Before Bike-Share Effort Starts, Concerns Are Raised About How It Will Work
The New York Times 6/3/2011
By CHRISTINE HAUGHNEY
The Bloomberg administration is only months away from rolling out an ambitious bike-share program intended eventually to rival ones in London, Paris and Washington, yet the proposal has already been plagued by questions of its viability.
Community board members have raised concerns about whether bike-share kiosks and racks would encroach on precious sidewalk areas, or swallow parking spaces. Some of the more seasoned bike-share companies did not bid on the project.
And Alta Bicycle Share, one of the two finalists vying to run the operation, has run into financial problems in Montreal. Government officials there eventually provided $108 million in financing to Alta’s partner, Public Bike System Company, in part to cover losses incurred by Bixi, the city’s bike-share program.
All things considered, it has been somewhat of a bumpy start for a program that could help shape Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s legacy of leaving a more environmentally friendly city.
When the city issued its request for proposals last November, it called for “financially self-sustaining, 24-hour transportation that complements existing transit and transportation options.”
The city called for a 30-station test program to start later this summer and for the official program, featuring 10,000 bicycles at 600 stations, to start on April 1, 2012. The city emphasized that not only would it not finance any part of the program, but it also expected the winning bidder to share its profits.
With each news conference and public event, the mayor’s enthusiasm has grown.
“Every city that I’ve talked to mayors in around the world, it’s one the most popular things they’ve ever done,” Mr. Bloomberg said last month. “I would expect it to be popular here in the city.”
Sean Sweeney, who runs the SoHo Alliance and is chairman of the landmarks committee for Community Board 2, said he liked the idea of a bike-share program. But he fears that the Transportation Department will just add the kiosks to the packed streets of SoHo with little feedback from the community.
“We want our sidewalks back; the sidewalks in SoHo are not for sale,” Mr. Sweeney said. “Our sidewalks are precious to us because they are so narrow.”
Seth Solomonow, a spokesman for the Transportation Department, declined to comment on the city’s plans.
Many leading bike-share companies expressed early interest in the city’s proposal. Wayne Sosin, president of Worksman Cycles, a bicycle manufacturer based in Queens that placed an unsuccessful bid for the contract, said representatives from some of the biggest bike-share companies in the world were at a meeting in December about the program: Cemusa, responsible for the Barcelona and Madrid programs; J. C. Decaux, which designed the Paris program; and Clear Channel, which started the Washington program but later abandoned it.
But while other cities have given advertising companies unlimited opportunities to use the bike-share program, New York specified there could be only one advertising sponsor per bicycle and on each station computer unit.
Mr. Sosin said that when Worksman approached Cemusa, J. C. Decaux and Clear Channel to possibly team up with them on a proposal, they all declined and did not bid. Risa B. Heller, a spokeswoman for Cemusa, said the company passed it up because “right now we are focused on our street furniture contract in New York City.” J. C. Decaux did not return calls and e-mails; Nancy Zakhary, a spokeswoman for Clear Channel Outdoor, said she could not “comment on prospective bids and strategies.”
In March, the city narrowed its field from six bidders to two: Alta and B-Cycle, which is affiliated with the manufacturer Trek, and has done programs in Chicago and Denver. Trek did not respond to requests for an interview.
Roger Plamondon, the board chairman of Public Bike System, said his company had the financial resources to come to New York, despite its issues in Montreal. In 2009, Bixi’s first year, the program lost $5.5 million; last year, it lost $7 million, Mr. Plamondon said.
The City of Montreal lent $37 million to Public Bike System to be repaid over 12 years and guaranteed a $71 million private loan to help finance the expansion of its programs.
Mayor Gérald Tremblay of Montreal said he supported the bailout because it would help preserve a popular program, and because Public Bike System showed promise in developing international programs patterned after Bixi.
“My intent is not for Bixi to make money,” Mr. Tremblay said. “But it is for Bixi not to lose money.”
Mr. Plamondon said he underestimated how long it would take to secure financing to help pay for its expansion.
“I can guarantee you we are not on the brink of bankruptcy,” he said.