21st Street Bike Rack Blog

A blog about the bike rack on West 21st Street between 8th and 9th Avenues in New York City, and about urban bike usage, bike theft, and security

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Community Bikes

I wonder if a community bike program would work in New York City.

The NYPD says that the main reason people don't use their bikes in NYC is fear of theft, but I think that fear is a symptom of the fact that we don't have a bike culture here. That is, behind that statistic is the problem with people buying too-expensive, too-fancy bikes, not riding them much, and generally not having experience with locking and using a bike in the city.

I think bike theft is an almost completely solvable problem.

But it occurs to me that starting a community bike program here involves a lot of the same challenges that starting a community web site does. You'd need to put yourself in the place of the person using the system for the first time, and figure out why they would use it, where they're coming from, what's going to draw them in, and what's going to make them have a bad experience and go away forever.

Also, you need to deal with thieves and vandals (or spammers and script kiddies), and with the bizarre range of things that casual users will do to a system. This last one is particularly interesting to me. Whenever I design software for someone else to use, I try to predict their uses, guide them away from mistakes, and make sure they get good feedback when they do something wrong. Inevitably, they will do something with the system that I never predicted. You need a strong bicycle.

Why do I think a community bike program would work here? Well, New York City is flat and things are within a good biking distance of each other. The streets are wide, compared to a lot of places, and traffic is often slow. Essentially, people in New York will use community bikes if the bikes will get them to where they want to go faster. That's it.

Even if there's a risk of getting killed, people will opt to get to work or to the store 10 minutes faster. Just to be going faster would be hugely important to a lot of typical New Yorkers.

The parts could be stamped or RFID tagged to keep them from getting stolen. (The Copenhagen bikes are specially designed to prevent theft.) Not quite sure how to prevent theft en masse, some sort of organized scheme of theft. The delivery bike market, into which most bikes stolen here go, is a limited market. Anyway, if theft could be kept down to some low rate, maybe it wouldn't matter. A few new bikes a month would be part of the cost of running the program, and would be covered by money from ads on the bikes.

It would be nice if it happened.


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