DSNY Needs to Devise a Better Fix for NYC’s Abandoned Bike Problem

Unusable, forgotten bikes are mainstays of the NYC streetscape, hogging bike parking for months and even years before they meet the Department of Sanitation’s standards for removal. DSNY has proposed a rule change to loosen its criteria, but advocates say it doesn’t go far enough to solve the city’s abandoned bike problem.

Despite 311 calls requesting its removal, this dilapidated bike has never even been tagged by DSNY for removal. Photo: Recycle-A-Bicycle
Despite 311 calls alerting DSNY to this abandoned bike in Greenpoint, the agency never even tagged it for removal. Photo: Recycle-A-Bicycle

Reports of abandoned bikes have increased 43 percent this year compared to 2015, according to 311 data made available by the city. But DSNY will only remove a derelict bike after it’s reported via 311 — and only if it meets three of the following criteria:

  • It is “crushed or not usable”
  • It is missing parts
  • It has a flat or missing tires
  • It has damaged handlebars or pedals
  • At least 75 percent of the bike rusted

Under current rules, staff check on a bike once it has been reported via 311 and tag it for removal if it meets the criteria. If the tag is not removed by an owner within one week, the bike gets impounded.

DSNY’s proposed change would lower the threshold for removal from three criteria to two and lower the rust threshold to 50 percent [PDF]. Additionally, “flat or missing tires” would no longer be one of the criteria for removal.

DSNY held a hearing on the rule change August 9 and must now determine how to proceed. Advocates and elected officials who testified at the hearing don’t think the proposal will improve matters much.

Recycle-A-Bicycle Executive Director Karen Overton, who testified at the hearing, said even the new criteria will leave countless abandoned bikes rotting away on sidewalks.

Overton and Recycle-A-Bicycle conducted their own evaluation of the city’s current practice. They found that when DSNY responds to abandoned bike reports and marks the corresponding 311 request as “complete,” that does not necessarily mean the reported bike has been removed.

Recycle-A-Bicycle asked New Yorkers to report abandoned bikes to the city and monitor whether they were tagged or removed by DSNY. Of the 26 bikes identified, some hadn’t been moved in years. One person who volunteered, for instance, said the blue Schwinn below has been reported repeatedly for three years and never even been tagged by.

This blue Schwinn on President Street in Park Slope has been locked to the same pole for three years. Photo: Recycle-A-Bicycle
This blue Schwinn in Park Slope has been locked to the same pole for three years. Photo: Recycle-A-Bicycle

“What we learned is that they will say ‘complete,’ but all they do theoretically is they go out and look at it, and maybe they assess it,” Overton told Streetsblog. “No matter what they do, if they do nothing, you can’t tell because all they say [in city records] is completed.”

Recycle-A-Bicycle has a different proposal. It proposes a system where DSNY would remove bikes that meet one “automatic” criterion (crushed or bent frame, missing front fork or crankset, two missing wheels, or one missing wheel and a visibly damaged second wheel) or any two of the following:

  • Parts missing other than seat and front wheel
  • Two flat tires or missing both tires
  • Bent handlebars, pedals, fork, or rims
  • Inoperable chain due to rust, and 50 percent or more of the bike is rusted

“The Department’s approach to this challenge has historically lacked the element of common sense required for timely action, good governance, and effective management of the city streetscape,” Overton said in her testimony. “Unfortunately, the proposed rule changes do not take us as far as needed to address this challenge.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office also conducted a study. Staff identified 378 bicycles in the area south of 14th Street that “appeared to be derelict,” of which 284 would qualify for removal under DSNY’s proposed criteria, compared to 188 under the current system. In her testimony, Brewer suggested that keeping flat or missing tires on the list of criteria could bring that number up to 355 [PDF].

A DSNY spokesperson would not provide a timeline for a final decision on the proposed changes. Once the new rules have been determined, they’ll need approval from the city’s Law Department, according the spokesperson, after which there is a 30-day waiting period before they take effect.