Contemplating Friday: Bike and other sharing, courtesy of tech

Recently, I visited New York City. There I did a lot of walking and every now and then, as I kept a vigilant eye on the careering taxis that swept past at an alarming rate, I would startle at the sudden appearance of a bicycle.

The bicycle almost always looked the same. It was dark blue and squat and sturdy. There was a large light in the front, a metal rack instead of a basket, and fairings over the wheels and the chain, as if Hummer had made a half-hearted attempt at making a two-wheeled machine.

The riders, unlike the bikes, did not look the same; they came in many shapes and sizes but shared the half-fearful, half-fascinated look of prey animals in new territory. As these strange blue bikes appeared everywhere, it was clear someone had a monopoly, so I asked one bicyclist where the rental shop was. Everywhere, he said. It turned out that these bikes weren’t rented. They were “shared.” It was all part of a larger plan to encourage biking in New York City, and it was called Citi Bike.

Bikes are the most rudimentary of machines. But it is only recent technology that allows us to use them so creatively on such a large scale. I downloaded an app that showed the “docking stations” where the bikes could be picked up or dropped off. GPS was imbedded somewhere in the frame (no one would tell me where) so that none could be stolen. My transaction involved a kiosk and a credit card and a resulting number that I tapped into a keypad to unlock my chosen ride.

Only then did I use my own old-fashioned technology – my pedaling legs – to see Manhattan in a way I hadn’t before: at middling speed, the wind in my hair, a big smile plastered on my face, in the way of amateur bicyclists everywhere.

I had never “shared” an object in this way, except for a library book. I suddenly had a taste of what Zipcar users and freegans and Buddhist monks already understood: owning objects is stressful. I have to watch out for that object constantly, guard it from thieves, keep it from breaking. Here I had none of those worries. The bike was strong and unattractive – the machine equivalent of a bodybuilder gone to flab – so I didn’t have to worry about harming it. When I was done riding, it was locked at a docking station to be used by someone else. If I wanted another at any time it was there; coveting was unnecessary.

Technology bombards us with new products. Old items become obsolete and need to be replaced within a year. Our lives are cluttered with Stuff. But technology can lessen our load too, I thought, as I walked up to another Citi Bike docking station and pulled out my newest ride.

Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton
Caroline Paul is the author of "East Wind, Rain" and "Fighting Fire," and she co-wrote "Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation and GPS Technology" with her partner Wendy MacNaughton. MacNaughton's illustrations have appeared in The New York Times, Juxtapoz, and Print Magazine. "Lost Cat" was inspired by the curious disappearances of their beloved Tibia.
Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton
Tags: Downtime,Mobile Apps,Tech Culture,Technology