Last week on Curbed, via the NY Daily News, it was reported that a nonprofit, New York Communities for Change, commissioned a study to look at how well Citi Bike was serving NYC residents. Conducted by the Urban Politics and Research Governance Group and called “Bridging the Boroughs,” it came to the totally shocking, unseen and far out of left field conclusion that Citi Bike is being used exclusively by a young white affluent demographic.
Initially, my reaction to the Bridging the Boroughs study was, “No DUH. Of course.” But a few minutes into reading about it, alarm bells immediately started going off. Here’s why:
That Citi Bike is exclusively catering to a demographic that doesn’t include the poor and people of color shouldn’t have been a surprise to anybody. It’s so obvious that I can’t even believe people would waste time creating a study based around this very obvious fact. After all, this is who that service is for–tech-oriented, upper middle class white millennial-age transplants who have the money and the time to waste on what’s essentially a luxury.
Why is Citi Bike a luxury? Because no one needs it to commute by bike in NYC. They just…well, don’t. Wanna commute? No problem. Go to a bike store, a Sears, a Target, a local NYC bargain basement, Craigslist or a thrift shop. Pick any one of a number of bikes available. Take it home. Then take it out whenever you need to go somewhere. If you don’t have the space to store a bike, then get a folding bike.
Easy peasy, right? That’s what I did. That’s what hundreds of thousands of people around NYC did and continue to do. Did we need a Citi Bike to start bike commuting? No.
But you see, here’s the thing–some people don’t want to get into bike commuting the “easy peasy” way. For one, to go out and buy a mass-produced bike like any Tom, Dick or Harry would make you like everyone else. If you’re a privileged snot from a particular demographic, you can’t do that because you’re not like everyone else. Your bike has to be niche. It has to come in a unique design and color and be associated with something distinctive that sets it apart from the bikes that everyone else is using.
Furthermore, it’s simply too mundane, “lo-tech” and old-fashioned to grab a mass-market bike and roll it out the door like every other human being. Gadgetry must be involved, as well as a highfalutin way of acquiring and using said bike. This is so your ride acquires a level of sophistication and coolness that makes you superior to the dumb, older, unsophisticated masses who aren’t smart or cool enough to use a bike that requires a smartphone. If you have to spend more money than necessary on a service to get this experience, all the better. That only makes it worth paying more money for, because this turns it into a luxury that most can’t afford.
It was people like this for whom Citi Bike was created, people who have the disposable income–and the waste of time–to use a system in which they have to jump through hoops to commute by bike. Urban planners, Big Development and their political cronies know this. It’s why Citi Bike was rolled out in the first place. Contrary to everyone’s assertions that it was about making bike riding more accessible to New Yorkers, Citi Bike seems to me to have been a cynical strategy to alert certain affluent demographics on the west coast and perhaps in Europe that NYC was now “up to their standards” and worth moving to.
Given all this, this is why when I read more about this Citi Bike study, red flags went up. The reason why is that the conclusion drawn by Bridging the Boroughs didn’t only just make an unfounded conclusion that it was somehow discriminatory to not have a Citi Bike in certain communities. It was using that baseless conclusion to paint incredibly false narratives about why Citi Bike suddenly needed expanding into certain neighborhoods.
The first false narrative is that somehow, poor communities are being “left out” of Citi Bike by virtue of there not being any stations physically located in them. This doesn’t make sense because the service is priced out of their reach, anyway, and nowhere near as cost-effective for them as public transportation. As it stands, a bus or subway ride is $2.75 each way, regardless of distance or length of time. In contrast, the base rate for renting a Citi Bike is $3 per half hour, $4 each additional 15 minutes and $169 annually. Given that, why would people of low income choose a Citi Bike over public transit?
Someone pointed out to me in so many words, “This is all moot. Citi Bike has special discounts for NYCHA residents and people on SNAP.” Well, that’s well and good, but you still need a debit or credit card to use the service. How many people who are so dirt poor that they need social services will have either one? To have a debit card, you have to have a bank account, which requires a minimum balance. To have a credit card, you need a credit history. If a person is destitute, how on earth are they going to have a debit or credit card? They’re not. This fact is why legislators are calling for bans on cashless stores. The poor cannot afford to use anything other than cash. Because they can’t, it’s very unlikely that NYCHA or SNAP beneficiaries would have the means to use a Citi Bike.
The second false narrative being painted by Bridging the Boroughs is that poor and/or minority communities are somehow being disenfranchised by not having a bike share in their neighborhoods because 1) they wouldn’t be able to bike commute otherwise 2) they live in “transit deserts.”
This is absolutely ridiculous. I’m more than familiar with neighborhoods like Brownsville, Canarsie and East New York. People in these areas, for lack of funds, were the first to start using bikes to get around long before some 6 year old startup came up with the concept, and long before it became fashionable among Midwestern transplants. They don’t need some corporate-run bike share to help them commute, because they’ve been commuting by bike for decades.
Of the residents that don’t ride bikes, they don’t need them. From the way this study was written, you’d think these neighborhoods were practically stranded out in the middle of the Sahara desert, miles and miles away from any train station or bus stop. This is just not true. The outermost reaches of NYC’s boroughs aren’t as easily within reach of public transportation as, say, midtown Manhattan, but they’re not Long Island, either.
For example, take Brownsville, one of the NYC neighborhoods recommended for expansion in the study:
Does this bus map of Brownsville resemble this picture that the Urban Politics and Research Governance Group painted in the Bridging the Boroughs study below?
“New York is a city where not a lot of people drive and most people rely on the subway or other forms of transit. There’s a huge opportunity for bike sharing to actually make a difference in the lives of people who need it, and connect them to the subway. Systematically, Citi Bike is not living up to that opportunity.”
Of course it doesn’t. Brownsville has several bus lines connecting it to both the L and the 3 train. Residents are so close to both train lines that they can actually walk to a train station in less than five minutes. So, what on earth is this study talking about when it says Citi Bike could “make a difference in the lives of people who need it” and “connect them to the subway?”
Even if you could make the argument that certain areas are oh, so remote from everyone and everything, go out to East New York, Brownsville or some other similar neighborhood. What do you see? Parked cars as far as the eye can see. Parked. Freaking. Cars. Yes, as hard as it seems to believe, minorities and people in low income communities can actually own and drive cars if public transportation isn’t convenient, just like everyone else. Amazing, huh? Who’d a thunk it?
I mean, seriously–did the people who conducted this study ever set foot in Brownsville, Sunset Park, Canarsie or any of these poor, poor beleaguered low income and minority communities that they want to paint as being oh, so helpless and without any way to connect to the subway? Something tells me that they didn’t, because if they even had the faintest idea of what these neighborhoods were like in terms of accessibility, they wouldn’t even have considered publishing something this obnoxiously stupid. They’d be too embarrassed!
So, what on earth is going here? Why would a study falsely conclude that certain neighborhoods are desperately in need of a Citi Bike expansion to get to the subway? What is this study really about?
Citi Bike Expansion: Nothing More Than Another Trojan Horse
Bridging the Boroughs has been reported by various outlets as merely being an independent, objective academic study taking a look at now Citi Bike is failing to reach all New Yorkers. But when you see how absurdly off the mark the entire study is in everything it says (to the point where it’s obvious that the people who conducted it aren’t native to NYC), it comes off as highly suspicious. What it looks like is a study in search of a solution for a problem that low income and minority communities never had, in service of a completely different problem that “someone” is trying to solve but doesn’t want the public to find out about.
Who is that “someone”? Big Development. What is the problem? It’s not, “These poor, desperate minority neighborhoods are hurting from lack of transportation options; how do we serve them?” It’s, “We’ve been trying like hell to gentrify certain neighborhoods for years now. What can we place in them to finally make them more attractive to gentrifiers?”
Case in point–look at what neighborhoods the report recommended for Citi Bike expansion:
Interesting. When you look at the Citi Bike map, most of Brooklyn, The Bronx, Manhattan and Queens do not have stations, and they contain neighborhoods that–according to this study’s extremely narrow definition of the concept–also have “limited access to transit.” So, why isn’t Bridging the Boroughs calling for Citi Bike to set up stations in, say, Mill Basin, Brighton Beach, Bensonhurst, Marine Park or Gerritson Beach? Why Sunset Park? Far Rockaway? East New York? Canarsie? Brownsville?
The answer to me is obvious: though the selected neighborhoods recommended for expansion share more or less the same characteristics as, say, Mill Basin or Marine Park in terms of transit, they were chosen because these are neighborhoods that Big Development has been desperately trying to gentrify for years without making any real progress. So, after struggling to gentrify these areas, Big Development stumbled onto a brilliant new strategy to finally make the gentrification of these areas happen:
- Commission a phony study by an academic institution to paint a trumped up, completely false scenario of poor and minority residents in NYC being discriminated against and disenfranchised by a lack of Citi Bike docks in their neighborhoods.
- Alert the media and various politicians about this study, so that both incite public outrage among poor and low income residents of NYC that there isn’t a Citi Bike in their midst.
- Smile as these residents not only demand Citi Bike expansion into their neighborhoods, but welcome it with open arms.
- Wait for the gentrifiers to start migrating into the areas that Citi Bike has expanded to.
- Swoop in for the kill when enough gentrifiers move in. Push out bodegas and corner stores for Starbuckses, Bank of America branches and 7-Elevens to start accommodating them.
- Ask cronies in government to push for “rezoning” in each of these neighborhoods.
- Once the rezoning happens, erect several high density “affordable housing” apartment buildings that will only be affordable to gentrifiers.
Outstanding, isn’t it? Big Development has weaponized Citi Bike into a Trojan horse. And from the looks of it, it’s working like a charm. As of June 16, 2019, it was announced that Citi Bike would be expanding into the areas recommended in the Bridging the Boroughs study. Well played, Big Development. Job well done. And good job to city council members who helped make it happen.