NYC Might Not be a Great Place for Bikers. But it’s a Great Place to Bike.

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A cyclist crosses the Williamsburg Bridge.

Pearl Gabel

A cyclist crosses the Williamsburg Bridge.

“It’ll be hard to go back to bike commuting in New York after being here,” said the guy in the Boulder bike shop. He meant it as a welcome to his town, but I think he might do well to visit mine. It’s not relaxing to be a bike commuter in New York, but the challenges I meet while slicing through the boroughs bind me to the city’s problems, and strengthen my resolve to surmount them.

Now, my family and I grooved on the bike network in Boulder. The Colorado university town provides (I heard more than once) 300 miles of car-free paths, including a showcase that follows Boulder Creek from an upscale mall through the heart of town into the canyon beyond. But after a few days coursing past ducks, waterfalls and undergrads rolling inner-tubes, I confess I felt a rush when I saw construction workers laying orange cones on my ramp up the Manhattan Bridge.

Boulder’s bike network puts cyclists and pedestrians on equal footing with drivers, while New York’s network puts cyclists on a collision course with Medi-Vans, double-parked refrigerated trucks, double-wide potholes and doubletalk advertising.

(To be fair, New York riders are not warned by signs to “climb to safety” in the event of flood or to think through a puma attack, like their counterparts in Boulder. Though I have swerved to avoid late-night rats on Montgomery Street.)

New York has drawn attention in the past five years for striping more lanes for bikes and adding a bike-share network amid the clatter of its streets. However, it largely lacks Boulder’s off-road access to nature and the associated ease of traveling from home to work without bumping against a car. You can manage this if your commute logically takes you along a river or through a flagship park, but even then— as with most “escapes” in Gotham—you’ll find yourself elbow-width from many others with the same good luck. And New York’s dedicated bike lanes often have to share space with delivery trucks heading to Chinatown or SUVsters inching to the Williamsburg Bridge to take folks to the airport.

Cyclists in New York get to see the city up close and personal: its cacophony and diversity; its dizzying extremes of poverty and wealth. We are intimately familiar with the urban heat island effect, which grows stronger with the warming planet. Through it all, we wriggle, tilt, reconsider and–on our sharper days—smile at the drivers we pass. We’re all just trying to get where we’re going.

In Boulder, by contrast, cyclists can seem to live in a parallel universe. They roll along the creek, past the student reaching for her Econ textbook from her hammock, alongside the library and up to the mountains. The problems of 21st century cities—affordable housing, inequality, climate change— feel seductively easy to defeat.

Maybe I’ve just lived here too long, but I can’t help thinking that New York riders’ daily forced negotiation with traffic ends up stitching each carbon-free commute into the rider’s idea of urban fabric. Committing to bikes where bikes must stay on the margin builds skillful steering, and maybe builds the case for peaceful co-existence with drivers, too. In this way, cycling can become part of our shared vision for a resilient, equitable urban future.

Turns out, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, a social liberal of the sort popular in Boulder bumper stickers, shares that vision. As part of a strategy for reducing social vulnerability, the De Blasio administration has proposed doubling of the number of cyclists in the city by 2020s.

Do I miss Boulder Creek? Sure. I miss it acutely when I’m skeetering through an intersection ahead of a turning van, or slipping past a pedestrian staring at her phone while crossing against the light. But I pedal on, knowing I’m sending a message each time I brake at a red light or offer a peace sign to a driver who comes within a finger’s length from hitting my frame.

The excitement I feel comes from believing our urban failures can shrink– and that more cyclists and walkers can by fiat bring about new ways to reconcile trucks, parking spaces, and storefronts to the carbon-free future. Staying friendly through potholes and tie-ups, and getting home on time— that’s resilient. So is building a bike network where there’s hardly any roadway to spare.

I smiled at the guy in the bike shop as he praised his city’s 300 miles of carbon-free commuting. It would be easy to bike commute again in New York, I told him, because there’s something stirring about showing that it’s possible. He nodded deeply, his fringy beard going up and down and his eyes serious. “I had never thought of it that way,” he said.

I had never thought it possible to build a city around biking until I visited Boulder, and I’m glad to know of it. I’m gladder, though, that every day teaches me new paths to co-existence and new problems to ponder as I pedal. The hard return to New York bike commuting means doubling down on the idea that any city can become a low-carbon city, on terms that work for everyone.

Alec Appelbaum writes and teaches about how cities can use democracy to address the stresses of climate change. He teaches at Pratt institute and is building an urban-design curriculum for young people at AllBeforeUs.com. He really does respect red lights.

  • qrt145

    Bicycling is the worst form of commuting in New York City… except for all the others.

  • An interesting comparison. But, to be honest, I as a New York bike commuter and pleasure rider absolutely don’t want to live in a bucolic “parallel universe”. I like city riding; I want to know that I am in a city. Hell, even the Hudson River Greenway bothers me a bit because it feels so remote from the actual city.

    The point is that these are our streets; if we as bicyclists cede them completely to cars, that would be a defeat, not a victory. An occasional trip on a countrified road is nice, I suppose. I have ridden 9W; it’s pleasant to do that now and then (if you can get past the culture shock of seeing deer roadkill). But the essence of bike-riding is city-street riding, of navigating our street grid.

    Furthermore, I think that you overstate the hassles of bike commuting. Of course we deal with clueless, arrogant, incompetent, over-entitled drivers. But the proliferation of bike lanes has (despite the flaws of some of these lanes) resulted in profound change. I live in Queens; and I first biked in Manhattan in 1981. The difference is stark — conditions now in comparison to then are so good that they would have been unimaginable to anyone back then.

    Right now there are some streets with protected bike lanes, some streets with painted bike lanes, and some streets with sharrows (the latter two forms embodying the flaws to which I alluded above). On top of this, we must realise that bike lanes create a benefit in the aggregate: they make drivers expect bicyclists by announcing to all drivers that we exist. (Even sharrows, which are derided as useless by many bicyclists, contribute to this effect.) Bike lanes thus improve conditions everywhere, even on streets that don’t have them.

    The existence of bike lanes also drives a deeper cultural shift: the normalisation of bicycling. Little by little, bicycling inches closer to the mainstream. This helps attract new riders, who see the objective benefits of riding, with less liklihood of being dissuaded by a diminshing stigma.

    We see the effect of this cultural shift every time we roll our bikes into a bodega to buy a drink, without the owner so much as lifting an eyebrow. When I was a kid, doing this was impossible; later on it became possible sometimes, but only if you charmed your way in and moved fast; now it is commonplace. Nowadays I bring my bike into bodegas, supermarkets, drugstores, and even into my dentist’s office. The height of this phenomenon occurred when I was peering into the window of a high-end cap store called Flight Club on Broadway and 11th Street, figuring that they’d never let me bring the bike in there. But, to my surprise, a store employee actually invited me in with my bike! And the same thing happened at the New Era store downtown.

    This is what civilisation looks like! When people can feel free to go anywhere in their city by bike, and can roll the bike into various stores while making a purchase, then you know you have a good thing going. And we in New York right now have a very good thing going.

    The challenge now is to defend it and to not mess it up. And that’s why I really thank you for mentioning that you stop at red lights. I do, as well; and I get very angry when I see cyclists who blow reds. Of course bikes are not cars; and of course it is very annoying to be subject to nonsensical rules that were designed without taking account of bikes. But the fact remains that the current law is what it is; and we have an obligation to follow even the stupid laws while we lobby to change them.

    Indeed, the stupid laws will change only when we get legislators who feel comfortable enough to align themselves with bicyclists’ interests. But this will never happen so long as bicyclists insist on publicly flouting the law, thereby sowing ill will amongst the general public. When people witness unlawful behaviour on the part of bicyclists, such as blowing red lights and riding in the wrong direction, this results in dinner-table conversations about “those crazy bicyclists”. This, in turn, hardens the positions of the existing bike-haters, and creates ever more enemies, provoking complaints to the police and to elected officials. Ultimately, bicyclists who blow red lights are mounting a public campaign for the removal of our bike infrastructure. So I am pleased to read that you are not one of them.

    Speaking as someone who rides all year, who loves biking in New York for pleasure (well over 6500 miles ridden last year; more than 1100 this past July alone), and who commutes every day, I say that we are living right now through a kind of golden age of bicycling in our great city. Certainly things can always get better; and we should push for that. But we should do this by trying to get more bicyclists onto our vibrant New York streets where they belong, not by pining for Boulder and its separated bike network.

    • Alexander Vucelic

      what I most enjly is seeing 10-15 cyclists parked at a red light being a mix of hipsters, middle aged women, 20 something lovelies, blue collar types, and young guys in suits riding when the light turns green at a calm pace.

      its tough to give up the Wild West riding style for us old guys; but we are learning

      • I, too, used to ride “Wild-West style”, not stopping at red lights, and going the wrong way on streets if it pleased me. That’s the way I grew up. There was no risk of being ticketed. More important, there was no ethical dimension because we bicyclists weren’t being accommodated to any degree; we existed outside the social contract.

        All this changed with Bloomberg. As the bike lanes appeared, and as it became clear that Bloomberg was serious about them, I had to alter my practice. Bicyclists’ interests were now being taken seriously; we were now at the table. This created a strategic imperative to protect our position by not abusing the great new infrastructure that we had been given.

        More profoundly, the Bloomberg advancements changed the moral calculus. For the first time, the social contract applied to us. To demand accommodation without agreeing to do our part by behaving properly would be morally indefensible.

        Of course I realise that there will always be idiots and sociopaths on the street who have no conception of this responsibility. But, when ostensibly thoughtful riders offer self-serving rationalisations for shirking our civic duty and ignoring the law, that is particularly galling.

        So I am gratified to read that you understand the need to curb the practices that we grew up with, on account of the new reality in which we find ourselves.

        • Alexander Vucelic

          true – it took mean a few years of protected bike lanes to change from being a cowboy ( remeber 6th avenue during Rush hour racing buses and cabs saloming like a skier ) to a

          mature calm riding pace of 8-12 MPH

          cycling as a perfectly normal, dull, boring method of transport !!!

          I ride a junky 3 speed now and rarely use 3rd gear. And I am happier than ever.

          • Joe R.

            There are still plenty of situations where it might make sense to highball. If you’re going a long way, on mostly empty streets, there’s no good reason not go at whatever pace you can sustain. Same thing on greenways. I’ve gotten close to 30 mph on the Belt Parkway Greenway, for example. Part of the joy of cycling, for me anyway, is the speed. That’s especially true at night when it feels twice as fast as during the day.

            I’ve ridden my late father’s junky old 3-speed. That bike is a chore to ride, at any speed. Even if you plan on riding slow, a good bike makes sense since it requires less effort at any given speed. I creep up to 16 or 17 mph on my current bike just letting the weight of my feet push the pedals down. It seems almost effortless.

            Incidentally, it’s still the so-called Wild West in the outer boroughs. I find the only way I can survive when the roads are crowded is drafting large vehicles and then going whatever speed the traffic is moving. It’s stressful, which is largely why I prefer riding when the streets are nearly empty.

          • Alexander Vucelic

            Joe,

            I agree the speed of riding depends very much so on local conditions. Lower Manhattan is a different landscape than Queens for riding.

            When are you and I going to do that demonstration ride on the BQE ? certain to garner some attention and press

          • Joe R.

            I’d love to arrange for something like that where maybe the city gives cyclists at least a lane on a highway, perhaps even one side, for an entire day. That would be lots of fun, and I would certainly be game for it.

            As things stand now, if/when I can afford a velomobile, I’d be half tempted to take it on the Long Island Expressway, even if it wasn’t closed to cars. 😉

        • Joe R.

          More profoundly, the Bloomberg advancements changed the moral calculus. For the first time, the social contract applied to us. To demand accommodation without agreeing to do our part by behaving properly would be morally indefensible.

          I’ll take issue with this because you’re failing to account for the government’s social contract to implement safety in the least obstrusive way possible. If traffic signals only went red when a pedestrian or vehicle was crossing, and not for a moment longer, then I would philosophically agree with you. However, I would say as a citiwide average traffic signals are red for no reason whatsoever 95% of the time, perhaps even 99% of the time. The technology exists to easily fix this in the form of pedestrian and vehicle detectors. If the city refuses to do so, then it holds people’s time in contempt. In effect, the city is stealing from you every time it requires you to stop at a red light when the intersection is empty. This is why I feel cyclists and pedestrians don’t violate any social contract by passing red lights when nothing is crossing. Another reason I feel this way in NYC has chosen to optimize our streets and traffic signal timings for motor vehicles. Again, this results in effectively stealing from pedestrians and cyclists who often will take 2 or 3 times as long to get where they’re going as a result. I’m not OK with governments robbing people. This is exactly what they’re doing here. If your ten mile commute takes 20 minutes longer each way then the government is stealing over 3 hours from you at whatever your hourly rate is. For me, that would be north of $300 a week.

          Bottom line—cyclists will gladly stop for red lights when they actually mean something. By the same token, any cyclist NOT stopping once the traffic signals are fixed will rightfully earn the wrath of everyone else since they really will be creating a safety issue, or at best usurping someone else’s lawful right-of-way. Not so under our current infrastructure, where 95+% of the time a cyclist passing a red line causes no safety or other issues whatsoever.

      • Joe R.

        Funny thing is I’ve never seen this the times I’ve gone to Manhattan. Last time was in the early and mid afternoon. The bike lanes were practically empty, and the few cyclists I saw weren’t bothering to stop at red lights.

        Seeing a bunch of cyclists parked at a red light is anathema to my sensibilities on many levels. A bike and rider is a beautiful thing. It’s meant to be in motion. It’s only serving its purpose if it is in motion, much like a bird is only really being a bird when it’s flying. If bikes have to stop repeatedly then the system is a failure. The bikeway designers didn’t do their job. I see stopped bikes and that line “Robin red breast in a cage sets all heaven in a rage” comes to mind. Nothing “urban” or good about seeing lots of stopped bikes. I think needless delay and needless waste of energy. NYC will really be a mature biking city when DOT realizes what the Dutch do, which is the need to keep bikes moving. Until then, we’re just another half-assed wannabee.

        • Alexander Vucelic

          10% of roadway users in CBD are cyclists these days. Something on order of 100,000 to 200,000 cyclists per day in CBD

    • Joe R.

      I think you kind of miss the point of infrastructure like the Hudson River greenway (and my own idea of elevated bikeways). The idea here isn’t to make you feel remote from the city, nor are such things at odds with urban cycling. The idea is to let you go from wherever you’re going to whatever part of the city you enjoy being in without dealing with all the hassle in between. In effect, such infrastructure ultimately gets more people on city streets simply because getting there from all over the city is now much easier and faster. Remember ultimately you get off the greenway or elevated bikeway and back on to regular streets. I think of the utility of this to people like myself. I might find riding into Manhattan interesting. I might enjoy doing some sightseeing by bike instead of on foot since I can cover much more ground. However, what’s stopping me is the aggravating, stressful, lengthy, at times dangerous trip to get there. In terms of distance, midtown Manhattan isn’t all that far from me, perhaps 10 miles. But those are 10 hard miles. By the time I’d get to Manhattan, I’m already exhausted and stressed out, to the point I probably just would want to turn around and go home, not stick around to see the sights. Now if I could do most of those ten miles on a stress-free bike highway, without cars, pedestrians, or stopping, at whatever pace I felt like riding, suddenly this is a trip I might do often, even a few times a week.

      I understand your point about city riding to some extent. However, on most of the ride from my place to Manhattan there’s little of interest I would care to see anyway. I just want get out of Queens and over the bridge as rapidly as my legs can carry me. I can slowdown and do the sightseeing when I get to Manhattan. That’s the point of greenways and similar infrastructure. The vast majority of utility cyclists have an origin and a set destination. They’re not out to poke along and sight see, at least until they get where they’re going.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    cycling commuter on and off in Manhattan since 1986; last few years have been a joy. Lower Manhattan is approaching Danish levels of bike traffic on roadway. Even the UWS & UES have cyclists everywhere. This results in a virtuous cycle (sic) of drivers being more careful, cyclists being more careful, attracting more cyclists, drivers being even more careful, ….

    • AnoNYC

      It’s not just the CBD, the boroughs are seeing an enormous growth in bicycling.

      • Alexander Vucelic

        great – where exactly ??

        • AnoNYC

          This is anecdotal, but I’ve noticed significantly more bicycle activity in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan. It’s most noticeable along arteries and bottlenecks like the Harlem and Bronx River Bridges.

          • Alexander Vucelic

            the times I ride north of 110th I’ve noticed it also, especially around commuting times

  • Sam Holler

    Not sure that Boulder should inspire confidence in defeating the problems of affordable housing and inequality. It has grown vastly more affluent and isolated since I grew up there in the 1990s, in part, by paying lip service to ‘livability’ aspects of urbanism like bike lanes and bioswales while actively pushing up against proposals to stabilize rents and build affordable housing that make for diverse, equitable urban life.