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My View: NYC's rough ride with bike-share program shows its lack of a real bicycle culture

Ahh, May. My favorite time of year in Portland.

As the spring showers subside and the streets fill up with a beautiful array of bikes, each as unique as its rider, I am reminded of why Portland is the bike capital of the country. There are few activities that have brought me the same simple pleasure as riding my bike around the Rose City.

As an avid cyclist and Portland native, I have been lucky enough to experience a number of these perfect cycling seasons and was looking forward to many more. Then, in the spring of last year, I was faced with a life-altering decision when I was accepted to Columbia University.

Faced with the daunting decision to move to New York City, I found myself spending more time looking up statistics related to the city’s bike friendliness than its cost of living or crime rate. My decision to leave my Northwest home was weighted heavily on my ability to stay in the saddle.

It was for this reason that I was ecstatic when I learned that Portland-based company Alta had recently established a bike-share system in the Big Apple. With nearly 6,000 bikes located at 330 stations around the city, my decision to abandon the bike-friendliest city in the country in place of the most densely populated became easier.

This excitement was short-lived, however, as I learned that a series of financial problems threatened the collapse of the bike-share program. After experiencing less traffic from tourists than expected and being denied financial assistance from the city, the company has been desperately searching for private investors to help keep New Yorkers pedaling.

So what does any of this have to do with Portland and, more importantly, why should you care about the financial woes of a bike-share system on the other side of the country?

If you’re a cyclist, you should be concerned because the collapse of this program would represent the largest failed attempt at sharing the gift of bicycle travel with the rest of the world, a defeat that could resonate throughout the country as companies like Alta become discouraged from establishing similar systems throughout the country, including Portland.

What concerns me the most, though, is how all the blame for the system’s failure is being directed at Alta, the company responsible for seven other successful bike-share systems around the country. It is a company being run by Portland’s former city bike program manager, Mia Birk, who played a pivotal role in turning Portland into the bicycle mecca that it is today.

Upon moving here, it quickly became apparent why tourists have been hesitant to take to two wheels — New York City is simply not accommodating to bike traffic. Having ridden my bike along the entire West Coast months prior, I had become accustomed to the bright green bike lanes that clearly established a safe lane of travel for bicycles.

The few bike lanes that do exist in NYC are often times so faded that they completely fail to establish themselves as lanes reserved solely for cyclists. This lack of demarcation has turned them into convenient parking spots for vehicles, forcing cyclists to swerve into the busy New York streets. The thought of commuting by bike in this city was nothing short of terrifying.

As it turns out, this fear was not unfounded. In 2012, there were 275 biking-related deaths in the city — an impressive number compared to Portland, which in the same year had zero. That gap cannot be blamed on the larger population of NYC, either. Despite being 16 times larger than Portland, NYC only has twice the number of cyclists, according to statistics released by the Department of Transportation.

It was here, after examining these statistics, that I realized there exists a connection between the quality of a city’s biking infrastructure and the number of cyclists within that city.

This prompted a “chicken-or-the-egg” inquiry as I pondered the change that needs to occur in order to make biking as safe and enjoyable in other cities as it is in Portland. What comes first, a safe biking infrastructure that encourages more people to take up two wheels? Or is it the presence of a large biking culture that prompts government investment into these projects?

I believe it is both and it is for this reason that I write to you. Yes, you, fellow members of the community, who have collectively created a culture that has defined Portland more than any other and is now defining others as well. No, not you hipsters, hippies or even you beer brewers out there. I’m talking to you, my fellow cyclists, daily commuters and road warriors alike.

If life requires that you live in a different part of the world, continue to take up your two wheels despite a lack of bike lanes, shops or even bike-share programs. For if we want a city to embrace the bike culture as Portland has, we must cultivate a culture for that city to embrace. I believe Alta has the potential to make serious gains at cultivating this culture in NYC with their bike-share systems.

It is for this reason that despite my own fears, I will continue to get in the saddle that Alta has provided, not only to ride through NYC but to affect positive change upon it.

Ian Simonsen is a Portland native who is studying economics at Columbia University in New York City.