This New York Times trend piece, “Learning to Share, Thanks to the Web,” is a strained attempt, citing a miscellany of phenomena and enterprises ranging from car-pooling to Share Some Sugar to the existence of the small-but-growing urban bikeshare industry, to tease out some big-think conclusions about a possible increase in American acceptance of a “sharing” ethic. The problem with this is that most of the things discussed are are actually attempts to practically and sensibly address real needs, but the article is so determined to wedge them into a narrative about Sharing versus Individualism, to say nothing of our old friends Ideals versus Reality, that you’d be forgiven if you got the impression that an outfit like Bixi was some kind of hippie co-op dedicated to leaving bikes on the street and chanting om mane padme hum while hoping everyone will just share and be nice.
Bixi is brilliant, at least in Montreal, as far as I can tell from my several uses of it at last year’s Worldcon and this year’s Farthing Party. But it’s not based on hopes for some sort of miraculous change in the normal range of human behavior. The basic deal is this: There are about 5,000 Bixi bicycles electronically locked up at 400 stations scattered around central Montreal. To use one of the bikes, you need an account; these are $78 a year, $28 for 30 days, or $5 for 24 hours. You can pay your five bucks by sliding a credit or debit card into the Bixi station’s electronic terminal. This allows you to check out one bike at a time (you’re given a unique code to punch into the electronic dock) with no further fees so long as you don’t keep any single bike longer than 30 minutes. The bikes themselves are solid step-through three-speeds with upright handlebars, pedal-powered lights, hand-adjustable seatposts, and a hanging basket in front; pretty much anyone who can ride any kind of two-wheeled bike can ride one of these.
The elegant part of the system is the sliding fee structure. If you keep a particular bike for a half hour beyond your free first half hour, you’re charged $1.50; if you keep it for another half hour after that, it’s an additional $3 for a total of $4.50; the next half hour is $6 for a total of $10.50, and you’re charged $6 per additional half hour after that. The point is to deter people from using Bixi as a bike-rental system. (If you want to rent a bike for an afternoon or a day, Bixi’s web page recommends several businesses ready to do business with you.) Bixi is meant as a new piece of urban infrastructure, enabling short bicycle trips from point A to point B—the assumption is that you’ll return your Bixi bike to a station near your destination, and then when you need to go somewhere else, you’ll check out a different bike. Having, as central Montreal does, literally hundreds of Bixi stations, one every two to four blocks (even in residential parts of the center city!), makes this assumption quite practical. The first couple of times I checked out a Bixi bike, I consulted their map in advance in order to locate a station near my destination, but after that I didn’t bother—I just grabbed a bike, figuring that there would be a docking station within sight of where I was going, and in fact there always was. You don’t consult a map of an urban downtown to make sure the road next to the restaurant you’re driving to is paved; you just assume that it is. Likewise for the ubiquity of Bixi stations in central Montreal.
What you’ll notice about all of this is that none of it has anything to do with some kind of transformation of anyone’s attitudes about “sharing.” Bixi isn’t engaged in some kind of attempt at moral uplift, any more than people who form a car pool to save on gas are trying to transform themselves into New Soviet Men. Whether it turns out to be a long-term success or not, Bixi is an attempt to align incentives in such a way so that a few thousand bikes can be used by a few hundred thousand people—not because Sharing Is Good but because the convenience of having bikes available for quick urban errands is good, and because exercise is good and more of us would get more of it if getting it was more fun and less trouble. Also because anything that reduces the number of cars roaring around dense urban centers is good for everybody.
This insistence on peering suspiciously at anything with the word “share” in its business model as if it were something exotic and alien was also evident in an earlier Times article about a bike-share program in a French-speaking city, “French Ideal of Bicycle-Sharing Meets Reality”, from October 31, 2009. Here we were informed that “this latest French utopia has met a prosaic reality” because, following the initial rollout of a bike-share program in central Paris, a large number of the bikes were damaged or stolen. Sociologists were quoted, Le Corbusier was invoked, cost overruns were tut-tutted, fun was had by all—who doesn’t enjoy seeing the French taken down a peg, with their loathsome ideas about good food and vacations and health care and stuff. Crazy utopian French people! Of course, not in a million years would it have occurred to that article’s author, its editors, or any of its readers that one could just as accurately write a newspaper article called “American Ideal of Freeway-Sharing Meets Reality” discussing the kooky American idea of spending billions of dollars on vast freeway systems and then allowing people to just drive all over them without paying an extra cent. Typical American hare-brained collectivism! And look, parts of the system are in terrible disrepair! That’s what you get for letting crazy idealistic Americans run anything. They’re like children, really.
Some of this no doubt comes from the success of the right-wing multi-generation project to convince Americans that ours is a history of rugged hyper-individualism only recently polluted by alien “collectivist” mind viruses. (As if we didn’t pursue things like a Federal-level industrial policy in our earliest days as a nation, and as if the industrial accomplishments of the Gilded Age were in fact the work of brilliant Ayn Rand heroes acting free of government involvement.) But I suspect a great deal of it simply comes from the basic mental mediocrity of the average modern journalist. They’re socialized by their classmates and teachers, and later their peers and bosses, to regard themselves as hard-eyed, dispassionate outsiders, viewing trends with skepticism and looking for the worm in the apple. But so many of them have minds so underfurnished that it never occurs to them to question the cookie-cutter dualisms that rush in to fill their empty imaginative space. “Ideal” meets “Reality,” trouble ensues, story writes itself…without ever questioning what gets tagged “reality” and what doesn’t, and why. In the story about the Parisian bike-share program, it’s “reality” when more bikes are stolen and damaged than management planned for at first. But as the reporter is ultimately compelled to admit, the program is now “an established part of Parisian life.” (Here’s a more recent account of it, written for visitors.) Why isn’t this fact also considered part of “reality”?
And that, children, is how ideology does its work in the world, even when nobody involved thinks that what they’re doing is ideological. Or, perhaps, especially when nobody involved imagines such a thing.