The underbelly of New York's cycling boom is a graveyard of abandoned bikes. A crowdsourced photo exhibit of the detritus is now on display.
New York City has experienced a biking boom in recent years, but the flip side of that trend is oddly sinister: hundreds of abandoned bicycle corpses are rotting away all over the five boroughs, and it’s a lot harder to get rid of them than you might think.
In late April, Transportation Nation, a public radio reporting project of WNYC, asked readers and listeners to submit photographs of abandoned bikes throughout the city. They received more than 500 submissions and mapped them online. Now, the bikes’ afterlives have become an art exhibit at The Greene Space in Manhattan. From August 1 through September 4, WNYC’s Abandoned Bike Project photos will be on display as "a collection of the detritus of urban mobility in a busy city."
"Once we got in hundreds and hundreds of photos of these abandoned bikes we started to notice there was a rhythmic beauty in how they were all so similar but they were all so unique in the peculiar but familiar form of decay," says Alex Goldmark of Transportation Nation (who’s also a contributing editor at GOOD). "And we have a performance space here that supports art events. The director suggested we make an art exhibit because some of [the photographs] do rise to the level of art."
Turns out, getting the city to clean up a rejected bike is a time-consuming affair. First, New Yorkers have to call 311 and give a detailed description of the bike and what it is locked to. Next, the caller is transferred to a specialist who takes an official claim. Only if the bike is in a very specific condition, the Department of Sanitation of New York (DSNY) can cart it away a week.
According to the DSNY, a bike must be locked on public property and meet three of the following five criteria to count as abandoned: the bike is crushed or unusable; is missing parts other than a seat or front wheel; has a flat or missing tires; has damaged handlebars, pedals, frames, forks, or rims; or is rusted throughout more than three-quarters of its body. The DSNY told Transportation Nation that "upon inspection by our field supervisor a large percentage of the bicycles don’t meet the criteria to be classified as derelict."
To help clean up the streets, Transportation Nation submitted 151 official complaints—at around 14 minutes per call to 311—about abandoned bikes, few of which were actually taken off the streets. Before the project even started, the DSNY had received 429 abandoned bike complaints since July 2011. As of July 30, the city has removed only 62 bicycles in 2012, says Goldmark. The final resting place for these bikes? A pile of scrap metal.
The DSNY donated four claimed bikes to the exhibit, at Goldmark’s request. He recognized one of them as a bike reported by the project by its unique silver body shining through a rust coating. The bikes sit inside the exhibit windows, left to gaze out upon the horrific auto traffic converging on the Holland Tunnel.