Nearly five months after New York City implemented the country’s largest bike share program, we are just starting to see the effects of this intervention, the city’s first new public transit mode in modern history. Citi Bike is a significant addition to New York’s existing bicycle infrastructure, and its early success, with usage hitting 40,000 daily trips after only its first two months, is encouraging for prospective expansions and for bike use citywide.
It’s still too early to identify the potential for a return on this investment, but in time it should be measured not just by profit to its funders, but in increased development and new commercial activity — and not only in Lower Manhattan and northwest Brooklyn, where Citi Bike stations are solely concentrated at present, but throughout the city.
Traditionally, transit-oriented development (TOD) leverages the public investment in transit infrastructure by recognizing the increased value and development opportunities on associated sites. Like investments in other transit infrastructure, it is expected that bike share will have a significant impact on the form of the city and its economy.
But unlike other transit modes, biking allows people to experience the city on their own terms, at different times, at their own pace and wherever they want. This suggests a very different type of impact: Less concentrated on specific sites, but more entwined with the overall fabric of the city and its public spaces.
Financing transit infrastructure continues to challenge local governments everywhere. The process of procuring the required funds to plan and construct new rail, air, bridge or tunnel projects, along with securing public approvals, are enormous time commitments — well beyond the time frames for elected officials to take credit. Large-scale plans can only be rolled out incrementally, in phases, and they are very difficult to get started. Executing the first phase of new bicycle infrastructure, on the other hand, is relatively easy and provides support for its own expansion.
Citi Bike’s digital ability to track commuter routes and to essentially map out supply and demand will greatly help in planning future phases. Rather than investing in transit infrastructure and then waiting to see how private investment can leverage that value, rolling out bike share offers a reverse of that process. Here, transit infrastructure follows development opportunities.
This is development-oriented transit (DOT), rather than TOD. It’s no wonder that development-friendly Michael Bloomberg is a booster.
So when demand suggests opportunities for reconfiguration and expansion, let’s look beyond merely installing more bike docks in already densely populated areas. We should be prepared to provide, for example, better bikeways over critical links like the Brooklyn Bridge (see below) and install docks in neighborhoods underserved by other public transit modes.
Credit: Katarzyna Pozniak | Perkins Eastman
Because of the relative lightness of this infrastructure, the addition of bike lanes to existing roadways, public rights of way and bridges is a far less onerous task than building other types of transit infrastructure.
What bike share will not do is replace other transit modes. Rather, we expect that bikes will extend the reach of the bus and subway systems, making it more feasible for people to live and work further from a subway station. While some of the largest concentrations of bike docks are at commuter entry points like Penn Station, it should not be expected that supply in these areas will always meet the demand — not without a major investment in real estate for bike storage. Even the largest bike storage facilities, such as Utrecht Centraal in the Netherlands, with space planned for over 12,000 bikes, would do little to meet the requirements of the more than 500,000 daily commuters at Penn Station moving at rates measured in many hundreds per minute.
But no transit mode does everything. Instead it’s the mix of trains, buses, cars and bikes that provides a range of options for residents and commuters to get around at various times. The major advantage of bike share is that, like walking or a personal automobile, it is up to the user how and when to reach a destination. Urbanist Gil Peñalosa has observed that, in many ways, biking is like walking, only faster.
“Many cities invest billions in public transit,” he said last October. “But there is no form of public transport that will drop you off in front of your house.”
Where can we expect to see the greatest impact of bike share on the form of the city? Some of the most underused areas of New York, vestiges of its former manufacturing-based economy, are now in play. Waterfront areas that were key to the city’s founding, but later abandoned by shipping, are a prime real estate development frontier. Once biking is established as a viable option for more city residents, particularly in some neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens that are public transit deserts, more of the city’s areas will become competitive for residential uses and new businesses.
Good transit connections have always been attractive to developers, and recent experiences in London, Paris, Melbourne, Montreal, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere suggest that proximity to bike share stations is advantageous in marketing new development. Real estate companies in New York are already touting proximity to bike share stations as valuable amenities in their listings. Given increasing land values and the associated redevelopment of the most central areas of the city, the challenge now becomes how to ensure opportunities for mixed-income housing, a wide range of employment opportunities and diverse amenities in these more expensive, re-urbanized areas. Low-cost, convenient transit infrastructure is only part of the answer.
Transit infrastructure is often at odds with the demands of the moment, with overcrowded systems in some locations and underused facilities in others. Systems are sometimes built and then barely used or abandoned. Meanwhile, the overcrowding at some station platforms verges on courting disaster. We struggle to keep up with changing demand.
Rather than building transit focused solely on moving people as quickly as possible from generalized origins to approximate destinations, many cities are leveraging relatively modest investments in transportation infrastructure, including bike share and a more robust biking infrastructure that, along with high-quality public spaces, add significant value to existing urban areas. While fixed-rail systems encourage development by telegraphing a public investment in a corridor (value that purportedly can be leveraged by private interests), bikes offer a more demand-driven approach that supports broader opportunities.
Cities looking for ways to encourage livable communities are finding that investments in public infrastructure — high quality public places that are well connected — can provide significant returns. Bike share, as one component of an expanded bike infrastructure, proposes the development of an urban public realm that is totally integrated with transit.
Jonathan Cohn AIA, LEED AP, is an associate principal with the New York office of Perkins Eastman.