That’s because I’m not ideological.”
    Having read her works, I think I heartily agree with that quote (you are entitled to think as you wish).

  • RGD

    Yes. That’s because neighborhoods like that are so rare that the ones we have left find themselves with soaring rent.

  • RGD

    No, she didn’t work with empirical models, any more than an economist did. Economists cannot always use statistics to predict the future accurately. No relevant, adequate statistics existed for her concerning many of the topics she wrote about existed when she wrote her first book. Most of that has changed due to people like Gehl Architects (Jan Gehl’s company).
    Furthermore, an astonishing number of worldwide cities face issues similar to those which American cities faced in 1959-1961. Fifty years changed remarkably little. Only the few cities which payed attention to her ideas and partially or wholly implemented them have been successful in the US, Europe, and across the developed world, for that matter. In the developing world, things might be a little different for now, but just you wait and see. Many of her ideas are just starting to be implemented in other parts of the world.
    People are not inherently statistical or rational. Just ask psychologists and sociologists. Jane Jacobs holds her high status in the planning world not because she used models, but because she singularly disproved most of her contemporary modelling in one fell swoop.


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