NEW YORK – New York City, with its constant hum of subways, buses, cabs and ferries, has long had one glaring exception to its many transportation options: bicycles for the masses.
But bike sharing is finally coming to the Big Apple, which could help the city overcome its reputation as a commuter obstacle course of speeding cabbies, horn-honking drivers and sharp-elbowed pedestrians who treat crossing signals as a mere suggestion.
City officials say the nation's largest bike-sharing system will begin sometime this month with 6,000 bikes at 330 stations in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, with plans to expand eventually to 10,000 bikes and 600 docking stations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.
"When you talk about scale, no other U.S. city comes close," says Jon Orcutt, policy director at the city's Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the launch of the program.
Officials hope the privately funded bike-sharing program, dubbed Citi Bike after a $41 million sponsorship from Citibank and an additional $6.5 million from MasterCard, will add riders to the more than 700 miles of bike lanes throughout New York and will be used by one-way commuters and round-trip tourists alike.
The idea is that bike-sharing programs decrease the number of drivers on the road and encourage healthy lifestyles, a particular policy goal of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The city expects the system to turn a profit, which will be split evenly between the city and the operator.
Thousands of people already have signed up as Citi Bike founding members, paying the $95 annual fee for unlimited rides of 45 minutes. And supporters say New York has no choice but to join the ranks of cities such as London, Barcelona and Paris, all of which have successful programs.
As of last month, there were a total of 534 bike-sharing programs worldwide, according to Russell Meddin, a Philadelphia-based bike-sharing advocate who tracks and maps the programs. (The world's largest public bike-sharing system is in Hangzhou, China, where it's estimated there are 69,500 bikes and close to 3,000 docking stations.)
New York's system, which is designed for short trips, works like this: Riders 16 years old and up who don't have a membership can use a credit or debit card to get a multi-digit code to unlock a bike from a station. A $101 hold will be put on the card but not charged. Riders can then purchase a 24-hour pass that costs about $10 — a seven-day pass costs $25 — and allows for an unlimited number of 30-minute trips. Riders can return the bikes to any station.
General liability, Orcutt says, depends on the situation. If a rider isn't following city rules, such as riding against traffic, a resulting injury might be his or her fault; if the front wheel is loose during a ride, that might be the bike share's fault; and if a rider falls into an open pothole, that could well be the city's fault.
It has been a long road for New York City's bike share, which has had to overcome the perception that the city's bustling streets are too dangerous and its residents too uncompromising. (Think Dustin Hoffman's famous crosswalk retort — "I'm walkin' here!" — from the movie "Midnight Cowboy.")
But the city has added 300 miles of new bike lanes in the past five years, plus 200 more miles of greenways and routes in parks. Long stretches along the Westside Highway and the Brooklyn waterfront have been redone with bikes in mind. And officials spent nearly two years and had 400 community meetings to pick docking station locations.
Still, many residents are giving voice to not-in-my-backyard arguments against the program, taking aim specifically at the large gray docking stations that have sprouted in city neighborhoods in recent weeks, taking up parking spaces and crowding entranceways.
At a raucous community board meeting this past week in Greenwich Village, about 200 residents gathered to complain about the stations.
"I don't care what they do in Paris: I live in New York City," Deborah Stone said to thunderous applause.
The launch of the program has been delayed twice — most recently during Superstorm Sandy, when the storm damaged much of the equipment, including bikes, that was stored in a Brooklyn Navy Yard facility.
But other large-scale bike-sharing programs in the U.S. have experienced delays too, including Chicago's, now set to launch in June, and San Francisco's, set for August. Both programs are being launched by Portland-based Alta Bicycle Share, which is running Citi Bike through a wholly-owned subsidiary called NYC Bike Share LLC, based in Brooklyn.
Such delays are to be expected, says Susan Shaheen, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. She says cities such as New York and Chicago will ultimately benefit from the technical trial and error of bike-sharing systems in cities from Tulsa, Okla., to Chattanooga, Tenn.
Shaheen also says research shows bike shares decrease accidents, giving credence to the strength-in-numbers theory pushed by bike share advocates, who suggest drivers adjust their behavior and become more cautious when more bikes are on the road.
Her research has found that bike share operators with more than 1,000 bicycles had an average of 4.33 accidents reported per year — with no fatalities reported. In New York City, there were 369 severe injuries for bicyclists reported in 2011, with 22 fatalities, according to city data.
Washington, D.C.'s program, which began in 2010, now has 1,100 bikes but also had to overcome some opposition early on, mostly about the docking stations.
"Basically, they just kind of disappear into the landscape," says D.C.'s Capital Bike Share project manager Chris Holben. "You know, there's your bus shelter, there's your trash can, there's your bike station."