In Detroit, like in many U.S cities, momentum has been building over the last few years toward beefing up its bicycling infrastructure – including the development of bike-share programs. All cycling-advocates’ eyes were on New York City’s bike-share program when it launched May 28 with a whopping 6,000 bikes.
Indeed, bike-sharing programs have many virtues, from public-health to the environmental benefits of having fewer cars on the roads. They’ve met with great success in other U.S. cities like Washington, Denver and Minneapolis, and across Europe.
So, most cycling advocates – and, really, most rational humans – could only shake their heads, roll their eyes – and perhaps gnash their teeth – last week when the NY program was stridentlybashed, in bizarre, vitriolic fashion, by Dorothy Rabinowitz, a member of the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board. In fact, her comments were so off-the-chart dishonest and vituperative that the video of her interview with a WSJ reporter went viral, and her rant was reported and/or mocked by everyone from the Huffington Post and the New York Times, to The Atlantic, New York magazine, The Daily Show and many more.
Beyond Rabinowitz’s screed, however, there were a couple of critiques of New York’s Citi Bike program that were comparatively rational – although some of those were also untruthful or misinformed. However, cities like Detroit need to be aware of those issues and criticisms as they work to improve the cycling infrastructure and explore their own bike-share programs.
Some Detroit-area cycling advocates were happy to discuss those issues – and also comment on Rabinowitz’s bilious rant.
It’s important to note, for starters, that the WSJ’s editorial page is a charter member of the Right Wing Media Machine – a print-media equivalent of Fox News. It takes an extreme-right position on almost every social or political issue, and engages in chronic, brazen dissembling in order to advance that agenda. Rabinowitz’s remarks were packed with the rhetoric and code words that the right uses when they seek to misrepresent or politicize something that wasn’t even a political issue to begin with.
For example, Rabinowitz said that “this dreadful program” was the work of the “totalitarians” running New York City government. (Citi Bike is actually privately-funded, with Citigroup as the chief sponsor.) She also claimed that the program “sneaked in under the radar in the interest of the environment.”
Business Insider debunked the “sneaked in under the radar” lie, noting that there were 159 public meetings (not to mention 230 private meetings) with officials, property owners and others as the program was being developed.
She also said the bikes and docking stations “begrimed” some of New York’s “finest neighborhoods.” So, she essentially hit the Right-Wing Trifecta – bashing a so-called “totalitarian big government,” attacking / mocking an effort to improve the environment, and scorning a communal program that benefits the general public, because it allegedly, somehow, bespoils enclaves that are home to the wealthy minority.
Indeed, New York magazine responded to Rabinowitz’s harangue with a sharply-funny, spot-on piece titled “Why Conservatives Hate Citi Bike So Much, in One Venn Diagram.”
“Rabinowitz prides herself on being a staunch conservative,” affirms Steven Roach, chairman of the board of the League of Michigan Bicyclists, an attorney and supporter of bike-share programs who rides his own bicycle to work every day. “I stopped reading the Journal 10 years ago, because they’re not a reliable news source, and I find their views to be offensive.
“I’m not sure if she was speaking spontaneously, or if the paper’s management got together and said, ‘Let’s rail against bike-sharing to further a radical-right agenda.’ If that’s so, that’s pretty sad. Obviously, the city government in New York, or any other American city, is not ‘totalitarian.’ Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor by the voters.”
Another local cycling advocate who took a dim view of Raboniwitz’s screed is Kelli Kavanaugh, co-proprietor (along with Karen Gage) of Wheelhouse Detroit, the Detroit bike shop that also offers bicycle tours and rentals along the riverfront.
Kavanaugh noted that Rabinowitz’s statements were consistent with the right’s long track record of open hostility toward – and mockery of – measures that aim to clean up the environment – in this case, trying to reduce carbon emissions by reducing the number of cars on the road. “It’s really hard for me to understand why something that is good for the environment is depicted as a bad thing,” Kavanaugh laments.
Rabinowitz’s comments “were absurd,” adds Kavanaugh. “The notion that this is a ‘totalitarian’ program is ridiculous. No one is forcing people to ride the bikes – they’re just providing another transportation option.
“There’s also this weird perception that cycling is this specialized athletic venture, when it is also a great means of transportation, and, a great recreational activity. So, these short trips that bike-share programs are designed to provide are a good way to introduce people to that. I’m in favor of anything that gets more butts on bikes.”
One, more rational, critique of the NYC Citi Bike program was that the bike-docking stations take up “valuable parking spaces” in an overcrowded city where such spaces are at a premium.
“Look at the parking meters in Detroit that use credit cards. Those often don’t work, either. If you’re always looking for perfection in everything, you won’t enjoy what is good about it.” ~ Steve Roach
“But there are many parking garages in Detroit now, including the one in the building where I work, that have bike racks in them, and which don’t replace parking spots,” says Roach. “There are plenty of other public places here to put docking stations that would not displace parking spaces” – like in Hart Plaza, various other riverfront locales, and on the Wayne State University campus, to name a few.
(Plus, New York City is extremely-densely-populated, while Detroit has the opposite problem, so people don’t fret and obsess over parking spaces here like they do in The Big Apple.) Another critique of the Citi Bike program when it launched was that the computerized docking stations sometimes weren’t able to properly dispense bikes – or, when a bike was returned to a station, the system didn’t always record that it was returned.
“There are always going to be technical glitches with any new, large system,” says Kavanaugh. (Especially one that relies on computer systems, we might add). “It’s impossible to achieve perfection right away. That is actually a criticism of a technology system, not a criticism of bike-sharing.”
Roach concurs: “Look at the parking meters in Detroit that use credit cards. Those often don’t work, either. If you’re always looking for perfection in everything, you won’t enjoy what is good about it.”
Roach says he expects that Detroit will have a bike-share program up and running “within five years, probably sooner.” But the biggest challenge facing Detroit as it explores setting up a bike-share program, he observes, is “whether there will be enough potential users here to make it economically feasible. I’m not sure if the city has enough residents to make it successful, seven days a week.
“But lately, more people have been electing to live in the city again, and in the core of the city, and as more of them make that decision, it’s more likely that a Detroit bike-share program will have legs.”
Kavanaugh says she’s “cautiously optimistic” that Detroit will develop its own bike-share program. “Funding is going to be the big challenge, like it is with most new public programs or private projects here,” she says. But, she also wonders whether Detroit’s citywide population is dense enough for such a program to be viable here.
“Bike-share programs are most successful when many people take the bikes out for short trips and return them in a short time period. Right now, I’m not sure how many trips there are, outside of the downtown area, that are 15-minute or 30-minute trips.
“I’m not looking for Detroit to have a bike-sharing program just for the sake of having one,” she stresses. “It depends on who’s running it, how it would be funded, and whether we have the right population density to support it. I would like to see one here, but only if it works well, and if it achieves the things a good bike-share program should achieve.”