Alex Goldmark is a senior producer in the newsroom for New Tech City and Transportation Nation.
Click around the map above to see the photos of the bikes and the latest updates on their status. You can update the map yourself, so please let us know if one of these gets removed, or tagged.
Listen to the radio version of this story:
WNYC listeners submitted over 500 pictures of abandoned bicycles in New York. But most of them will not be removed by the city. Here's what happened when we tried to bring the issue to the city's attention with what we thought were all the modern tools necessary: a stack of pictures, a spreadsheet of geocodes, and a veritable army of crowd-contributors.
The life cycle of a bike left to rot on NYC streets is long, and intentionally so. The complaint process is as clunky as the cast off bikes themselves and the criteria for removal is stiffer than the U-lock holding this pilfered cruiser to a bike rack on Bleecker Street.
The first obstacle is that what you consider an abandoned nuisance taking up your prime bike parking is property to someone else. Most bikes reported to the city as abandoned aren't abandoned enough to be removed (see definition below).
Before we started collecting abandoned bike photos, the City received 429 official complaints since July, the start of the fiscal year. Of those, just 60 bikes were removed, less than 15 percent.
That's because a bike has to be more than abandoned to be claimed by the city. It has to also be officially derelict, as Henry Ehrhardt, director of customer relations at the NY Sanitation Department patiently explained to me while I showed him my stack of hundreds of bikes in various states of decay.
“I think it’s important to remember that the Department of Sanitation’s job is to, essentially, remove junk and garbage from the city’s streets,” he told me.
Like these two, which were tagged and removed after we submitted them.
After a bike complaint is called into 311, a sanitation inspector heads out to the scene to determine if the bike is junked enough. Most bikes just don't make the cut.
There are many obstacles that prevent the Sanitation Dept from removing a seemingly abandoned bike. First the regulations:
The bike must be affixed to public property (not your front gate or a privately-owned bike rack).
To be derelict a bike must meet three of the following five criteria:
These bikes, while seemingly derelict were not removed -- possibly because the Sanitation Department inspected a different nearby bike instead.
And of course, many people call in bikes that just aren't abandoned or derelict at all.
“When we’re taking it we’re essentially recycling it, it’s going to be taken away and put in the recycling truck and processed as scrap metal,” Ehrhardt said.
That's a shame to some bike advocates who argue the city should be more proactive in claiming abandoned bikes for recycling or sale. A nonprofit, Bike Rescue Project, has proposed claiming the bikes while still salvageable to repair and sell for charity, but by the time they fall under the jurisdiction of the Sanitation Department, it's already too late. The city of Hoboken does a yearly sweep and collects about 50 bikes a year that get put up for sale at auction. That city's DOT tells Transportation Nation it gets no complaints about wrongfully removed bikes.
Vito Turso, a deputy commissioner at DSNY, says the criteria are strict to make sure no bike gets removed that is still someone's property. Changing that would mean changing the law. “That sounds to me like something a person who is interested in having these removed might want to bring to the attention of their local elected official and then have that local elected official take it the next step.”
He doesn't want to run the risk of claiming property. He deals in junk.
The green mountain bike below, for example, isn't derelict by the criteria. Though partially rusted, it’s in usable condition and the only parts missing are the seat and front wheel, possibly removed by the owner for security.
However, this is an example of the tricky business of reporting abandoned bikes. Our submission was not intended to be this bike, but rather this insectile black former-road bike across the street and a bit into Riverside park. At this intersection there are actually two streets named Riverside Drive (see map) so an address and intersection weren't enough, and wasted a trip by a Sanitation worker, he wouldn't have seen a copy of a photo, just a written description because there is no official online or digital submissions process.
That's the other obstacle to action, and the main hurdle we encountered. Calling in a complaint takes about 14 minutes and involves speaking with two operators. 311 handles all the intake then forwards the information to the Sanitation Department.
That means a bulk submission of 500 bikes had nowhere to go. Neither agency had the staff to take a spreadsheet and enter it into the correct databases for action. 311 agreed to take two spreadsheets -- after Transportation Nation agreed to filter out the non-derelict looking bikes.
After two batches totaling 150 bikes (or bits of bike parts), 100 of them are being investigated this week. From the first batch of 50 bikes, 24 could not be found on location. Several weren't derelict despite my best vetting efforts, and in the end, 19 were tagged and removed, either by owners or the DSNY.
Of the 350 remaining bikes in our database, they have to be called in.
If you do so, please update the map above. Here's the full gallery of photo submissions.