POSTED BY KATIA BACHKO
NOVEMBER 2, 2012
Source: The New Yorker
This week, as the city was dealing with a sudden lack of public transit, I Gchatted with one colleague stuck in Brooklyn, I urged her to get on her bike and get into the New Yorker office, in Times Square. “Haha,” she replied, “but no.”
My initial response was of dismissive judgment. Why not? The Mayor wasn’t helping, either. In his Wednesday press conference, Bloomberg enacted H.O.V. restrictions in Manhattan, but didn’t say a word about bikes. Cycling infrastructure has been rapidly expanding in the city, and on a day that promised and delivered epic congestion, with lines for gas stretching for blocks on end, it seemed like an ideal opportunity for new cyclists to navigate the city by bike. But, when I set out from Times Square toward my apartment near Columbia University that evening, I was quickly reminded that riding in New York requires savvy, as well as time to build up confidence. I understood why the mayor didn’t urge thousands of New Yorkers onto their bikes.
I’ve had a gentle learning curve when it comes to riding a bike in the city. When I was ten, I was allowed to ride my red Huffy around the streets of Bay Ridge with my crew from P.S. 229. Our parents’ rules confined us to a square mile of turf that included our school, Dyker Heights park, and our respective homes. Sometimes we would venture farther away and to test our bikes on the hilly perimeter of the nearby golf course, or we would cross over the Belt Parkway and gawk at the Verrazano Bridge. The neighborhood had wide sidewalks and slow traffic, and it was an ideal place to develop that very necessary conviction that every cyclist requires: my bike and I have a right to be here.
More than a decade later, after high school in a hilly suburb called Summit—no bikes—I moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and eventually got back on my bike. This time, the only rules were self-imposed, and sometimes broken. I would wear a helmet and not ride after too many drinks. I rode my bike around McCarren Park, along the industrial hinterlands of Greenpoint, and all the way down to Prospect Park. It was 2003, years before the New York transportation commissioner Jannette Sadik-Khan’s expansion of the bike-lane network in the city. It was also the pre-iPhone era, so one’s map of Brooklyn had to be either internalized or improvised. This turned every bicycle journey into a two-wheel meander. One knew that Dumbo, for instance, was south and east of Williamsburg, but how far south, how far east, and how to accommodate for the peculiar curvature of the borough’s waterfront had to be worked out on the move.
Five years later, when I lived in Park Slope and every one of my friends had relocated to Brooklyn, cycling entered its urban renaissance. Sadik-Khan took office and began claiming road space for a vast web of bike lanes. It was faster to ride from Park Slope to Fort Greene than to wait for the G train, and it was more fun. Governors Island opened and welcomed throngs of cyclists who could explore its roads and trails without fear of cars. Celebrate Brooklyn concerts in Prospect Park even had free bike-valet parking. And, then, as my thirties neared, I found myself living in Manhattan after a decade in the boroughs. Just off Riverside Drive, I now had instant access to the Hudson River Greenway, a fully protected bike path that follows the river from the tip of the island up into Harlem. I also had an elevator, and it turned out that our apartment had another key feature. “Which unit are you in?” my boyfriend and I were asked repeatedly by our neighbors as we were schlepping our boxes up the stairs. When we replied, the response was frequently tinged with envy. “Oh, you have that great closet.” Indeed. Our apartment has a narrow, triangular storage space that perfectly fits two bicycles.
But while my life has led me gradually to true bicycle nirvana, I sometimes forget how long it took to get here, and how far the city still has to go. On my way home on Wednesday, when the subways weren’t running, I found myself in a crowded bike lane on Eighth Avenue fighting for space with pedestrians and moms with double strollers. The sidewalks were overflowing with people as traffic crawled alongside. I was joined by newbie cyclists who weren’t ready to navigate the crowded street, and how could they be? Bike-route signage is scant and hard to follow. As the protected bike lane on Eight Avenue merges into Columbus Circle, an uptown-bound rider is meant to circumnavigate the plaza and link up with the bike path along Central Park West. Good luck doing that when the circle is a parking lot. Drivers use bike lanes as parking spaces; the runners use them for wind sprints. Taxis swerve into pick up pedestrians and doors swing open, endangering cyclists. The advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives was out at the bridges encouraging bikers, and it set up a resource page at to help new riders get oriented.
And, yet, despite all the hassles for bikers, my ride home along Central Park West was the superior way to travel. (In Brooklyn, too, the New York Timesfound newbie cyclists taking to the road for the first time.) As I rode, I spied dozens of black town cars ever so slowly ferrying lone passengers, as long lines of commuters craned their necks waiting for the next bus. What a lifesaver the stalled bike-share program CitiBike could have been for New Yorkers without elevators and bike closets. Still, it’s not quite Amsterdam here. Everyone, including operators of both two- and four-wheeled vehicles, needs to learn to share the road. And we need better infrastructure and urban planning that prioritizes pedestrians and cyclists above drivers. Cycling fatalities remain high and under-investigated. In the private sector, building owners should offer some bike-storage amenities, in both residential and office buildings. This week, the lovely security team at 4 Times Square let bikes into the freight elevator so that they could be stashed safely in the office. On the way up, the elevator operator talked about a three-hour commute from Ridgewood into Manhattan. “I gotta get me a bike,” he said looking wistfully at mine.
After a subway-less Wednesday, Thursday saw the return of trains to the Upper West Side. Still, on Thursday morning, I climbed back on my bike and rode in solidarity with those who may not have a choice about the matter for the coming days. After all, it’s going to take cyclists riding through the city, day after day, to help usher in the change the streets need so that the learning curve for each new rider is a little gentler.
Photograph by Adrian Fussell/Reportage by Getty Images.