“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.