When New Yorker Shabazz Stuart kept getting his bike stolen, the avid cyclist and public infrastructure enthusiast knew there had to be a better way, so he created one. Now, Shabazz’s startup of free, secure bike parking is beginning a transit revolution — including right here in Hell’s Kitchen.
Powered by Shabazz’s company Oonee, innovative upright bike parking pods are now available by Port Authority at W42nd Street just west of 8th Avenue, and across the city at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Atlantic Terminal, Grand Central and more. Advertisements fund the pods and are free to use, providing city cyclists with a safe way to store their vehicles — a need that Shabazz discovered while commuting to work at the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership.
“I had a problem — my bike was stolen five times,” Shabazz told W42ST. “I had always wanted to develop the solution to an obvious problem, and this was it — it’s a pain point that every cyclist feels.” The Tufts University graduate and Department of Education (DOE) alumnus started to pitch a business plan for a new kind of bike storage, “Everyone warned me that this was a crazy, terrible, business idea,” said Shabazz. “Everyone said, ‘you’d have to be a glutton for punishment to do this,’ but when people say that to me, I decide that I want to do it more.”
Shabazz and co-founder Manuel Mansylla started knocking on doors at parking garages and other property owners, asking to set up shop in exchange for a paid bike parking structure, “The garage owners were just not interested,” Shabazz said. The pair pivoted to looking at public spaces, working with the Department of Transportation to find space at the city’s public transit centers.
“This is where working with the Downtown Brooklyn BID came in handy,” Shabazz said. There were a few speed bumps, however. “Frankly, our first experience working with the DOT under the de Blasio administration was a disaster,” he added. “They almost put us out of business – at one point I think we had $2,000 in our bank account.” But they refused to give up, and turned to Twitter and local community advocates to tell their story.
“We got on Twitter with the explicit purpose of trying to convince the de Blasio administration to take us seriously,” said Shabazz, “we were able to get [then Council Member] Corey Johnson, along with Keith Powers, Antonio Reynoso and Eric Adams to build a coalition of grassroots support.” In 2018, the first Oonee pod launched in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and plans for a Midtown station at Port Authority soon followed.
When it came to planning their Midtown terminal, the team turned to CHEKPEDS founder and pedestrian advocate Christine Berthet for guidance. “Christine Berthet is formidable,” said Shabazz, “and when Christine Berthet is impressed, that is something you can take to the bank!” Berthet, along with other community members, helped guide the team from their originally planned site to instead settle on the busy area near the Citi Bike racks at W42nd Street near 8th Avenue, and they plan to soon install a second location nearby.
But what do hardened New Yorkers think of their new bike parking pods? “The reaction has been so strong – no one likes anything in New York, and we have been hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t like it!” laughed Shabazz. One key reason that Oonee has quickly become a fan favorite is the company’s commitment to keeping their service free for all New Yorkers, he added.
“When you look at companies that play a role in New York’s streetscape, they’re largely operated by white dudes from the suburbs,” said Shabazz. “I think that if you want innovation that works for New Yorkers, it should also be led by New Yorkers. When we first started, we were getting a lot of pressure from investors to charge $5, $10 bucks a month — we knew if we did that, the users would immediately start to skew whiter and wealthier, and New York is a majority-minority city.”
With plans to continue expanding Oonee pods across the city and beyond, Shabazz believes sticking to a free, inclusive option for cyclists would solve his far-too-common problem once and for all. “This is something that every New Yorker deserves to have access to,” he said. “Whether it’s a pod, a dock, or it’s inside a building, every New Yorker should have access to secure bike parking and bike charging.”