Did I work on that bike?
These days, I ask myself that question whenever I see a Citi Bike, whether someone’s riding it or it’s parked in a dock.
When I worked for Michael’s Bicycle Company and Highland Park Cyclery, both of which were located in relatively small New Jersey communities, I would often see people riding bikes I’d repaired or assembled. Or I would see those bikes parked in front of stores, cafes or libraries. Even if they were common models like the Schwinn Varsity or Peugeot UO-8 or P-6 , I could immediately tell which ones were “mine.” This was especially true when I worked at Highland Park, where many Rutgers professors and students (I was one!) bought bikes or brought them in for repair.
No matter how generic their bikes, most cyclists did something or another that made their bikes distinguishable from the others. Sometimes it had to do with accessories—one had an air horn, another a bell; someone might install a Pletscher rack while someone else with the same model of bike would opt for a bag or not to attach any means of carrying books, groceries or whatever. And then, of course, some cyclists festooned their bikes with stickers and decals of their favorite political causes, while others striped theirs with reflective tape.
In a way, I guess I was like a pig farmer: He or she can tell one sow from the other even though they all look alike because he or she notices some mark, blemish or other detail no one else would see.
Such means of identification are impossible on Citi Bikes. The only differences from one to the next are the number on the chainguard and, of course, the serial numbers, which are located elsewhere on the bike.
In addition to the chainguard, every Citi Bike has the same fenders, front basket, lights and bell. In fact, every part of every Citi Bike is identical. The only differences between each bike come in the idiosyncracies one normally finds in manufactured products.
I don’t mean any of this to be a criticism of Citi Bikes or the bikeshare program. In fact, the bikes’ sameness is one of the reasons why the program has been so successful: It’s easier to create “buzz”—so important in a city like New York—when a product or program has a particular, readily-identifiable “look,” if you will. Just ask anyone in the fashion industry, advertising or the media.
It also makes it easier to keep the fleet up and running. Parts can be easily swapped from one bike to another, if need be. Also, the uniformity of the machines means that there are, really, only a few distinct repair issues. In turn, mechanics don’t have to spend much time or energy diagnosing problems, as they might in a more polyglot bike shop. What that means is that, based on my own observation, each Citi Bike’s “visit” to a repair stand doesn’t take as long as a regular bike in a typical shop.
|I worked on this one--I think!|
Still, there was a backlog of repairs—mainly flat tires. That’s where I and five other Recycle-A-Bicycle volunteers came in. We were temporarily hired (for two weeks) to help get the bikes back out on the streets.
Now, that backlog was not in any way a reflection of the competence or efficiency of the regular Bike Share staff. Indeed, some of them were working, or had worked, in some of the best bike shops in this city and elsewhere. The fact that there were so many bikes, most with flats, waiting to be fixed was testament to just how much the bikes were being used. You might say that, in that sense, the program was—at least for a time—a victim of its success.
So, for nearly two weeks the other RAB folks and I set out to clear away the logjam. Not to boast, but we did so slightly ahead of schedule: Each of us went home early on the last day of our two-week commitment.
In addition to flats, we tackled other repair issues. For example, I trued some wheels, which I actually enjoy doing more than other bike repair work. (I’ve built wheels.) I also adjusted bearings, gears and brakes—and removed graffiti!
In all, I enjoyed the experience: The people, including the mechanics and the Bike Share office staff, are friendly and diverse. But, I must say I realized that all of my cycling hasn’t done much to improve my upper-body strength whenever I lifted a Citi Bike into a repair stand: Each one weighs twice as much as any of my Mercians. Also, I was reminded that nearly two decades have passed since I regularly worked in a bike shop: Volunteering once a week at Recycle-A-Bicycle simply can’t compare to that. At least two of the RAB volunteers who worked with me weren’t even born the last time I worked daily in a bike shop. When they got the hang of things, I simply could not keep up with their pace.
Still, I would like to think that I can look back and think that, in whatever small way, I have contributed to the success of a program that, I hope and believe, will see even further success. That gives me some hope about the future of this city and society, and about young people. If more are like the ones with whom I worked, all is not lost. As long as they are working, and more people ride bikes (which is one of the real values of the bikeshare program), this city and country can be more liveable, and the economy more sustainable.