Bike-Share Programs: The Official Transportation of the Apocalypse

What's to come?
Sept. 16 2013 5:52 AM

The Official Transportation of the Apocalypse

Bike-sharing programs prepare us for the end times.

Citi Bike
A Citi Bike would have made perfect sense in Cormac McCarthy's The Road

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There’s something post-apocalyptic about Citi Bike, the bike-sharing program that debuted a few months ago in parts of New York City. Or perhaps better terms would be "pre-post-apocalyptic" and "pre-dystopian." Because these bikes basically are designed for the end of the world.

Bike-sharing programs have arisen around the world—from Washington, D.C., to Hangzhou, China. The New York bikes are almost disturbingly durable: Human-powered, solar-charged, and with aluminum frames so sturdy that during stress testing the bike broke the testing equipment. Sure, riding one through Midtown Manhattan is like entering a speedboat race on a manatee. And yes, they're geared so that it feels you're at a very goofy spinning class when riding up Second Avenue. But if you think post-apocalyptically, that gear ratio means a very efficient bike for carrying heavy loads. With the help of the local blacksmith, as long as he's not too busy making helmets for fight-to-the-death cage matches, you could find a way to attach a hitch to the back of a Citi Bike and that could carry, say, a laser cannon, or a seat for the local warlord. Now all that's left to do is to attach a hipster to one of the bikes, perhaps with an iron neck collar. Voila! The Citi Bike has become the Escalade SUV in the cannibal culture that arises after peak oil.

A Citi Bike would have made perfect sense in Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Imagine:

The man put the boy on the handlebars of the bicycle.

It had once been blue. Streaks of cerulean remained in the spectral lines of dulled gray aluminum. It was heavy and his leg ached as he pedaled.

Who used to ride this bicycle, Papa?

No one person rode this bicycle. The bike was shared by everyone who could pay.

Did the people who shared the bikes carry the fire?

They thought they carried the fire.

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Turns out the lack of bikes in end-of-the-world narratives has been identified as a cultural issue of significance; there's even a TV Tropes page called “No Bikes in the Apocalypse” that takes this sort of story to task for forgetting that bicycles would work just fine if there wasn't any gasoline.

The real problem is that your typical grizzled mutant-killing protagonist wearing a bandolier and carrying a shotgun would look ridiculous huffing up a hill on an 18-speed Trek. And think about where movies are made. In Hollywood, bikes are for immature losers, like Steve Carell’s character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Heroes don't downshift. In a good Hollywood post-apocalypse, if the hero doesn't have a jacked-up Dodge Charger with guns mounted on top, he (it's always a he) trudges through the ashes, cradling his gun—or, if they haven't all been eaten, he scores himself a horse.

There is one notable recent exception (not including Premium Rush, which wasn’t post-apocalyptic, and which no one saw): In the film version of World War Z, Brad Pitt and company have to sneak from a bunker to an airplane on creaky old bicycles. (The zombies are sensitive to noise.) It was obvious from the moment you first saw these old janky bikes that they were going to cause trouble. Future citizens facing a zombie pandemic should note the Citi Bikes tend to whirr, not rattle, so they would be perfect for slow, quiet travel through stumbling sleepy zombies.

The NYC bike-share program is also very much for-profit–it's owned by Alta Bike Share, a global company that builds out programs like this–and super-mega-ultra-branded by Citicorp, down to the i in Citi Bike. It almost feels like they're tempting fate, because nothing satisfies the consumer of science fiction like the failed optimism of a logotype creeping out from under dangling scraps of fabric and glue (see this Onion AV Club article on brands in post-apocalytic films). It's magic when brands poke through under a pile of bones.

Why is this? Well, from a narrative-efficiency viewpoint it’s a pretty elegant way to set up your world. Marketing is so relentlessly positive, the smiles so big, that the sight of a skeleton wearing Lululemon or holding an iPhone does a lot of your expository work for you. Which, back in reality, is one of the things that makes branded stadiums slightly disturbing. The Coliseum got its name from the colossal statue of Nero that adjoined it. (The statue was given a number of different heads over the years, depending on who was in power.) As the Venerable Bede wrote in the eighth century: “as long as the Colossus stands, so shall Rome; when the Colossus falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, so falls the world.” The stadium is still there, the statue is gone, and today photos of the Coliseum, and its cheesy fake gladiators posing with tourists, serve as a global shorthand for “empires eventually fall.” (If you want to know who's in charge of a culture, look at what they name their stadiums.) Citi Bikes thus also seems particularly well-suited for a sort of Hunger Games-style future: 1) The economy crashes utterly 2) poor, hungry people compete in hyperviolent Citi Bike chariot races at Madison Square Garden, now renamed Velodrome 17.

A trundling Citi Bike would make sense in just about any post-apocalyptic or dystopian book or movie. In the post-humanity 1949 George R. Stewart classic Earth Abides, about a Berkeley student who survives a plague, the bikes would have been very practical as people rebuilt society across generations, especially after electricity stopped working. And Walter M. Miller Jr.'s legendary 1960 A Canticle for Leibowitz, about monks rebuilding the world after “the Flame Deluge,” could easily have featured monks pedaling around the empty desert after that deluge. Riding a Citi Bike (likely renamed something like “urbem vehentem”) would probably have been a tremendous, abbot-level privilege, and the repair manual would have been an illuminated manuscript. It’s gotten so that when I ride a Citi Bike I invariably end up thinking of all the buildings with their windows shattered, gray snow falling on people trudging in rags on their way to the rat market to buy a nice rat for Thanksgiving.

You have to wonder if “sharing” could survive. Probably not. I mean, at some level working headlights are more liability than asset, especially if you’re worried about being eaten. But the charging stations? As reliable sources of a steady flow of electricity, it’s pretty easy to imagine local chieftains taking those over, and lines of desperate people lining up to charge their cracked mobile devices so that they can look one last time at pictures of the people they lost, trading whatever of value they still possess for one last hour with their smartphones. It will be like the blackout, but forever.

If you prefer a nice total-surveillance dystopia to an absolute apocalypse, Citi Bikes are eminently trackable—they have a GPS-driven beacon installed in case they need to be retrieved. Three million rides have been made, 3 million swipes of the little Citi Bike keyfob that is used to keep track of who has which bike for how long. The service knows who you are and where you ride, and data visualizations show where people are traveling.

It's only a matter of time, then, before a 24-style TV show gives us a bike-riding serial killer being tracked around New York City, clusters of incognito cops waiting by the docking station for their target to dock his bike with a ca-chunk. But that sort of government surveillance is almost passé in the age of the NSA.

No, the true cultural home for the Citi Bike would be in a rebooted version of The Prisoner, wherein Patrick McGoohan, known as No. 6, was kept prisoner in a coastal village, his escape attempts constantly thwarted, often by a very large balloon. The logo for the Village was the silhouette of a penny-farthing bicycle. An image of a Citi Bike would be even more fitting; after all, they have surveillance baked in. Imagine the scenes of No. 6 trying to pedal out of Manhattan on a Citi Bike, as indulgent observers watched his progress on a map. The spying possibilities of Citi Bike could turn all of New York City (or at least Manhattan and Brooklyn north of Atlantic Avenue, where the bike kiosks are installed) into a very specific kind of prison, with the familiar boomerang silhouette in place of the penny-farthing. It’s kind of a coastal village, and anyone who has faced traffic on a weekend knows it’s very hard to leave. Granted, if you try to escape on your bike there’s no giant rubber ball that chases you, but you do incur overage charges if you go beyond the 45-minute ride limit.

After the flame deluge, the Great Mistake, the plague, peak oil, or another Bush Administration—Citi Bike will endure. Do we even need to bring up Escape From New York?

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

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