New Yorkers, used to dodging taxis, maneuvering around tourists, and peering down tracks waiting for subway trains, probably can’t believe what’s happened to Manhattan. The hottest form of transportation in 2013 is the rental bike. Citibank bought the naming rights to the bike-sharing program launched by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as the crowning event in his tenure. These systems charge by the hour, or riders can purchase an annual membership (more than 85,000 have signed up so far). This allows them to pick up a bike in one part of town and drop it off when they are finished (there are stiff fines for riding off with one). New York was years behind other major cities in rolling out a bike-sharing program: Boston, Washington, and even Chattanooga, TN, had systems first. But once New York got bike sharing, it suggested the concept had finally taken hold in the US. With the addition of Chicago and the Bay Area Bike Share program in San Francisco, the bike-sharing fleet doubled in 2013, according to the Earth Policy Institute, and it is set to double again in 2014.
Thirty-four cities and 30 college campuses have some kind of bike-sharing system. Again, as with trains and other public transit, the US has a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the world. Wuhan, China, has more than 90,000 bike-share bikes, versus just 6,000 in New York. Paris, which has the world’s third-biggest bike-sharing system, has a bike for every 97 residents. Bikes are so numerous in Copenhagen that there are dedicated paths with free bike pumps and traffic lights to regulate the cyclists (features that are starting to appear in the US, as well).
Coverage of bike sharing, like many of the other pieces of the driving-light phenomenon, falls into a gray area for news organizations. The stories might show up anywhere from the front page to the metro section to sports. Jackie Douglas, executive director of LivableStreets in Cambridge, says that while the volume of transportation stories is rising, the coverage is broad, not deep. “Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s not so great,” she says.
As a transportation advocate, Douglas is frustrated that journalists tend to look for conflict in stories, rather than for the public-service aspect of education and information. “We’ll see someone involved in a fatal bike crash, and it’s prime time news,” she says. “People will point to that and say, ‘Oh, it’s a crazy bicyclist. Were they wearing a helmet?’ as if it’s the biker’s fault.”
She and others in the field turn to one another, and to the internet, as their primary sources of transit news. One often-mentioned source is The Atlantic Cities, the urban affairs site run by The Atlantic (disclaimer: I have written for Atlantic Cities since 2011). Another is the Streetsblog family of sites, covering transportation topics in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. A number of NPR outlets collaborate on Transportation Nation, based at WNYC in New York, and there are a variety of other sites, some focusing on public transit, others on gear, and still more on transportation planning.
The individual model for mainstream media transportation coverage may be a former assistant city editor in Montreal named Andy Riga. In early 2009, he was asked by his paper, the Montreal Gazette, to begin covering the overhaul of the formidable Turcot Interchange, used by 300,000 motorists per day. The three-level interchange, built for Expo ‘67, links three highways and provides access to the Champlain Bridge over the St. Lawrence River. The massive project is now projected to cost $3.7 billion, and is Canada’s equivalent of Boston’s Big Dig.
Riga had just begun that task when the Bixi bike-sharing program was announced for the city. “I decided to cover it,” he says. Then bike paths became a bigger issue, “so I threw that in.” More recently, Montrealers have become focused on pedestrian safety, and Riga added that to his portfolio. The idea of a multimodal transportation reporter makes sense for Montreal, often considered the most European city in North America, ranking No. 11 on Danish bike blog Copenhaganize’s list of the world’s bike-friendly cities. “Everybody drives, or cycles, or walks, or uses transit, or a combination of them,” Riga says. “There’s real interest on the part of our readers.”
His coverage goes beyond consumer journalism. Over the last three years, Riga has been tangling with the Montreal police department over access to statistics on crimes against people and property for every subway station in Montreal. Like Douglas at LivableStreets, Riga says he’s surprised at the lack of news organizations that have followed his lead. “I really do think you have to have an editor who understands this is important, even as newsrooms shrink,” Riga says.