There are roughly 3 million parking spaces on New York City streets, most of which can be used by drivers for free. One New York-based startup wants to repurpose some of them for storing bikes, not cars.
Oonee, which already operates a couple of larger walk-in kiosks where cyclists can securely store bikes for free at major transit hubs, wants to now begin placing smaller curbside pods in parking spaces throughout the city. The system is simple to use: After someone signs up for the app and provides proof of identity, they can unlock the door to a pod and lock their bike (or scooter) to a rack inside; the mini version can hold up to 10 bikes, along with a public bike pump. Founder Shabazz Stuart, whose own bike was stolen three times over five years, recognized that the city needed better bike storage infrastructure. Thousands of bikes are reported stolen each year in New York, and even more are stolen but never reported; thefts have increased even more during the pandemic.
If only a tiny fraction of existing car parking became secure bike parking, Stuart says, “we’d see a seismic shift in how New Yorkers are able to get around. We know New Yorkers want to use bikes and scooters. It’s just not feasible, given there’s no place to put them.”
Curbsides weren’t always dominated by cars in New York; until 1950, cars weren’t allowed to be parked overnight in Manhattan. Today, though many drivers still feel entitled to the curbside space, there’s a move to shift some of it to other uses. Some parking spaces have been taken away for bike lanes or bus lanes. During the pandemic, other parking spaces were given to restaurants for curbside dining. Some people have advocated for eliminating free street parking completely.
Stuart believes that transforming just 5% of parking spaces for more sustainable transportation would make a difference, and he’s making the case with community groups. “We believe the right way to engage the public writ large is to present a vision to communities for how public space can be used to provide benefit,” he says. “If it’s a compelling vision, community support will follow. There’s a lot of precedent for that. Bikeshare in New York City takes up parking spaces, it takes a sidewalk space, but we’ve largely come to believe that hey, this is a valuable use of space, right? We’re having a conversation right now in New York City about the curb that we haven’t really had for generations.”
Some city governments invest far more in bike parking—take the example of the Dutch city of Utrecht, where a parking garage solely for cyclists has more than 12,000 spots, along with on-site bike repair and rental and a design that leads directly to the adjacent train station. Stuart says it’s clear that American cities should invest more in infrastructure, but startups can also play a role in solving the problem.
The company sells advertising space on its larger pods, the first two of which are located at the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn and at a train station in Jersey City where riders commute into Manhattan. The ads support the system so all riders can use it for free, something that Stuart sees as critical. The business also plans to sell other services, such as bike repair. Rather than selling the units to the city, the business deploys and runs them itself.
The path, though, has been challenging. Oonee’s first location, in downtown Manhattan, had to close after the New York City Department of Transportation—which had expressed enthusiasm for the project—said that advertising wouldn’t be allowed on the unit. City governments need to be able to move more nimbly to embrace innovation, Stuart says. “If we’re going to a 21st-century environment where cities are optimized to fight climate change, where fair and egalitarian transportation alternatives are thriving, we can’t use the rulebook of yesterday,” he says.
The company, which is now part of an urban technology startup accelerator called Urban-X, is crowdsourcing suggestions about where to put the first two curbside pods, which will be sponsored by Voi, a European micromobility company. In the first day after the announcement, the company was flooded with requests from people making the case for putting the pods in their own neighborhoods.
Ultimately, Stuart envisions a network of secure bike parking throughout the city. “In order to succeed, micromobility has to be as compelling and as convenient as using the car. People can spend billions and billions of dollars on bikes and bikeshare, but until we get serious about infrastructure, we’re just a community of people who ride bikes for fun. We’re not building an ecosystem that is on par with other modes of transit. We need to start thinking about bikes and scooters and micromobility as transit, as a legitimate piece of transportation.”