BY TEQUILA MINSKY | For nine years George Bliss’s the HUB (Hudson Urban Bike) shop has sold and repaired bicycles for adults and children in the far West Village, first on Morton St., then occupying a large garage on Charles St. But by mid-December, the HUB will be gone. CitiBike is the simple reason, according to Bliss.
“I have to compete against a bank,” he said.
“This is the first example of corporate-branded infrastructure,” stressed Bliss of the Citigroup-sponsored program, whose thousands of bikes, he complained, flood the streets “with an ad every time someone turns a corner.”
“I couldn’t have ads on my pedicabs,” he noted, of the previous business he operated in Soho for six years.
Bliss sees CitiBike as providing bike-sharing at less than its real cost. The free market, he said, “what people are wiling to pay,” should be the determining factor.
“What’s the real cost?” he said. “And let them pay it.”
“It’s not sustainable,” Bliss continued. “They’re losing money. They just got bailed out — $60 million over 10 years.”
Obviously, CitiBike riders — especially members, who, until recently, had only been paying $100 annually — aren’t complaining.
He added that one of the primary expenses for CitiBike is “rebalancing” the bicycles by repositioning them every day where the docking stations are low on or empty of bikes.
“I’m in favor of bike-sharing,” Bliss added, “but there should be competing systems. They should not be carrying advertising on street bicycles.”
In addition to bike sales, Bliss makes money on rentals and repairs.
In what he charged is the crux of the problem, he said, “There are five docking stations within five blocks” of his business. This is the reason, he contends, that instead of renting out up to 80 bikes, the way he used to, he now only rents out about 30.
Not only are repairs down, but previously people would replace their stolen bicycles. His bikes range from used ones that are under $200 to imported European models up to $1,500. His gross revenue has dropped by half, from $1 million to $500,000, he said. His rent is $10,000 a month. He will be out of the space before the slower season of winter sets in.
Calling CitiBike a “subsidized system,” he asked, “How can I compete?”
CitiBike’s exclusive contract makes it a monopoly, Bliss added. He questions the justification of giving this to one company.
“Ninety-nine percent of New York isn’t served,” he charged. “It’s a ban on bike-sharing.”
The docking station in Harlem was pulled out, he said.
“This is not serving people in neighborhoods who can’t afford bicycles,” he pointed out.
Bliss said that he takes all forms of collateral for a bike rental — such as a driver’s license or house keys — while CitiBike requires a $1,200 credit card limit, the value of the bike.
He also questioned, “Where are the bicycles and docks made?”
But if the question is whether CitiBike has helped increase the number of people cycling on New York’s streets, then CitiBike has clearly been a success story. The hundreds of miles of bike lanes installed in the last seven years and CitiBike have considerably boosted the number of New Yorkers using bicycles as transportation, according to Caroline Samponano, senior director of campaigns and organizing at Transportation Alternatives, the local bicycle advocacy organization.
“There is a demand for more bicycle lanes across the city and they are talking about extending CitiBike to Bed-Stuy, northern Manhattan, western Queens and farther into Brooklyn,” Samponaro noted.
She added that the City Council is aware of some of the obstacles and limitations of the bike-sharing service and is grappling with issues of increasing accessibility.
Samponano also acknowledged that it will take time for the city’s bicycle industry to stabilize and adapt to CitiBike being an integral part of New York’s transit system. She suggested that since CitiBike has gotten more people out riding bikes, in the long term, it will be good for the bicycle businesses.
Ron and Rene Harris, Turtle Bay residents, were spotted lunching, with their own non-CitiBike bicycles beside them, in Washington Square Park on Monday. They co-write a bicycle blog.
Ron observed that the city has definitely become more friendly, in general, to cyclists.
“When I’m riding over the Williamsburg Bridge, most of the many cyclists are not on CitiBikes,” he said.
They are also annual members of CitiBike, which they use at night, when going out to a movie or to eat.
“I don’t have to worry about the bikes being stolen,” Ron said. He also reported that the other day he had attempted to dock a CitiBike at 16 docks — “I counted” — before he found an empty spot that wasn’t “pin-locked.”
The manager of Bicycle Habitat, on Lafayette St., another longtime local bike shop, said that some storeowners are not actively trying to court CitiBike users. Nevertheless, the manager, who asked that his name not be printed, said, Citi Bike users are “slowly coming back to bike shops to get nicer bikes for pleasure rides.”
As predicted, with the recent sale of CitiBike, the annual membership rate has increased — a 53 percent hike, from $95 to $145.
Regarding what he called “branded infrastructure,” Bliss thinks that CitiBike gets a pass because it is dealing with bicycles. In his nightmare futuristic imagining, he suggested this could lead to Sixth Ave. becoming Walmart Ave., Central Park becoming Google Park and the Brooklyn Bridge becoming McDonald’s Bridge — with its arches painted golden yellow.
Next week, prior to his vacating the HUB, Bliss plans to hold a press conference at the 139 Charles St. location.
Bliss, who originally hails from Connecticut, has been in the bicycle business for 21 years.
“I hate automobiles,” he stated. “On a bicycle, you feel alive, you see the world, you don’t pollute.”
He said that with the current bike- sharing system, one is no longer independent and self-reliant. “You have to get it back in 45 minutes,” he said. “You’re part of a system and no longer free.“