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Launch of bike-sharing program fuels debate on N.Y. City streets

Tom Holaday adjusted the seat for his 6-foot, 4-inch frame, gripped the handlebars and took for a spin one of the thousands of blue bicycles that will begin appearing on New York City streets next month.

"It will change the way we think about streets," said Holaday, 59, a computer programmer on his lunch break after testing the wheels in his business suit. He was in Lower Manhattan's Battery Park on Wednesday for a demonstration of New York's bicycle-sharing program, which will become the biggest in the United States when the rollout is complete in early 2013.

Three years in the making, New York's bike sharing joins similar programs in more than 200 cities from Boston to Barcelona. It will initially be available from 59th Street to Manhattan's southern tip and into parts of Brooklyn and Queens.

All 10,000 Citigroup Inc.-branded two-wheelers at 600 solar-powered docking depots will be operational by early next year, when the rental system expands north to 79th Street and farther south into Brooklyn, city officials said.

The Citi Bike program adds to a years-long debate about New York's increasing promotion of cycling by installing special traffic lanes reserved for riders. While Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and other officials tout the safety of cycling and its health benefits, the lanes have been targets of neighborhood groups and taxi drivers, and a fascination of the local media.

The New York Post labeled the Transportation Department's attempts to expand the bike-lane network a money-wasting "crazed campaign" backed by cycling-advocate groups and their "stooges."

A New York magazine cover story titled "Bikelash" detailed a months-long legal -- and ultimately failed -- attempt to rid a historic Brooklyn thoroughfare of its cycling lanes.

People like Holaday, who says he will use a Citi Bike to commute home uptown or run errands, are expected to be the primary users. An annual membership will cost $95 for 45-minute rides, while a 24-hour one will cover 30-minute rides for $9.95. Longer trips are discouraged: The system will charge additional, escalating fees past those set time limits.

Private companies, not taxpayers, are behind the funding for the program: Citigroup, the New York-based bank, is contributing $41 million to be the chief sponsor and namesake of the program, and MasterCard Inc. is behind the $6.5 million payment system.

Chris Johannesen, who rides recreationally near his home in Queens, said the bike-share will succeed only if riders feel safe on the streets.

"I love to bike in the city, personally, though I feel like it's more dangerous for some people than others," Johannesen, 34, said on his lunch break in Times Square this week. "If people don't feel safe riding the bikes in the city, then it may never take off."

Mike Ray, a manager at Ray Beauty Supply on Eighth Avenue, said he was concerned that the lanes are hurting business. They've cut on down on parking and hindered the ability of delivery trucks to access his storefront, he said.

"New York City was never designed for biking," he said.