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My View: City cycling has more pluses than minuses

Despite vast differences in size and population, New York City and Portland have a lot in common: distinct neighborhoods, innovative restaurants, Stumptown Coffee and lots of bike lanes, to name a few.

During three visits last year, I rode a bike throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, and marveled at the bike amenities of the city. Thus, I wondered if Ian Simonsen (Cultural Exchange: NYC’s rough ride with bike-sharing program, guest column, June 3) was riding in the same city when he wrote a column describing bike commuting in New York as “terrifying.”

Bicycling can be intense and even scary in any strange town, and, of course, it depends on what part of town you’re in. Like Portland, New York gets considerably less bike friendly the farther east you go. Biking east of the I-205 freeway can be harrowing; the same for biking in Ozone Park in Queens.

But Mr. Simonsen is a student at Columbia University. His worst problem is getting up the hills around Morningside Heights, where the university is located. Otherwise, he would have access to cycle tracks (bike lanes completely separated from auto traffic) on First, Eighth and Ninth avenues, plus a greenway, essentially a bike freeway, along both the Hudson and East rivers.

These greenways take you where you want to go. In Manhattan, you are rarely more than a mile from one of them. Most of the east-west streets have bike lanes or sharrows. If he visits Lower Manhattan (Greenwich Village and south), the traffic is so thick at all times of day that bikes actually are traveling faster than cars. It’s like biking in downtown Portland, which is not scary at all.

Transplants from Portland may find the sudden burst of a car horn disconcerting, but that just means the driver sees you.

The financial problems faced by Citi Bike, the New York bike-sharing program, have little to do with real or perceived dangers of cycling in the city. Citi Bike gets hefty funding from CitiBank’s sponsorship but still loses money.

Although privately operated by Alta of Portland, Citi Bike is a public transportation mode. Like virtually all transportation options, it needs some kind of subsidy. All forms of mass transit do. Fares alone do not support buses, light rail, trams or subways. Even our roads require far more money than the gas tax covers, which is why the Portland City Council is now considering a street tax.

The Alta model anticipated more tourist use, but in New York, bike sharing is used by the city’s residents far more than by tourists. It’s an alternative to taking a cab or subway. The pricing mandates making short hops from one station to another. After an initial fee, the ride can be free if it is less than 30 minutes. A two-hour ride costs $29, about the same as renting a bike from one of New York’s many bike shops.

Unfortunately, unlike bike shops, the Citi Bike vending machines do not give directions or hand out bike maps. That is my one quibble with the program. Like our MAX line, there is no human interface at all during the transaction, and the machines are prone to malfunctions. Would it cost more to dispense with the expensive high-tech gadgetry and have a human attendant at each station? An attendant could answer questions, rent out helmets, and provide maps and directions.

I’m not sure if bike sharing will work in Portland. While we have a prolific bike culture, we don’t have much of a taxi culture. Portlanders only call a cab when they’ve been out clubbing and are too drunk to drive home — which means, they also should not be on a bike. Second, the bike culture here is so strong that nearly everyone already owns a bike, so why rent one by the half-hour?

Bike sharing could work for tourism, since the main points of interest in Portland are relatively close to one another. But if it is going to succeed, each station needs to have more than a machine taking credit cards and dispensing bikes. There needs to be someone there to welcome the tourists and give out information.

I do agree with Mr. Simonsen’s call to get in the saddle and help create a bike culture in every city (New York does have a bike culture and, of course, it is very New York-ish, though Brooklyn’s culture is much more like Portland’s). The way to accomplish this is not to foment fear of biking but to accentuate the positives of city cycling: it’s healthy, economical and probably quicker, and yet you go at a pace that lets you interact with people and the environs more intimately.

In every city, a bicyclist must be alert and ride sensibly. But the more riders there are in a city, the safer it is for everyone.

Gil Johnson is an avid cyclist who has biked in most of the nation’s major cities. He lives in Southeast Portland, where he also owns a

martial arts studio.