As CitiBike has launched in parts of New York City, public attention has focused on certain manifestations of public backlash, usually in the form of NIMBY distaste for the bike stations on particular blocks, and general grumpiness about the role of cycling in the future of New York City transportation.
Alongside this public-facing displeasure has emerged a more profound series of critiques that have gone largely unmentioned by the press, or the city’s established transportation advocacy organizations and their allies in government.
The first issue cuts to the heart of the promise of a bike-friendly green economy, and should (nominally) speak to the organizations at the center of New York’s progressive coalition — wage theft. Alta, the company hired to install and run CitiBike has engaged in deceptive and manipulative labor practices in the operation of its bike share program in Washington DC.
Bike mechanics from the DC Bikeshare have come forward to document tens of thousands in owed back pay and unpaid medical benefits, combined with unsafe working conditions in the shops themselves. The whole story is here, but in short: Alta misled about its pay and benefits, and in doing so, undermined the promise of a green economy that they are supposed to represent.
Bikes can and do create jobs, but if those jobs are underpaid and plagued by wage theft, you can’t say that you’ve done much good for the world as a result. In turning a blind eye to wage theft, transit advocates are cutting themselves off from workers that are crucial allies, and undermining the promise of the kind of city they hope to create. Selling the bike/green economy is more difficult you can’t ensure that pay and benefits will be an improvement on the car/fossil fuel economy.
(FYI, you can also sign a petition here to show your support for bike share employees fighting for back pay and benefits)
The second story is CitiBank itself. The megabank just bought $21 million worth of rolling advertisements, making transit advocates the green in the greenwash for a company that finances the disastrous policies of climate disruption. Among other things, CitiBank is one of the top financiers of coal in the US, implicated in the human rights violation called mountaintop removal. Organizations ostensibly committed to addressing climate change should be very uncomfortable with making public alliance with a company with this kind of track record.
Still, I’ll acknowledge that greenwashing is a somewhat abstract problem — and one that we can fix with proper public shaming. But there’s another level at which outsourcing major transit infrastructure to a private corporation in collaboration with an evil private corporation is a bad idea, and it’s summarized in these two maps: