Two weeks ago, the City Paper's own Sam Spence posted a brief story on the City of Charleston's plans to issue a Request For Proposal for a city-wide bicycle sharing program. As usual, stories about bicycles attract a lot of attention, usually from avid bicyclists, so let me go ahead and state the obvious: I am in favor of a bicycle sharing system in town, and I look forward to reading the various proposals presented to the City and am hopeful that a local group wins the bid.
What worries me, though, is that won't happen. Before the City of Charleston officially issue its RFP, a national corporation called Bcycle swung by town to peddle its bike-sharing wares. Once again, it seems that the grand mythology of the "global economy" is rearing its head and promising to divert funds, both public and private, from one community to another.
According to the company website, Bcycle is a collaborative effort from Humana (yes, the insurance company), Trek Bicycle Corporation, and Crispin Porter + Bogusky (you can tell they are an ad agency because they eschew commas and use a plus sign instead of an ampersand). Bcycle is a corporation that apparently makes its money by convincing city governments to let its employees place a few of Bstands around town so people can pay some Bcash to Bsignup for Bcycles.
If you need a moment to recover from that nauseating barrage of advertising and marketing lingo, feel free to take a Bbreather (sorry). When you are ready, we can Bmoving along (really sorry. I'll stop).
Bcycle operates in a number of metro areas across the nation, ranging from medium-sized cities such as Denver, Colo., and Fort Worth, Texas, to smaller towns like Spartanburg, S.C. Each city involved gets its own version of the rather bland Bcycle website, complete with a list of sponsors (many of whom are health insurance companies, which is not terribly surprising). Honestly, the fact that these websites are so blatantly cookie-cutter is not so troubling. After all, any site about bicycle sharing is fine, as long as it details where the stations are and what needs to be done to procure a bike.
But what is troubling is this continued insistence in America that we must meld the public and private sectors together in "public-private partnerships" in order to build better communities. Despite years of right-wing economic nonsense about keeping these two areas of the economy separate, right-wingers now jump at any chance to promote the idea that a city can award a lucrative contract (and even the not-so-lucrative ones) to private companies instead of taking care of business through city employees, or, heaven forbid, allowing a community group to do so. In fact, that latter idea, since it involves almost no money, is verboten in right-wing economic circles these days, even amongst the so-called libertarians.
However, as the City of Charleston learned some years ago with the Yellow Bike program, a truly libertarian effort of community-maintained bicycles and a sharing model based on simply not being a jerk often fails in light of, well, the fact that a lot of people are jerks. That's why we have governments, after all, and it is why governments must sometimes step up to handle even mundane matters such as the sharing of bicycles in a community. I would love for Charleston to be the city that proves me wrong on this point, but I am afraid my own youthful zeal for such ideas is waning as I grow older.
Instead, it seems I shall have to be comfortable with the city's RFP process, and the knowledge that some group, large or small, will be awarded a contract to provide this service in town. Sadly, Charleston is probably not large enough to handle competing efforts at bike sharing. And if it was, I am certain some manner of government-enforced monopoly would be put in place, like how telephone and television once operated and power still does.
Still, if the City of Charleston is considering a bike sharing program to increase wellness in the city, it must reject proposals from national firms, as these are in their own way as harmful to the community as traffic congestion and a lack of exercise — they take money out of our community, and it doesn't return. If any taxpayer funds are to be used to start up such a venture in Charleston, I think everyone, bicyclist or not, should make sure that the City takes this into consideration as part of the RFP process.