The Five Boro Bike Tour is a glorious treat for big Apple bicyclists accustomed to dodging car doors, taxis and potholes in search of skimpy unprotected bike lanes blocked by double-parked delivery trucks. Once a year, the humble urban biker is elevated to king of the road.
You set out early one morning from the Financial District for an all-day exploration of some of the city’s most fascinating nooks and crannies. You navigate wide avenues l free of motor vehicles and make your way around Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. You and your fellow cyclists enjoy free reign of some of the biggest bridges and highways, culminating with the final, challenging climb across the Verrazano bridge over New York Harbor to Staten Island. I did it more than 20 years ago and still remember shouting with joy as we coasted under the giant green reflector signs over the FDR Drive, nary a car in sight.
I was planning to do it again this May. Then I found out about the fee.
“Standard registration for adults and youths costs $129, plus processing fees, $27 of which is a tax-deductible charitable donation to Bike New York to fund our free bike education programs,” according to the Tour’s website. (Not that free.) When I did the tour two decades ago the cost was nominal, about $30. Now they’re charging $256 for two people—for a paper tag with a number on it and bottled water along the way? That’s the same as two nights in a decent hotel room, two Amtrak tickets from New York to Washington, two very nice restaurant meals, eight really good books.
$256? That ought to cover a bicycle rickshaw and someone else doing the pedaling.
What really sent me into a blind rage, however, was the tour’s Dickensian caste system: For $400 plus $84 in “processing fees,” or $968 for two people—President Biden’s “junk fees” bill comes to mind–New York’s toniest cyclists can buy “VIP” tickets. VIP status buys you “guaranteed placement in the first start wave,” a “timed climb” across the Verrazano, breakfast and lunch, and some swag. The famished peasants who can only afford $156 cool their heels as they watch the VIPers chow down and speed off in front of them.
There will be a Revolution. It will be violent. As always, the rich will go to their deaths wearing that idiotic wide-eyed “I’m totally surprised” expression. Us? Why are you so angry? What did we do?
May these overprivileged bastards tumble over their handlebars, smash their designer helmets and empty brains on the pavement, and tote their custom, limited-edition Tour-branded Manhattan Portage bags on their tumbrels to the fires of Hell.
The bike tour’s sponsors and organizers appear to have succumbed to what The New York Times reports is a new trend of “premiumization” in the corporate world. “Businesses have long segmented customers, trying to push richer ones into pricier and more profitable purchases: Think of the spacious premium seats on a plane versus the cramped economy-class alternatives. But the trend picked up during the pandemic, and the lurch toward luxury is now spanning a wider array of products and services,” according to the Times.
Consumers may fall for it, but most of us despise premiumization. A 2016 study of “air rage” found that economy passengers were 3.84 times more likely to have an air-rage outburst on planes with first-class sections, and even more likely if they had to board through first class on their way to coach.
One of the best things about biking is that it’s a proletarian pursuit. You can buy an excellent bike new for $300—even less used on eBay. Bikes are inexpensive to maintain. You can wear shorts and a T-shirt. And it’s free transportation! The tour’s gentrification of something as liberating as bicycling is a galling corruption of a small-d democratic space.
Nowadays no product or service is so humble as to be immune from attempts to subject it to hateful first-class/coach class stratification. The Times notes that Krispy Kreme plans to sell “premium specialty doughnuts” during the holidays. What are you going to ask your child to eat, our new expensive doughnuts or our old regular crappy ones? After building consumer loyalty with generic weed, legalized cannabis companies’ next step is to upsell by offering higher CBD and THC content. “WD-40, the firm that makes the lubricant of the same name, has found that customers will pay more for products with enhancements, like a can with a ‘smart straw’ to spray the lubricant in two different ways—in either a precision stream or more of a mist.”
Let the peasants lubricate imprecisely.
Premiumization has failed in amusement parks. After annoyed visitors stopped attending, Disney was forced to roll back obnoxious fees for parking at its parks and reduced the number of “premium days”—i.e., high-demand days to visit, because people find those days convenient—for which it charged extra. “In the nine months through September, attendance at [Six Flags] parks fell by 25% from the year before, spending per guest rose 22% and, in the end, profits fell by nearly 10%.”
AMC Theaters has taken heat for its plan to shunt poorer moviegoers into slum seats with poor sightlines. “The movie theater is and always has been a sacred democratic space for all and this new initiative by @AMCTheatres would essentially penalize people for lower income and reward for higher income,” tweeted the actor Elijah Wood.
In a capitalist economy, of course, democracy is an illusion. Prior to AMC’s move the best seat in the house went to whoever lined up first. Many people can’t afford to go to the movies at all. As for the bourgeois who all paid the same price to get in, some could get popcorn and Skittles while others went without. They drove different cars to get there. They went home to residences ranging from penthouses to housing projects. But Americans still value the fiction that everyone is middle class.
Money talks, fairness walks. Premiumization will vanish if and when Americans decide to Just Say No to price-gouging, upselling and stratified consumer castes. As for me, I’ll save a few hundred bucks and conduct my own personal bike tour around NYC for free, at my own convenience—with no up-charge for dodging car doors and potholes.
Until the Revolution, anyway.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the left-vs-right DMZ America podcast with fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)