NEW YORK -- You could be forgiven for thinking, given all of the media clamor around New York City's new Citi Bike bicycle sharing system, that no city had introduced such an audacious urban project before.
But they have: more than 500 cities in 49 countries host such programs, according to the Earth Policy Institute. A handful of them are in the U.S., from Denver to Washington, D.C. New York City's scheme, projected to eventually reach 10,000 bicycles, is neither the world's first (that title goes to Amsterdam, in 1965) nor its largest (that would be Hangzhou, China, with more than 60,000 bikes). But he who owns the narrative wins the day. In North America -- and arguably, the world -- New York is media king.
The Citi Bike system will be the biggest civic project to launch in this city since technology helped wrest media control from the few, giving it to the many -- the last time New York did something on this scale, with the opening of the High Line Park four years ago, Twitter was only just breaking into the mainstream, Instagram didn't exist, and Tumblr was a niche novelty. With channels like these at one's disposal (and now at a point of mainstream saturation) the average connected citizen can quickly marshal public opinion in support of, or in opposition to, any given project. Success is now measured in hashtags, not headlines. In an age where the regular citizen is likely to have a smartphone within reach, the Citi Bike program is far more of a marketing experiment than an infrastructure test.
This sounds like a lot of the social marketing fluff that we're all sick of hearing. The amassed furor of cranky Twitter users has been able to convince companies like The Gap and PepsiCo to backtrack on multimillion-dollar rebranding campaigns, true. But that power rarely extends to large, city-driven infrastructure projects backed by deep-pocketed financiers or corporations. A bike-sharing program is a different beast entirely.
Think about it this way: The success of Citi Bike is completely contingent upon the crowds, those people who pick up a bike for one of the program’s half-hour stints, decide where to go, take the bike paths to get there, and ultimately decide whether they will have anything to do with Citi Bike again. Here is a situation where crowd-powered media -- tens of thousands of 140-character posts, artful photos filtered and hashtagged with #citibike, angry rants and soaring platitudes reblogged with wry commentary, all in a city whose residents are obsessed with their smartphones and their ability to tap into their surroundings with them -- could actually provide real, not just superficial, insights into how ideas flow across a dense urban space. Unlike the armchair punditry typically on display on the Internet, where anonymous critics attempt to insert themselves into a news story from halfway around the world, the same people tweeting about Citi Bike will likely be the people actually shaping the program on the ground.
As a jaded and routinely cranky media professional, "How Social Media Reacted To [Insert News Event Here]" is generally the last take on a news story that I want to read. Citi Bike is an exception. New York is the best place in the world to watch public sentiment unfold, change, and gradually gain a sense of permanence, and this will be a case study like none other. If you have an interest in marketing, urban planning or local government, take a seat and grab some popcorn, because we're about to watch some tech-fueled sociology unfold before our eyes.
Now, if they could just get those bikes ready.
Photo: Citi Bike