On Leap Day this past February, I gave myself the gift of a Citi Bike membership. In New York City, where Library Journal’s office is located, this bike-sharing service hit the streets in 2013 and has continued to gain traction ever since. Like many, it has had growing pains, but it now touts over 100,000 annual members, and this summer it celebrated a record of 56,000 trips in one day. I ride for part of my commute, replacing what would be an underground subway leg with three-plus miles on the surface. This has given New York back to me, reinvigorating my relationship with the city and allowing me to witness its changeable beauty.
It’s made New York livable again, and it’s inspired me to think even more about how we build, promote sustainable practices, and urge people toward healthy, physical engagement with where they are. Instead of standing in a crowded subway car, I bolt through Midtown’s concrete canyons, then wend my way through a portion of the cobbly West Village, sprint along the Hudson River with views that take in the Statue of Liberty in the distance, and then bargain with cars and trucks as I trek across the Financial District to dock my bike and head upstairs. (Since people ask: Yes, I wear a helmet. Yes, I am careful of pedestrians and other bikers. No, I do not listen to music or look at my phone.) I ride swiftly, to get where I’m going, and it is fun.
Having been a bike rider in the city since I first moved here in 1988, I see and enjoy vast improvements in the availability of bike lanes and the increasingly clever design of roads—keeping cars, bikes, and pedestrians isolated from one another and building in buffer zones with parking and landscaping. Nonetheless, for many, the city remains too car-centric to risk the ride. The bike-friendly activist group Transportation Alternatives pushes for infrastructure to reduce car speeding and crashes. As Henry Grabar recently pointed out in Slate, a bike-friendly system is only as good as its weakest point—and where it fails riders, it also fails pedestrians and drivers. Good design will help everyone move along safely; without it, the streets can be very dangerous.
Like so many desk jockeys, I seek time to move, so to have this change in my daily transit is a huge boon. It’s led me to reflect on how much more this city and each organization or business in it can do to foster a truly livable urban environment—and that includes libraries. It’s great to see libraries looking at ways to use programming to help get patrons propelling through their worlds—from story walks to, most recently, Pokéman Go tie-ins such as Baltimore County Public Library’s “epic” Poké Crawl. And, of course, libraries are also supporting bike sharing by being a station in citywide systems or setting up their own bike lending programs. Library leaders can also think about how service locations, staff initiatives, and community partnerships develop alternatives to car culture and improve access. Albany Public Library, NY, as highlighted by the NYLA Sustainability Initiative, provides one solid example of some broad thinking in this arena.
As more bikes hit the streets, cities gets more livable, especially where the urban planning is ahead of the rush. Where urban planning flags, growing demand may drive better design. Livability is not just about pleasure and beauty, though those things matter, a lot. A livable city is one that supports physical well-being as it ensures access for everyone. Many cities still suffer from a legacy of discrimination in civic works that biking, for one, can help undo.
Cities can and should encourage this kind of livability, and librarians as key civic leaders can help establish a priority through programs for staff and patrons, as well as their work with other civic thinkers. The goal would be to help create a unified vision of a city built now for livability tomorrow. It will take investment, and it will mean a certain amount of discomfort in real terms for areas that need redesigning.
Today I benefit from the disruption that created the landscaped parks along the Hudson—construction that I lived through many years ago when I resided in the West Village. Each day as I ride one of my 8,000 bikes (as I describe the fleet of Citi Bikes to my kids) down the bike paths that run along that green zone beside the river, I recall how unpleasant the relatively shut-off waterfront was before that massive infusion was made.
Now, in a sense, every time I ride, I improve the return on that investment, and I add my little bit of pressure to the system to keep getting better. Join me.