Saturday, February 25, 2012

What Bike New York’s Not Telling Us About the New, Improved Five Boro Bike Tour

It was the last day of lottery registration for the 2012 Five Boro Bike Tour—the annual event in which thousands of cyclists enjoy the thrill of cruising, albeit slowly, along carless roads, including the East River Drive and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge—and Bike New York, which runs the tour, had emailed me once again to remind me of the fact.

They sure wanted my $6—a nonrefundable fee just to be in the lottery—but they weren't going to get it.

Bike New York billed their new lottery, which would-be riders could enter from January 17 through February 7, as a “more fair and equitable chance of participating” than was the first-come-first-served system of the past that last year shut out anyone who didn’t bother to enter on the day registration opened. They even claimed to have instituted it because of “popular demand.”

But the brilliant thing about the lottery is that there’s no limit on the number of would-be riders from whom Bike New York can collect those $6 fees.

The tour is capped at 32,000 riders. Since that figure includes riders for charity who are required to raise a minimum of $750 and VIPs who pay $300, presumably the lottery slots will be limited to somewhat fewer, say, 30,000. If the lottery attracted 60,000 entries, that’s an extra $180,000 for Bike New York—not exactly chump change, though lottery losers may feel like chumps when they get their rejection emails a few weeks later.

In media coverage, Bike New York has disingenuously presented the lottery as a positive incentive to attract bicycling tourists. “The new lottery system will be promoted locally, nationally and abroad,” wrote Lisa Fickenscher in Crain’s New York last November.

But the truth is—and Bike New York hasn’t said a public word about this—out-of-towners did’t need the lottery, as long as they joined the right tour or meet-up group.

Velo Quebec Voyages is offering up to 200 cyclists who sign up before March 9 packages starting at $585 that include participation in the tour.

Last December 23, announced as Breaking News! “We have scored tickets for the 5 Boro Bike Tour in NYC and have reserved some rooms!”

In January I learned from a friend about a group in Virginia that had been promised guaranteed registration if the leader could pay Bike New York registration money for at least 20 riders by Friday, January 13. Twenty-eight of them signed up.

Last weekend, when friends from Boston said they had gotten in, I found myself wondering how.

The Five Boro Bike Tour has come a long way from its origins in 1977 as a day trip for 250 riders, sponsored by American Youth Hostels, to give high school students practice in bike safety. And its fees have come a long way as well, nearly doubling from $42 to $80.88 (including a required service charge) between 2007 and 2011—and now adding a fee imposed on local lottery losers as well as winners.

It seems that Bike New York has a new vision for the tour, not as a grassroots event, filled mainly with New York cyclists, but as a destination for affluent tourists—folks who can afford $550 for a two-night minimum at the Marriott New York Downtown, the only lodging recommendation listed on the organization’s website.

In his history of the tour on the Bike New York website, Steve Bauman concludes “the Tour has become a much-beloved springtime tradition for its participants—yet it still retains the simplicity and friendliness of the first ride.”

It’s just that the registration process is a little complicated and unfriendly—especially to locals.

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