On the Tuesday after Labor Day, for the first time in a year, I rode my bike to work. It rained on the morning commute, and in the evening there was a sustained headwind, the last remnant of Tropical Storm Hermine. But the physical challenges paled next to the mental one – the effort not to flinch every time I saw a car.
There’s a reason for my fear of cars, the same reason I hadn’t been on a bike in a year. On September 1, 2015, on my way home from work, I got doored by a cab. I was in a bike lane. The impact of the car door sent me flying. I have no memory between the split second of terror when I realized I was about to be hit and then lying there on the pavement. I had bruises and cuts on both knees, a big bruise on the inside of my thigh, scratches on my left arm and one on my right cheek. But it was my hands that really hurt.
“Are you OK? Are you OK?” the people around me were asking.
“I don’t know,” I said testily. I was still on my back, trying to figure it out.
The woman who had opened the cab door kept saying, “I’m so sorry.” She gave me 16 bucks to take a cab home – a different cab. The cab that had hit me drove off soon after the crash. The ride home cost $21.
It was the first of many additional expenses. I could not use either hand. There was the visit to the urgent care center. Then the hand specialist. MRIs. Surgery. Occupational therapy. Somewhere in April, the insurance cut me off and stopped covering the therapy. I was far from healed. I’m still not fully recovered.
The wonders of professional-grade voice recognition software enabled me to keep working, but pretty much everything else in my life – and my spouse’s – was upended. For months, Carol had to do all the food shopping, cooking, cleaning, and laundry. After the surgery, I needed her help to take a shower. For six weeks, she tied and untied my shoelaces every day.
Going to the gym was out of the question. So was riding a bike. A core part of my identity, as a recreational athlete, was sidelined along with my fitness. I gained weight.
In the spring the occupational therapist gave me the green light to try biking again. “10 minutes,” he said, “do not ride your bike to work!” So I went around the block a few times; using the brakes hurt.
It hurt less as the weeks went on. By mid-summer I deemed my hands able to handle my full 12-mile commute.
My mind, however, was a whole other matter. I was terrified of cars. I was hyper-aware of them as lethal machines – big boxes of tons of steel, moving at deadly speeds, operated by people with varying degrees of paying attention. Every car door I saw was a potential force that could bat me out into traffic, where I could get run over by another car.
These fears are not entirely unreasonable, as anyone with passing familiarity with NYC traffic knows. But my anxiety as I faced traffic this summer was a disproportionate if understandable response, and I knew that that was a safety risk as well. So I resolved to slowly re-acclimate myself to cars. I started a series of mental rehab training rides on Broadway between Dyckman and 165th.
Some rides were easier than others. Over time, I think it got a little easier. I think. But by Labor Day I was still afraid I’d be killed every time I got on the bike, and I finally came to the conclusion that it was just time to do it and ride to work.
So on September 6 I wove my way from 215th Street in Inwood down to my office at Bleecker and Broadway, and back again 10 hours later. My body remembered the route from years of habit – I call it the I Love NY ride: down the Harlem River, Frederick Douglas Blvd., past the Apollo Theatre, through Central Park, past the New York Public Library, through Union Square – but it had been so long that some of the details were forgotten. Like exactly how fast to go as I rolled across 155th Street in order to hit a green light when I reached 145th and Edgecomb. Or what gear I used for each of the hills in Central Park.
I noticed that the basketball-sized sinkhole was still there on Central Park West between 107th and 108th… but now it had some lovely weeds growing in it. And on the way home, I also noticed the new protected bike lane on 6th Avenue.
When I got home I felt triumphant but tired. It took all of my mental discipline to keep my fear tamped down enough to ride safely, focusing on the real conditions and threats rather than freaking out.
I love New York City. I love riding in the city. I even love (a little) some of the crazy that comes with it – the fact that I have to stop for geese sometimes on the Harlem River bike path, film crews shooting the latest episode of Law & Order SVU, the horse manure slalom in Central Park, athletes of every stripe and ability training in the park, people sitting out on the library steps eating lunch. It’s Walt Whitman’s New York – “The blab of the pave…. the tires of carts and sluff of bootsoles and talk of the promenaders” – alive with people on the streets, in the streets.
But why does it take a heroic effort to be able to commute by bike? Why, when our capitalist-driven consumption is choking the planet to death, do zero-emission cyclists have to take their lives in their hands dodging CO2-spewing cars?
Giving in to fear cures nothing. I know I have to fight through my fears and claim my space on the city streets.
I also know that we have to raise our voices collectively and protest and demand improvement. The week after that first ride back to work, I joined hundreds of others at a mass bike ride to protest the rise in cyclist deaths in 2016 and to demand that the City do more to make Vision Zero a reality.
Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative has a lot of good ideas in it, and the city is to be commended for the parts of it that have been implemented. But there is a long way to go. Consistent, predictable (non-racist!) enforcement of speeding and failure-to-yield violations – the biggest threats to cyclists and pedestrians – is needed but currently lacking.
We also need more protected bike lanes, and equally importantly, respect for the bike lanes we already have. That new bike lane on 6th Avenue is useless half the evenings I’m riding home because I have to swing back out into the traffic lanes to avoid parked cars, delivery trucks, or pedestrians using it as an expanded sidewalk.
It’s illegal to stop or park in a bike lane, yet Mayor de Blasio himself recently signaled that stopping in a bike lane isn’t really that bad. A car that blocks a bike lane to “let someone off at an appointment or something like that, or just drop off kids at home or something quickly” is “different” than someone who leaves their car parked in a bike lane, he told Brian Lehrer.
Not to the cyclist who has to dodge the car and the kids it’s dropping off.
More fundamentally, if the mayor who initiated Vision Zero doesn’t get that a cyclist’s safety is more important than a motorist’s convenience, how will the other eight million New Yorkers?
Like the cab driver who drove away after his vehicle threw me to the side of the road. Or the woman who said she was sorry and gave me $16. Or – me. After all, I did not take the cab driver’s information, or report the crash. I took it for granted that getting doored occasionally is just the price you pay for commuting by bike in New York City.
Lesson learned: Respect, including self-respect, awareness, and education are foundational to establishing that cyclists have as much right as anyone to expect safe streets. Vision Zero policies and enforcement can be effective, but only with that foundation.
Dorothee Benz is an avid backpacker, bodybuilder, urban cyclist, and sandcastler. Follow her on Twitter @DrBenz3.