Bikes and the End of the World

June 5, 2013, 7:26 p.m. ET

Source : Wall Street Journal

© Getty Images In New York City, sharing a bike has become pretty easy.

© Getty Images
In New York City, sharing a bike has become pretty easy.

Just get on a bike. It works. It really does. It doesn’t matter if you’re exhausted by the bike debate, or the alleged bike debate, or whatever this supposedly acid conflict should be called, because I’m pretty sure bikes are nowhere near as divisive as they are sometimes portrayed. I don’t know anyone who would identify themselves as ‘anti-bike.’ I don’t actually know what ‘anti-bike’ means. It sounds more miserable than being ‘anti-beer.’ Anti-bike? Really? I believe there are some worthy issues about the growing role of the bicycle in daily lives, genuine concerns about safety and responsibility and sharing the road. I know the subject has provoked colorful dissent, including at the newspaper where I work. I definitely know that cyclists can be annoying. I am sure I have been annoying as a cyclist. I am sorry. But I think there’s always a solution that cuts through the acrimony and explains everything:

Just get on a bike.

I did it on Wednesday, early afternoon, not far from my apartment. I walked a few blocks in my neighborhood to a sleek-looking station, where I crammed my credit card into a machine and, for $9.95, purchased a one-day supply of one of New York’s brand new “bike-share” bikes, which I have begun to call the End of the World Bikes, because they are here and they are apparently hellbent on ruining A) New York City B) the United States and lastly C) Earth as we know it. The End of the World Bike that I rented did not look like it wanted to ruin New York City. It looked like it belonged to a Smurf. It was bright blue and stickered with a logo modeled after its sponsor, Citibank. My End of the World Bike was bulky. It did not move especially fast. It weighed as much as a fat beagle.

But it did its job. My End of the World Bike got me where I wanted to go, in less time than it would have taken to walk, and for a lot less money and agitation than making multiple stops in a cab. I did not turn an ignition key or drive myself bananas trying to park. Nobody yelled at me that my bike was destroying civilization. When I was done with my End of the World Bike I parked it in another bike share station. The whole experience was rather simple. I believe this is the point of the bike.

Somehow this act has become “controversial” in New York. Sharing bicycles. New York City is a magnificent, relentless town that continues to have problems with affordable housing, its school system, crime, and its yawning income gap. There are rumbly expressways and bridges that have been under repair since the presidency of John Adams. There are displaced people in this city who still are not back in their homes many months after Superstorm Sandy. And the “crisis” of the moment is…. sharing bikes?

Again, I don’t know if it’s actually controversial or it’s just fun to make it sound controversial because that is what New York does. Polls have shown the majority of residents support bike share. They also support bike lanes, which before bike share arrived were the thing that going to ruin life as we know it in New York. If anything, the “outcry” about bikes sounds more like a last gasp, the same kind of gasp that always happens when a city is confronted with change.

Some of the arguments against bike share are just confusing. I don’t know how to handle the argument that we don’t need bike share because everyone who wants to bike already owns a bike. That’s like saying that we don’t need restaurants because everybody has a kitchen. I don’t know what to do with the argument that bike share stations take up valuable space on a public street. You know what is also taking up valuable space on a public street? Your car. My car.

Now there are things I don’t love about bike share. I’m not crazy about the idea of more people riding bikes with no helmets, which is probably because a few times I have fallen off a bike at high speed, hitting my head and cracking my helmet. Walking away with a cracked bike helmet makes you a very loyal fan of bike helmets.

And I also think cyclists need to behave themselves. More than ever. I am not going to lie: my first 10 years in New York City I probably stopped at four red lights. Maybe five. That is terrible and sketchy, but that is how a lot of cyclists rolled around here. These days, however, you come to intersections and you find a half-dozen people stopped at a red light. That kind of peer pressure is both strange and fantastic. I think cyclists need to think of themselves as part of a bigger transportation picture. I think we need to be good to pedestrians. I think we need to get off the sidewalk because, come on.

But I think this is working. I think the more people that are on bikes, the safer streets become for everyone, and statistics bear that out—risk of serious injury declines for both cyclists and pedestrians. New York is not the first city with bike share (End of the World bikes are also in cities like London, Paris, Boston and Washington, D.C., where the world has not ended) but New York has a chance to be a model. There are still too many places in the country where cycling is utterly dangerous. I don’t think this process will be perfect or fast or smooth. But I think it’s a thrilling evolution. And if you ever question if all of this is worth the trouble, there’s an easy solution:

Just get on a bike. Then it all makes sense. It really does.