I couldn’t help but burst out laughing when I first saw a fella riding one of those green ZYP bikes that have popped up downtown. The reason I got such a kick out of it was because he was exactly what I had pictured in my head, like a scene out of “Weird Science.” He was the Kelly LeBrock to my Anthony Michael Hall.
So LeBrock came trucking past me as I’m getting into my car. I was confused because he was moving at a pretty solid clip, faster than any mortal could pedal in skinny jeans (turns out the bikes are electric). LeBrock’s toboggan was hanging on haphazardly, his beard flapped wildly. Before rounding the corner he took a moment to reach up and check to see if his beard was still there…yup, it’s there. He pedaled onward, around the corner and into obscurity, no doubt.
When I first heard they were going to be installing a bike share kiosk around the corner from my office, my first thought was, “Who is this supposed to be for?” Was this some kind of sick joke the city was playing on everybody? Y’all want better public transportation? Take these and shut up. Look, they go fast!
Then I realized this wasn’t something that the city had done on its own. It was an initiative of the benevolent REV Birmingham, overlord of all well-meaning agencies and purveyor of “catalytic development.”
(Someone once said to me that well-meaning people are among the most obstructive force on Earth. They were halfway joking, but I couldn’t help but think of REV while trying to sort out the meaning of that statement. Maybe that’s just because REV has mastered the art of branding and self-promotion so much so that they have become synonymous with all the good intentions Birmingham has to offer).
My second thought, after hearing about the bike share, was how annoyed I was by the whole thing and I didn’t know why. I mean, I should be the ideal candidate to ride one of these things — I live and work downtown — but for whatever reason I still couldn’t help but see these things as a shiny green nuisance.
It was as if someone had decided to put a zip line course through downtown. It’s not a viable solution to moving people around. Sure, it could be fun, but really it’s just a superfluous thing for people to spend money on in order to have a little fun. It’s not a solution. It’s Jell-O in a pothole. Or at least that’s how I saw it.
I decided to put my pointless irritation aside because LeBrock had inspired me, in all his Bohemian lumberjack glory. I decided to take note of everyone I saw riding one of these dorky green rigs, for journalistic purposes.
Right away I noticed that white people had jumped out to a commanding lead, 15-0 after the first two days of keeping score. It was like kale on wheels, white people just couldn’t seem to get enough of it. And everyone else was just left wondering why. After a week, the score was 36-0 with no signs of black people catching up.
It’s weird knowing that Birmingham is 73.4 percent black and after a week I still had not seen a single black person on one of the bikes (aside from Mayor Bell’s obligatory maiden voyage photo op). Suddenly, what had started as a mildly amusing way to poke fun at strangers riding goofy looking bikes had grown into genuine befuddlement. What is it with these white people and these bikes?
I decided to walk around the corner and take a closer look at the bikes. As I walked up to the kiosk I saw James, a homeless man who hangs around First Avenue N., riding his own bike, limping along with two flat tires. “Hey James, what do you make of these things?” I asked, gesturing to the row of bikes.
He stopped, looked them up and down for a moment and said, rather emphatically, “They suck,” and sluggishly pedaled on his way. That’s when it really hit me, the root of my discontent; if someone like James wants nothing to do with them, then who are these things for? ‘
A little later in the day I was walking by the kiosk again and a guy was getting out of a big van with the words ZYP and REV on the side. The guy was rearranging the bikes, moving one that was at the far end of the lineup closer to the other cluster of bikes. I really wasn’t sure what he was doing, and I guess he could sense me studying him because he asked me what I wanted to know about the bikes.
He told me about how the bikes are all electrically assisted and he has to make sure they are charging properly. They are charged by the solar panel that sits on top of the kiosks. I asked him if any of them have been stolen yet. “No, they have real-time GPS so basically it would lead us exactly to their house,” he said.
He told me this program is the first of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, a bike share program with imbedded GPS that is constantly communicating with nearby kiosks — he called them “dumb stations” — because unlike other bike shares, the bikes are keeping track of themselves. Which either means Birmingham is leading the way for once, or that everywhere else on this side of the globe realized having $1,500 bikes being passed around is not a very cost effective way of moving people.
Either way, to rent a bike for 24 hours, it costs $6. Not outrageous, but still more than people like James could or would be willing to pay. Hell, that’s honestly more than I’d be willing to pay too. Especially since you have to dock it at a kiosk every 45 minutes or else you will be charged extra. I needed to know more about this.
That’s when I called Lindsey West, the brains behind the ZYP program. Something strange happened over the course of our 15-minute conversation. It wasn’t a particularly spectacular conversation, in fact it was rather routine, but Lindsey was so nice and eager to talk about her new operation that it made me realize how silly I was for getting all bent out of shape.
It wasn’t some sinister cabal that cooked up a plot to lure fools onto bikes and drain their bank accounts. It was a perfectly nice human being trying to do something good for the people in her community.
After I hung up I had changed my mind about the whole bike share thing, which is kind of unlike me. Sure, I still thought it was funny that white people are (from what I’ve seen) the ones riding these things, but Lindsey had cured me of my righteous indignation.
What was my major malfunction anyway? Here is this person, who has spent two years of her life trying to get this thing up and running in a town that hasn’t ever taken too kindly to cyclists and here I am being a bumptious grouch over some bikes. I had been stewed in shame.
“I think it’s something that can benefit the health of a community,” Lindsey told me over the phone. “Young professionals and millennials looking to put their roots down somewhere are looking for projects and developments like this. This is one piece of the puzzle. We’re just looking to move Birmingham forward.”
She was right after all. If people don’t want to ride them or can’t afford it, they don’t have to. Same with a zip line course. It’s not ZYP’s fault that there isn’t really another viable public transportation option to scoot around downtown. And if you are looking at it objectively, having a one-of-a-kind bike share program is pretty cool, I guess.
Even after our conversation my only wish was that people who needed it could afford it. She wouldn’t tell me how much the bikes cost, only that if you don’t return one, you’re looking at a $1,500 fee. And instead of focusing on bringing people downtown with shiny bikes we can all share, maybe let’s do it in a way that benefits those who already live here.
But so it goes.
The thing about Birmingham that I’ve always loved is that it’s a spot on the Earth that possesses the capacity for great change. Perhaps it’s the residue that has settled permanently since the last great change 50 years ago, but there is something in the thick red dirt here. That’s one of the few truths I have come to know.
Maybe I was being the obstructive force standing in the way of change, not LeBrock dropping six bucks to go get some quinoa from the Piggly Wiggly. It was me and my crappy attitude towards something new; something I didn’t understand; something I wished was different but wasn’t doing anything about.
In a lot of ways, I was a part of what’s always been going on here in Birmingham. Oppose the new, uphold the status quo…and for Pete’s sake stop asking so many questions!
Maybe I should just pony up, go for a ride, shut my mouth and think about the error of my ways. I will say this though: the score is already 47-0 and I’d hate to be another tally mark for white people.