Nicole Gelinas joins Brian Anderson to discuss how cities with bike-sharing programs deal with theft and vandalism and how tech-based rental services like Airbnb are shaking up the housing market—and prompting new regulations.
Bike-sharing operators are pulling back their services as urban riders confront an old problem: nuisance crime. From Paris to Baltimore, vandalism of bikes is widespread. In San Francisco and Portland, protests against gentrification sometimes take the form of wholesale property destruction of bikes. By contrast, New York and London remain unaffected by large-scale disruptions of their bike-share programs.
In its ten years of existence, Airbnb has transformed urban life, making it easier for travelers to book rooms on short notice. Yet the company has also aroused opposition, with dozens of cities around the world enacting laws to crack down on its operations over the last few years.
Read Nicole Gelinas’s story, “Cycle of Violence,” in the Spring 2018 Issue of City Journal.
Brian Anderson: Hey everyone. We are back with another edition of Ten Blocks. This is your host Brian Anderson. I'm the editor of City Journal. Our guest today is Nicole Gelinas. Nicole's a contributing editor of City Journal, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and you can follow her on Twitter @nicolegelinas. She's recently written “Psycho of Violence”, a short piece on quality of life and urban bikes. It's available on our website, www.city-journal.org, and in our Spring 2018 issue. Nicole, thanks for joining us.
Nicole Gelinas: Thank you for having me, Brian.
Brian Anderson: First off, since some of our listeners don't live in urban areas, or even if they do, could never imagine renting a bike to get around the city. Can you talk about how bike sharing programs like New York's work? Who pays for them, and what are some of the differences between different programs in different cities?
Nicole Gelinas: Sure. Well bike sharing has been a Western phenomenon now for more than a decade, so it's not really very new anymore. It first started up in France, and Paris popularized it, and then made its way to London, New York, it's all over China; almost any big global city you can think of has some sort of bike sharing program. And the way it works is that rather than having to bring your own bike into an urban area and have to chain it up and worry that it gets stolen or parts of it get stolen or you won't find a place to park it, the city allocates space for what's known as bike docks, where you take a municipal bike, you either pay by the year or by the day, depending on how often you're going to use it, and for that fee you can use the bike for half an hour or 45 minutes for a short trip. So you take it out of one dock with your little key card, and then you return it to a different dock once you've completed your journey. So they're not meant to be recreational bikes. If you want to ride around Central Park for a few hours or do the bike path up the Hudson River, you'd really have your own bike to do that because you're not really going to leave it anywhere. These are more transportation bikes, and some are private sector, some are public sector. New York's is a private sector program. London's is a public sector. So it's up to whoever's in charge to decide which way to go there, but both work in some case as well, in some cases not so well.
Brian Anderson: In your article, you argue that bicycle crime, the stealing or vandalization of the bikes, has become a serious problem for some cities. In particular, you note that both Paris and Baltimore have pulled back on their bike sharing programs because of theft and vandalism.
Nicole Gelinas: Right, and it's interesting because it doesn't happen everywhere. New York has very little vandalism or theft in its own city bike share program. But in Paris, for the whole time the program has existed, for 11 years now, they've had a chronic problem with vandalism and theft. And you might think of vandalism as like I'm going to write my name on the bike and it's easy for someone to paint it over before they send the bike out again, but that's not really what's happening. I mean vandalism is taking clubs to whole bike sharing docks and making them unusable or just destroying the bike so that it has to be totaled into theft. And there's some economic theft where people have brought the bikes to be sold somewhere else, but most of the theft isn't even for an economic reason. It's just for a malicious reason where they'll take the bike and throw it into the sand or put it in a tree, so it's not theft to be sold or to be used. Because of this, Paris has had to cut back on its program in the outer ring neighborhoods, where unfortunately there's more of this behavior. The lower income people in those neighborhoods are who suffer because they can't get a bike to go to work. They're stuck paying for the Metro system or trying to take a more expensive form of transportation.
Brian Anderson: The destruction seems almost pointless and nihilistic. Why do you think a place like New York hasn't seen this to the same degree as we're seeing it in Paris?
Nicole Gelinas: Well it's hard to say. It doesn't seem to correlate well with the violent crime rate. Paris has a much lower murder rate than even a low crime U.S. city like New York City has. On the other hand, of course, Baltimore has a very high violent crime rate and a high rate of bicycle vandalism as well. The best that I can say in looking at various cities, including Seattle, where they've had some vandalism problems, is it is a subset of people who are upset about what they see as gentrification. They see the bikes as something that wealthier white people use and they see this as a threat to their neighborhoods, or at least they say that. I mean most people in the neighborhoods of course are not destroying the bikes to protest gentrification. But even in New York, plenty of people are concerned about gentrification. There are plenty of issues with unaffordability and so forth, but we still don't see that vandalism. So it seems to have something to do with the culture of these cities but hard to explain exactly what.
Brian Anderson: Really something to do with social norms being observed and in New York we've certainly seen the maintenance of those social norms for a couple of decades now. I wonder though if there's a way using, say, new technology to find a way to enforce order a little bit more to these bike programs.
Nicole Gelinas: I think there's a place where technology can help. The bikes have GPS chips. In some cases you can monitor where they are, but that only works if you're willing to enforce the law. Well first of all, if the technology tells you the bike is in the sand or it's been destroyed, it doesn't help you very much. You could certainly use technology, in some cases video surveillance, to see who destroyed the bikes, or a particular bike dock, or if the person has kept the bike then go and find it. But that helps the situation only if you have police departments who are willing and able to enforce these crimes of theft and vandalism, and in Paris there's never been much push for enforcement. There have always been a lot of public service campaigns telling people don't destroy the bikes, the bikes belong to you, but as with a lot of things, the people who are reading these campaigns are not really the ones causing the problems. But there's never been much police enforcement. It's just been considered a fact of life that the bikes are being destroyed. So we'll try to design the program around this, rather than get people to stop destroying them, so that we can have a bigger, more successful program.
Brian Anderson: Some listeners may recall I've seen these myself: pictures on social media, on the web, of these massive bike graveyards in China. Just last week there were amusing reports of dozens of bright lime green bikes in a scrap yard outside of Glendale, Arizona. I'm wondering if you know what's going on with this kind of dumping and if this has anything to do with the crime problem.
Nicole Gelinas: Yeah there are a few things that are going on. First of all, the old system of bike share, as we talked about, was really these docked bikes, which are heavier. They obviously have to be docked somewhere and kind of attached to something before you walk away from the bike and finish your journey. But the newer generation of bike share programs, mostly in the private sector, is dockless bikes, where you just park the bike somewhere. You don't attach it to anything, and the GPS technology allows the company to know you're done with the journey. Somebody else can come and just electronically undock it off of the street and take it for another ride. But obviously that has a much bigger vulnerability, in that a vandal or a thief can just pick the bike right up. It's not attached to anything. It's not very heavy. And so the dockless bike share programs, including the GoBi program in Paris that started last year, they've pulled out of a lot of cities because of this. They've lost vast percentages of their of their fleet, so that's a bigger issue in how can government support these private sector companies that want to do the dockless bikes and the dockless scooters. It's really through trying to figure out how to stop this vandalism and theft. And now, some of the piles of bikes that you see, it's just a matter of bad management by the private companies. Some of the big piles of bikes in China, they just sort of dropped hundreds and hundreds of bikes off at certain places, and people just drop them off in a big heap in terms of their daily rides. So there's some mismanagement that doesn't have anything to do with vandalism and theft.
Brian Anderson: Although the vandalism and theft question really does get back to the importance of social norms for these kind of programs.
Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, it's even worse than having the graffiti on a building. I mean you certainly don't want that, but this makes a key part of your transportation system unusable. So you can't ignore the problem.
Brian Anderson: Now another new service that has emerged in cities over the last decade is Airbnb, which is an app-based company that allows users to rent out unused apartment space. And the service is very popular because it has made it easier for travelers to book apartments on short term basis. It's often less expensive than staying in a hotel, especially for families who might want a kitchen or were traveling with kids. It also of course provides extra money to those who are renting out their house while they're away. Yet cities across the country are enacting laws to limit the service, and New York's hyperactive city council is debating new regulations this week. I'm wondering what your view is of this particular controversy, and what would these new laws do.
Nicole Gelinas: Well you're absolutely right that from the customers’ perspective, Airbnb and its much smaller competitors, there's VRBO, there's a few other smaller companies too, it is convenient. If you want to come to New York for ten days, if you would rather stay in an apartment, you can cook; you can eat breakfast at home, and so forth. And to some extent this business has existed forever. People have always rented out corporate housing to people who might have a job in a city for a couple months or have to do a stay that doesn't rise to the level of them renting their own apartments. And actors, other people in town for just a couple months, have always relied on short-term housing. But the problem is that tech has made it easy so that everybody can do it. And the situation arises where, whether it's Paris, London, Amsterdam, people are taking whole apartments, and rather than having it be this is my apartment, I live here, I'm going on vacation myself for two weeks, so I'm going to rent out my apartment to somebody else and make a little bit of extra money, a lot of these hosts, particularly in midtown Manhattan, Chelsea, they just rent an apartment or they own an apartment, and they use it full time as an Airbnb apartment.
Brian Anderson: So it becomes a kind of hotel?
Nicole Gelinas: Right. It's turning residential housing across all income levels into hotel rooms, and that creates a problem for the city because the city is only creating twenty five thousand units of affordable housing a year. Airbnb, they've got 27,000 whole apartments that are up for rent for any given time. So yes, of course the city needs to be much more efficient about building more housing. But if a good deal of this existing housing is being converted into hotel rooms, that weakens the public support for building new housing. And this is a place where the laws of the city are very complicated. And of course they're too complicated, and we need to fix that. But if you've got someone who has a rent regulated apartment, where the city government and state government has said we want to keep this rent artificially low, and then they're turning around and renting that regulated apartment out to make a profit on the Airbnb market, which a lot of people are doing and have been caught doing, that's not a very good situation. Of course in the long term you want to fix the rent laws, build more housing, but in the short term we have to enforce laws where an apartment that is zoned for a long term occupancy for a 30-day stay or more is not turned into a hotel room.
Brian Anderson: Is there a public order question here too with the use of these apartments by people who are being disruptive or disorderly, or has that problem been overblown?
Nicole Gelinas: I think there's a public order problem. Certainly not most people who rent these apartments are creating a problem, but people in Stuyvesant Town, people on the west side of Manhattan, have complained, my neighbor rents out the apartment all the time, there's a new group of tourists in every week, they may leave the door open, they may have a party, especially if it's a group of people renting an apartment for bachelorette party or what have you. And so people behave differently in a hotel than they do at home. That's why hotels have pretty sophisticated security, and rules, and staff, and all sorts of other things. And so to the extent that you have transients behaving in a different way than they do at home, but they're staying in an apartment with no security, no supervision, that becomes a problem for the neighbors. And some people have said, well why not just have the co-op board have a rule against Airbnb, or the condo association, and that actually works pretty well. Co-op boards do ban Airbnb, and they enforce this. A lot of the condo buildings are starting to do that too. But in the rental apartment market, tenants have very little leverage, whether it's market rate tenant or regulated tenant, it is the owner of the building who really sets the rules in the building. And so you do need, and we've had for decades, rules that say these are zoned as apartments. And just like in the suburbs, you can't have a boarding house in a house on a suburban street. That's usually against the local ordinance, so it's the same thing here.
Brian Anderson: Thanks Nicole. Don't forget to check out Nicole Gelinas’ work on our website, www.city-journal.org, the bike piece is called “Cycle of Violence”. Again, it's in our Spring 2018 issue, and it's also on our website. You can follow Nicole's work on Twitter @nicolegelinas. We would also like to hear about your comments on today's episode on Twitter @CityJournal with the #10Blocks. Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. So thanks for listening, and thanks Nicole for joining us.
Nicole Gelinas: Thank you, Brian.