31 August 2015

A Comparison Of Bike Share And Subway Systems: Paris And New York

Although I didn't use Velib when I was in Paris, I couldn't help but to marvel at some aspects of it.

For one, it seemed that quite a few riders on Velib bikes weren't tourists.  Now, here in New York, some people ride Citibikes to and from work, while others who don't own bikes sometimes take out those familiar blue bikes for spins around the neighborhood.  But such riders seemed more common on Paris streets.

But what really impressed me is how well-covered the city is:  One doesn't have to go more than a few blocks, even in the outlying arrondissements, to find a Velib port.  Also, one can find those ports and bikes in areas outside Paris proper:  I saw them in Vincennes, and along the way between the famous Chateau and the City of Light.  I also spotted the ports and bikes in several towns along the way to Versailles.

By contrast, the borough of Queens got its first Citibike stations earlier this month, in Long Island City--not very far from where I live.  Critics say that the new port doesn't really represent an expansion into the Borough of Homes because the ports are next to the subway stations closest to Manhattan, and on the Queens side of the Queensborough/59th Street Bridge.  Many people regard Long Island City (and my 'hood of Astoria) as satellites of Manhattan rather than true Queens neighborhoods.

The same criticism can be made, I think, about the placement of Citibike stations in Brooklyn:  Williamsburg, right next to the eponymous bridge that links it to Manhattan, was the first non-Manhattan neighborhood to get Citibike.  Nobody expects to see the blue bikes in the far southeastern and southwestern neighborhoods of the borough any time soon.  And it would be more than surprising if the bike share program ever came to Staten Island at all.

To be fair, Velib started in 2007, while the first Citibikes didn't roll down city streets until two years ago.  Still, the difference in how each program covers its city reflects another pattern in each city's transportation infrastructure.

You see, all of the neighborhoods that have, or are getting, Citibikes, are ones that are well-served by New York City's subway and bus systems.  They have major lines linking them to midtown and downtown Manhattan, and they are the sorts of neighborhoods in which many people (myself included) live car-free.

Official New York City Subway Map
New York City Subway map, 2015.  Manhattan is the island to the left; Staten Island is the one in the inset.  Brooklyn and Queens are to the right, and the Bronx is at the top. 

There are large swaths of the city that have no mass transportation at all.  None of the subways cross the city lines into New Jersey, Long Island or Westchester County, and most of the eastern half of Queens--as well as parts of southwestern and southeastern Brooklyn--have never had subway service.  Kings Plaza Mall, the largest retail area in Brooklyn, is about seven kilometers from the nearest subway stop.  So is JFK International Airport--which, until five years ago, didn't even have a light-rail link to the city's subways or the Long Island Rail Road.

Even in Manhattan, there are transportation "deserts", if you will.  One reason for that is that most of the subway lines on the island run parallel to each other, in  north-south ("uptown-downtown" in Big Apple parlance) routes.  Only two lines run across Manhattan:  the #7 train under 42nd Street and the "L" under 14th Street.  The lines that enter Manhattan from Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx become part of the "uptown/downtown" grid once they reach Manhattan.

Paris Metro map

In Paris, by contrast, the lines are spread in patterns that have been likened to the circulatory system of the human body.  One result is that no point within the City of Light is more than 500 meters (about 1/3 mile, or six New York City blocks) from a Metro station.  Some of the inner suburbs, such as Levallois-Perret, are nearly as well-served as central Paris.  Even so, there are proposals to not only add service within the city and inner suburbs, but to extend several lines further out.

I find it fascinating that both rapid transit and bike sharing systems in New York and Paris reflect the history of planning (or, in some cases, lack thereof) in each city. 

In my hometown, the first subway lines were built by private financiers who operated them, under city contract, in much the same way they would conduct their other businesses.  All of the city's transit lines were not brought under the umbrella of one governmental organization until the 1950's.  In a similar fashion, the city's bike share program, while initiated by the city, is run by Citibank--which can make (or lose) money as it could with its banking, real estate and other businesses. 

On the other hand, the Paris Metro system was centrally planned from the beginning.  That, I believe, is why lines aren't duplicated and, if you want to transfer from one line to another, you don't have to go all the way to the other end of town, as switching trains in New York sometimes necessitates.  And, interestingly, Velib was started by the Mairie  (City Hall) of Paris, which still owns the system although JC Decaux operates it.

Knowing all of this, I don't feel I'm being cynical or pessimistic in saying that Velib will be in Orleans before Citibike comes to Staten Island!


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