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Oonee’s Next Goal? Make Secure Bike Parking As Common As Bus Shelters

9:00 AM EDT on March 15, 2023

Oonee CEO Shabazz Stuart in front of the newest addition to the Port Authority: Secure bike parking. Photo: Dave Colon

It's one bike parking unit, one giant leap for bike parking.

Oonee, the bike pod people, is opening its latest hub on Wednesday — a 20-spot unit at the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 42nd Street — and it puts the company one step towards the inevitability of widespread bike parking on the streets of New York.

"This kind of infrastructure, five years ago, would have been unimaginable," said CEO Shabazz Stuart. "And now people are going to get used to and accustomed to not only secure bike parking being here on the public right-of-way, but also, it being good looking it being accessible and it being convenient."

Safe, weatherproof places for New Yorkers to store their bikes is a necessary ingredient for getting more New Yorkers to jump on two wheels. Surveys have shown that lower-income residents and people of color said the would be more likely to embrace regular riding if they had secure places to lock up their bikes.

For several years, Oonee has been trying to fill the gaps left by a city bureaucracy that has struggled to figure out how to provide safe sheltered places to store a bike. The Brooklyn-based company now has three permanent locations in New York City in addition to the Port Authority hub (one at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and one six-unit pod at Grand Central Terminal), which provide bike parking for all users who access the hubs using an app or a keycard. Bike parking is free for all users courtesy of advertising on the larger pods that subsidize the operations.

Oonee also finished a widely lauded pilot last year in which a small pod was installed in different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens for one month at a time, and is bringing hundreds more bike parking spaces to New Jersey. Even though New Jersey is currently running circles around New York in terms of embracing bike parking spaces, Stuart said that the city could easily catch up by embracing the idea of seeing secure bike parking as necessary as bus shelters, which are also ad-supported street furniture managed by a private company.

"We have 3,000 bus shelters in the city," said Stuart. "There's no reason the city couldn't say tomorrow, 'We want to have bike parking everywhere, we should have 500 Oonees all over the city, inside buildings on the street on the curb.' The city could do it."

"If you go back to the 1960s and look at the pictures, you'll see no bus shelters," Stuart added. "Someone at some point decided that bus shelters should be common, that people should have a place to sit and be protected from the rain while waiting for the bus. Now we have that citywide and it's not really that remarkable. People expect to see it. If we want bikes to be taken as seriously as other mainstream modes, then we have to to invest in ancillary infrastructure that puts bikess on par with them."

Despite that need, New York City has struggled to make the bike storage a part of the streetscape. The DOT under former Mayor Bill de Blasio planned, but then canceled, a pilot program of bike parking structures in three locations, a saga that lasted from 2017 to 2020 without providing a single bike parking spot.

But since then, the Port Authority has embraced Stuart's vision for bike parking, as has Mayor Adams, even as other advocates have openly wondered where the DOT has been on taking a next step or issuing a citywide request for proposals that would allow various versions of bike parking to sprout around the city.

Stuart said his own vision for a citywide bike parking program is multifaceted, with ad-supported larger bike pods in high-traffic neighborhoods subsidizing smaller ad-free bike parking pods around the city similar to the Oonee mini that toured the city during last year's pilot program.

"Our vision for a system would be just like a subway system. You've got local stations and express stations, you have hubs. For the bike parking system, you're gonna have to have places where you can park 3,000 bikes in a building on the ground floor, Dutch-style. And there are going to be places on Third Street in Park Slope that aren't going to fit in buildings so you can have to have minis on the curb. And there will be places where you add capacity in a public plaza, like at Hudson Square on Canal Street," he said.

For its part, a DOT spokesperson said the agency is looking at options for secure bike parking and suggested more information would be coming "soon." The city's Department of Citywide Administrative Services has also gotten involved in the search for a bike parking vendor as part of a larger request for expression of interest on bike support infrastructure around the city.

Oonee's results in New York and New Jersey have been encouraging for the future of bike parking citywide. For starters, the Oonee Mini pilot last year got high marks from residents where the city placed the pod.

“It was well used and received an enthusiastic response from the community,” said Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Corporation Chair Gib Veconi. “Whenever you do progressive transportation initiatives, you worry about pushback from people who object to the loss of parking spaces, but we didn’t get that at all."

And user surveys from Oonee itself show that 56 percent of its users identified as non-white, 30 percent make less than $50,000 per year and 14 percent earn under $24,000.

A future with many more Oonees could mean a present that Port Authority commuters and reverse commuters are about to live. The new pod at the Port Authority has an attractive design, brushed steel and glass facades to get natural light inside where it has space for twenty bikes. The exterior of the pod also has colorful bike art by Naderson St. Pierre and modular roof attachment with video screens that can run ads that keeps the entire bike storage experience free for users.

Half of the space in the new pod has parking spaces using assisted-lift racks that use hydraulic power to assist people who need a hand to get their bikes locked in an upright position. The parking spaces also have their own locks, which Stuart said opens up possibilities for bike riders to not have to lug their own chains around if they don't want to, or even store bikes for other people to use.

"It means that, let's say you're biking to Times Square and you don't want to bring your own lock, you'll know that this system will allow you to park your bike, lock it for free and walk away. Or let's say that in the future, you want to lend your bike to your friend and you're not in town, they can come in, they will be able to unlock the bike take it, do their business, and then and put the back back," he said.

The piecemeal expansion in New York City when compared to New Jersey is a fact of life that Stuart says he's trying to work around, but also one that could change in just an instant.

"We can continue to grow piecemeal. But the rejoinder that I hear from people is, 'We need about 1,000 more of these. What's the holdup?' In order for that to happen, the most expeditious way is a citywide request for proposals. We've established that this can work. People will use it, it can be fair, it can be egalitarian, it can be well maintained. ... So when people say, 'Hey how do we get more of these?' The answer is, it should be a citywide system subject to due process, due planning, where me and other vendors have an opportunity to weigh in with our visions," he said.

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