CitiBank and Space Discrimination

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:


Basically, CitiBike has thus far replicated the same patterns of racial and neighborhood discrimination that CitiBank and friends displayed in the foreclosure crisis. To the degree that bikeshare is indeed a revolutionary technology and service, it is equally one that is being systemically left out of poor neighborhoods.
On its own, this is unequal and unjust. That’s unacceptable, and it will come back to haunt the project of developing alternative transit in New York.
First, it seems like this pattern of rollout actually fostered the media headaches that we have heard about. CitiBike is only in neighborhoods with well-heeled NIMBYs, not the people who would benefit most from cheap alternative transit options. NIMBYism itself is a product of class privilege, and so the ways that Citi maps to class privilege in New York, will make the backlash target bigger, and it’s potential pool of supporters smaller.
Second, is it further alienates transit movement leaders from New Yorkers who are working class, a not insignificant portion of whom have had their homes foreclosed on by Citi — or seen their neighbors, friends or families foreclosed on. Seriously: can you imagine seeing the name of a company that *stole* your family home on a bike share station? Would you want to ride that bike if that were the case? Citi is a toxic corporation, and having their name on the front of a premier alternative transit project is incredibly distasteful, to the point of being destructive.
So where do we go from here? It’s worth saying that I do think that bike share will improve the lives of people who can access it. But considering that alternative transit — bikes included — is a key part of sustainable cities and the future of stopping climate change, our job shouldn’t be to just do some good, but to do the kind of good that stands up to the size of the crisis, and to the importance of New York City as a model for the world. Frankly, it’s embarrassing that the leaders of the transit movement in New York could muster no more than cheerleading for the program, and rearguard responses to NIMBY attacks on the system. No organization organized to make bike share better (if they did, they did not prioritize it, or succeed by the necessary measures), and that is a massive disappointment.
If the goal of the transit movement is do do enough good, rather than just some good, then it will need to step up substantially to address CitiBike’s shortcomings.