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New York's bike share war heats up

NEW YORK (AFP) - Since the Big Apple launched its bike share programme late last month, New Yorkers have already pedalled a total of 766,000km - essentially, to the Moon and back.

But not all New Yorkers are over the moon about the programme - even the most pro-bike residents have been irritated by technical problems hampering the initiative, and some have turned those issues into a full-on political battle.

Across lower Manhattan and some of the trendier neighbourhoods of Brooklyn, the bright blue Citi Bikes are everywhere - 6,000 of them parked at docking stations or in use, adding to the city's ever-growing fleet of cyclists.

More than 38,000 New Yorkers have paid US$103 (S$129) for a year-long subscription, but many are still awaiting their blue key - needed to access the bikes.

Officials have said "batches of keys" are going out daily to fix the problem.

But the bike share woes are not limited to annual pass holders. Those with weekly and day passes are also dealing with spotty problems.

Sometimes, docking stations in popular neighbourhoods are full and users cannot park their bikes. Other times, the locking mechanisms do not work. And near busy Midtown offices, it is sometimes impossible to find a bike at night.

And at some stations, payment via debit or credit card - the only way to purchase a short-term pass - does not function.

Citi Bike has beefed up its customer service in recent days, but the gripes continue, as users exchange advice at the parking stations and inform others where the nearest working station can be found.

For the faithful, the programme is still in its early days - going through what Mayor Michael Bloomberg has termed inevitable "teething pains" - and they say they are not ready to give up hope just yet.

But others say after one more week, they are heading back to the subway.

"After that, I quit," says Mr Alex Lepetit, who says that he has been late to two meetings after being unable to dock his bike at the nearest station.

So far, the Citi Bike participation figures are encouraging - nearly 200,000 rides have been taken since May 27 when the programme began, with 22,399 trips on Sunday alone.

But the programme - the biggest of its kind in the United States, and supposed to grow to include 10,000 bikes at 600 stations - has sparked a serious political battle, with some comparing city hall to the Taleban.

"Why all the anxiety and hyperventilating over something that is indisputably a good thing?" a recent New York Times editorial said, citing recent complaints by Dorothy Rabinowitz, a conservative member of The Wall Street Journal editorial board.

In two recent videos that went viral, Ms Rabinowitz unleashed her fury.

"Do not ask me to enter the mind of the totalitarians running this government of the city. The majority of citizens of this city are appalled by what has happened," she said, calling the programme a "nightmare" and referring to a "bicycle lobby" that terrorises New York.

Comedian Jon Stewart has mocked the debate on his late-night show, and New York magazine created a Venn diagram summing up "why conservatives hate Citi Bike so much." Among the reasons? "Conservatives hate mayor Bloomberg, a cosmopolitan billionaire who wants to take their guns and, even worse, their enormous sodas" and... "there is something vaguely French about this whole thing."