New Yorkers: Stop Freaking Out About CitiBike

A blog about business and economics.
May 27 2013 7:50 AM

Dear New Yorkers—Bicycle Sharing Systems Are Widely Used Elsewhere, and CitiBike Will Be Great

168501190
A Citibike model bicycle on display for people to try at Bike Expo, an exposition for cyclists, May 3, 2013 in New York.

Photo by STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

As a native New Yorker who's been living elsewhere for over a decade, every time I'm back in NYC I'm struck again by the exceptional provincialism of New York people. This weekend's example is the pending launch of CitiBike, a bicycle sharing system whose physical infrastructure looks essentially identical to systems I've seen in existence in DC, Boston, Minneapolis, San Antonio, Paris, and Barcelona, and those are just the places I happen to have visited since their launch. But people keep talking about it as if it's the wildest thing they've ever heard—either an amazing new innovation from the Greatest City on Earth or else the devil itself arrived curbside. 

The truth is that bicycle sharing is a bit banal at this point, but New York is an extremely promising city for it.

The reason is that with a bike share, you have a lot of network effects issues. When deciding whether or not to buy a membership, you have to ask yourself how valuable access to the network of stations is likely to be. Since a bike share is only useful if there's a station near both your origin and your destination, a network with only two stations has almost no value. But a network with a hundred stations has a lot of value, and one with a thousand stations has even more value. Since New York City is very large and densely populated, it should eventually form an extremely valuable network of stations.

In DC, for example, one issue we find is that in peripheral areas of the city it doesn't make sense to have a ton of stations because the population density is low. But the lack of stations itself deters riding, and then the bike share network ends up re-inscribing the basic patterns of inequality that trouble people about the city. The basic structural issue is bound to exist, but in New York it should be much more benign. The borough of Queens, for example, has twice the population density of DC. So even relatively peripheral portions of the city ought to support station density levels that still create a useful network. And inside Manhattan and the densely settled portions of Brooklyn, station density could be immensely high. Unlike in DC, it would be perfectly plausible to have a station every few blocks in key parts of the city. That means everything will be "right by a Citibike station" and also that preventing stations from "filling up" would be a less pressing concern of the network.

Last but by no means least, one nice thing about bike sharing is it lets you ride bikes without needing to store one in your home. In most of America, that's not such a big deal. But many New Yorkers have exceptionally small dwellings and it should be a considerable advantage.

Long story short, if bike sharing can work anywhere, it can work in New York. And if it can work in DC and Minneapolis, it can definitely work somewhere!

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.