Lyft’s guide to the transportation revolution

He’s a renowned journalist and Citi Bike superfan. Just don’t call him an “avid cyclist.”

Jason Tanz - Mar 20, 2023
Illustration of Felix Salmon
Illustration by Natalie Foss

Felix Salmon — chief financial correspondent at Axios, host of the Slate Money podcast — is a storied financial journalist. But he is almost as famous for his passion for cycling. He rode a Citi Bike the very first day it was available. He has called for an e-bike subsidy. He has participated in Critical Mass — the series of group rides advocating for better bike infrastructure. He’s also a sharp thinker and a great conversationalist. So we caught up with him to discuss the current state of urban cycling in the U.S., the joys of commuting by bike, and the best ways to get everyone on two wheels.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Rev: You’re an avid cyclist. You’ve been biking around New York for more than a decade now. 

Salmon: I have to say I don’t love the word “avid.” No one ever talks about an “avid pedestrian.” The standard way of navigating the city is not something that you should feel the need to be avid about, and it shouldn’t be a part of your identity. It’s just like, this is the obvious and easy way to get around. 

Yeah, I hear what you’re saying. So tell me about your cycling behavior before Citi Bike. How long have you been biking? When did you get started? 

I’ve been in New York for 25 years, and I’ve had a bike for most of them. It all really started when I was living on the Lower East Side. I was commuting up into Times Square and Midtown, and there wasn’t any particularly easy way to do it. But on a bike, not only was it quick, but when you’re riding up the avenue, you have to be conscious of what’s in front of you and of all the different things that can go wrong. It’s almost like a meditative space. You wind up not thinking about work stresses or personal stresses. It’s a nice way to clear the mind. 

When Citi Bike came along, that was revolutionary for me. Number one, I didn’t need to worry about my bike getting stolen. Number two, it created a whole bunch of extra use cases. I can bike one way now. I can bike to a party or a restaurant, and then if I have too much to drink or it’s too cold or it’s raining or something, I can just get a cab or subway on the way back. And it’s slower; it’s more leisurely. You’re not zipping around worrying about hitting a pothole. So it does become a much more sensible way to get around. 

A few months ago you sent me a screenshot of your Citi Bike stats, which included about 1,850 rides, about 300 hours, and you’d visited 295 stations, putting you in the top 1%. Are you trying to hit them all? 

Oh, absolutely not. But it is my default mode of getting around town. Multimodal was one of the first things that I started doing when I became a Citi Bike member. When you’re taking the subway, instead of walking to the local, you take a Citi Bike to the express. That’s a great way of getting around. 

I love the e-bikes. I think they’re great. I do have this weird mental barrier, which is the point at which the e-bike starts costing $2.75, which is the price of a subway ride. Most of the time, taking an e-bike is quicker and cheaper than taking the subway, so it’s an easy choice. But there comes a point that it stops being a $2 ride and starts being a $4 ride, and then you’re like, actually, it would have been cheaper for me to take the Q train two stops.

Right, well, the subway is heavily subsidized by the city. Should bike share be as well?

There’s two different questions inside there, and it’s worth teasing them apart. The first is, “Should bike share be subsidized?” And the simple answer is yes. It’s a really sustainable and lovely form of mass transit. There’s a clear public interest in maximizing the number of people using bike share. And it costs less than building or maintaining a subway system. 

And there’s an obvious way to subsidize bike share without just taking money out of the city budget. Lyft effectively rents the space for its bike-share system from the city. Lyft pays the amount they otherwise would have gotten from metered parking. And the city could just say, “Don’t worry about it.” That would be a really easy, nice way to subsidize it. 

But there is a separate question, which is whether that two-stop ride is artificially cheap because of subsidies. And the answer is probably not. In New York, we have a flat fare no matter how far you travel. So there’s an implicit subsidy where people with shorter rides basically subsidize people from the outer boroughs. So that short ride is probably fairly priced at $2.75.

Do you think there would be any public objection to a bike-share subsidy? 

Bike discourse in New York City has definitely changed over the years. Maybe like ten years ago you would find a bunch of anti-bike sentiment from people who normally took taxis or cars. There was this feeling that they were taking the most expensive form of transport and that that gave them some kind of right to also be the quickest. And they got upset when they saw bikes going faster than traffic. They were like, “No, this violates laws of nature.” You don’t hear that quite as much anymore. 

In fact, there is a public good in making car journeys very slow and expensive and undesirable to move people into other forms of transport. That violates the deep-seated intuitions of the Department of Transportation, which for decades has tried to optimize for convenience and speed of cars. And now everyone’s saying, “Wait, no, it would be better to optimize the inconvenience and expensiveness.” That’s a huge 180-degree turn.

Yeah, and not that long ago, the streets were clearly owned by cars. Cyclists would sort of squeeze themselves into the natural state of things, which was cars moving around. But now there is all this established infrastructure for bikes, and it formalizes the idea that bikes are a natural and integral part of the urban landscape. Maybe that changes the psychology a bit as well. 

I think you’re right about the car-bike interaction. Cars now increasingly understand that there will be bikes and bike lanes, and they don’t get annoyed to the extent they did ten years ago. Conversely, the pedestrian-bike interaction, I think, has become more fraught. Pedestrians have over the decades become acculturated to cars. But suddenly now there are e-bikes everywhere. And they are fast and unexpected and coming from weird directions. That takes a lot of getting used to. So where ten years ago the big friction point for bicyclists was with drivers, now it’s more likely to be with pedestrians. 

And this is a problem not just for bikes and pedestrians, but it’s also a problem for adoption. If you are a pedestrian and you see e-bikes as nasty things that you need to avoid, that is gonna make you less well-disposed to the modality and less likely to become a bicyclist yourself.

If you ran the world, and you had the opportunity to convert city-dwellers to cyclists, what would you do? 

It’s really boring and obvious: many, many more separated bike lanes. I live in an area of downtown Manhattan where, to this day, the streets are basically two full lanes of parked cars and one narrow lane of traffic trying to wind its way between them. And the street parking is free! It’s the most wasteful use of this incredibly valuable public space you can possibly imagine. So, get rid of all free street parking. Introduce a lot more bike lanes. Make sure the bike lanes are physically separated from the car lanes as much as possible, especially on the avenues, and make sure that they get properly swept when it snows.

There is this new bike lane on the Brooklyn Bridge, which is a game changer. It’s absolutely amazing. And it shows the transformative potential. It has gone from a terrible experience to a wonderful experience. 

The Adams administration has talked a lot about building new bike infrastructure. How do you think that’s going? 

You know, as a biker, it’s always going to be moving too slowly. But these things do happen slowly. There are a lot of stakeholders involved and a natural opposition to change. 

Lifting the cap on e-Citi Bikes would be a big thing. [E-bikes currently can not comprise more than 20% of the Citi Bike fleet.] Having a battery is amazing. It really does open up biking to a much broader range of people. Pedaling a heavy classic bike around feels like exercise. Once you add a battery to it, you aren’t doing it for the sake of exercise. You don’t even need to be fit! You can just pedal along happily with someone giving you a nice push all the way. It’s really nice. So the more accessible they are, the more adoption we’re going to have.

You recently wrote about e-bike incentives. Obviously, there are a lot of new incentives to buy electric cars. And you were arguing that those should apply to e-bikes as well.

Look at Denver. They said, “We’re going to give you somewhere between a $300 and $600 subsidy if you go out and buy an e-bike.” It was insanely popular — way, way more popular than they anticipated. It caused a whole bunch of people to buy a whole bunch of bikes and really transformed the way they’re going around the city. This is happening in a bunch of cities and a bunch of states. 

One of the ways I like to think of it is, we basically subsidize all different forms of transportation. Trains, subways, cars. Bikes are one of the few that we don’t, apart from some bike lanes. And it makes sense to use subsidies to get people into efficient forms of transportation, which use the public space in the best way. 

There is a very important secondary benefit. You can structure these subsidies so they can only be spent on legal bikes. Nearly all of the e-bike fires we see come from illegal batteries. And so if you have a subsidy that can make a legal e-bike cheaper than an illegal one, everything will become a lot safer. 

That makes sense. It fits in your overall theme of carefully incentivizing the right kind of behavior, or disincentivizing behavior you want to see less of. Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. I don’t know if you have any other thoughts you want to share.

Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to urge Citi Bike and Lyft to put more resources into rebalancing. All of the docks downtown are always full. What’s up with that?

As you know, we put a lot of effort toward rebalancing. We have a system of data and vans and whatnot to move bikes from where they have gone to where they need to go. It’s an incredible effort, but it’s also an incredible force of nature, all these city-dwellers taking bikes from one place to someplace else. So we’re fighting this massive tide, and we’re doing the best we can, but at some point, we don’t want to keep adding vans to the system and making it less fuel-efficient. 

Rebalancing is definitely a tough problem. I’m not an expert on it. At the margin, it’s something you can solve with money. There are a handful of very popular docks where you have a human being collecting bikes and thereby freeing up the docks. And so if you increase the number of humans who are opening up dock spaces at popular stations, that’s one really easy way of doing it.

I will certainly pass that along. It’s above my pay grade, but I appreciate you taking your shot here.

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