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The Social Life of CitiBike Stations

This post was co-authored by PPS Transportation Associate David M. Nelson and Transportation Intern David Leyzerovsky.

Bikeshare stations have become prominent elements of NYC's streetscape over the past year / Photo: Tom Simpson via Flickr

Bikeshare stations have become prominent elements of NYC's streetscape over the past year / Photo: Tom Simpson via Flickr

Bike share stations are ideal triangulators. They're natural conversation-starters, attract a stream of diverse users at all times of day and night, and act as casual landmarks that concentrate activity. Presented with this entirely new element of public infrastructure, resourceful citizens are re-purposing stations for convenience and fun.

Take New York City's CitiBike, which became the United States' largest and fastest growing bike share program. New York's bikeshare system has attracted its fair share of political backlash, lawsuits, and humorous skewerings. Yet, the public discourse unfortunately has been dominated by formal issues of usage, traffic safety, placement and aesthetics, rather than the benefits to the city's public places and the people in them.

PPS, with our historical grounding in the observational methods of William Holly Whyte, decided to head out into the city to document and better understand those place-based benefits. Our research question was simple: Are bikeshare stations adding to the sociability and amenability of the places they occupy? To that question, the answer was a clear and resounding "Yes!" People — not just bikeshare users, but everyone passing by station docks — are adopting the bikeshare system as part of the social infrastructure of the city.

The observed behaviors and activities are representative of exactly the sort of rich and dynamic city life that puts smiles on the faces of Placemakers. The bikeshare stations provided a place for people to eat, read, relax, socialize, skateboard, people watch, and play.

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At University Place and 14th Street, we caught a visceral performance of the sidewalk ballet with a bikeshare station at center stage. It all started with triangulation in the original sense: the process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between people and prompts strangers to talk to each other as though they were not. A passerby doubled back as though pulled by a stagehand's hook to strike up a conversation with a young man perched on a CitiBike eating lunch. After a few minutes of conversation between the new friends, the picnicker apparently offered the use of his skateboard to the passerby. The ensuing tricks weren't so much impressive due to their technical difficulty as due to the incredible fact that all this wonderful activity occurred in the space that would have otherwise been used to store a couple of empty cars.

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At Joralemon and Adams Streets in downtown Brooklyn, a queue of lost individuals formed to use the neighborhood map on the station's kiosk. A couple of good-natured locals helped everyone to find where they were going by pointing to various destinations on the map. Bikeshare stations' value as pedestrian wayfinding signage was repeatedly apparent in our observations, and cannot be overstated.

Along the same lines, the stations are also used as rendezvous points. At Petrosino Square, three gentlemen had clearly made plans to meet up at the station. The square itself is large enough that the sight of companions could be obscured by trees, but the station, with it's bright blue and towering photovoltaic, is the perfect landmark.

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Our favorite vignette was probably the high school students on Shevchenko Place in Manhattan's East Village. School was out, and the bikeshare station was the hangout. Though they would likely bemoan us labeling their behavior as play, these teenagers were compelled by the tactile quality of the bikes to have fun: pedaling in place, racing each other in their imaginations, pulling on bungee cords, and generally horsing around.

However, the single most prevalent use of the stations was simply as convenient street seating. Citizens seated on the bikeshare station docks contributed to the natural surveillance and the overall attractiveness of the spaces they were in. It's no surprise that so many people were sitting. The inclined plane of the top of the docks is just the right size and height for leaning against. The bike seats were popular too. We repeatedly observed the little ritual of adjusting the height of a seat even if others already at the right height were available—an act of self-determination reminiscent of the hallmark of successful seating: being moveable. In terms of Proxemics, the bikes and docks are spaced in such a way that adjacent seats are on the boundary between social and personal space (the sweet spot for triangulation) without invading the guarded sphere of intimate space.

Beyond their official purpose as merely a transportation program, bikeshare stations have proven to be dynamic tools for triangulation. This initial observational work sparked our imaginations, and got us thinking about how bikeshare stations might be used more deliberately to enhance efforts to create multi-use destinations. The simplest of these ideas would be to legitimize the stations' function as street seats.


Here's one idea for how seating could be added to enhance the strength of bikeshare stations as triangulators! / Image: David M. Nelson

PPS intends to expand our study of the public use of bikeshare stations in 2014, perhaps to establish correlations or to develop evaluation metrics for the place-based function of bikeshare. We are interested in outside ideas and feedback, and would welcome your suggestions as we plan this observational work. Also, if you are a CitiBike user, take a few minutes today to take Transportation Alternatives' CitiBike Poll.