Almost every weekday morning I haul my hybrid 12-speed bike down from my Carroll Gardens Brooklyn apartment to Clinton Street. Usually, I’m good to go by 8:30—rush hour— when this one-way residential street is bumper to bumper with private automobiles, box trucks and a slew of cars-for-hire darting for fares, all inching towards Manhattan. I join a steady stream of cyclists on our two-foot-wide designated strip of asphalt marked by two continuous strips of white paint, a typical New York City unprotected bike lane.
Inside each of those cars, which takes up space that four, perhaps five bicyclists could fit into, there’s usually just one, maybe two people, inching slowly along.
This being New York City, demand for real estate will always outweigh supply—and that includes the streets themselves. Right now, automobile drivers are getting the deal of the century. Less than one quarter of New York City street space is dedicated to sustainable modes of transportation—walking, cycling, and exclusive bike lanes—most of that infrastructure is concentrated in Manhattan according to the Regional Planning Association.
Nonetheless, Manhattan streets are filled to capacity with cars, thanks in part to the as many as 25 thousand new cars for hire—such as Uber or Lyft—who are simply meeting the demand of commuters frustrated away from a mismanaged, underfunded subway system—with its ancient signals, crumbling tunnels and increasingly spotty service. Cars, buses and trucks creep through Manhattan streets at an average four to five miles per hour at rush times.
Clogged up up streets are not only leading good people into insanity, congestion is snuffing out an annual $20 billion in lost economic activity according to Partnership for New York City
Just a few months ago, Albany seemed ready to move on a congestion pricing scheme that would not only prevent this overcrowded balloon of traffic from popping— charging cars a fee for the privilege of driving into Manhattan at rush hour would bring a greater sense of economic equity to city streets. Revenue would be used to help shore up deficits within the MTA, which happens to be the way a majority of city residents commute. Unfortunately, it’s looking as if the Senate and Assembly are only going to tack on a surcharge to cabs and for-hire vehicles that operate in Manhattan.
While a surcharge is a start, it once again shows leaders at City Hall as well as Albany fail to understand that city streets as scarce resources—that they should be valued by imposing costs on those automobile drivers who crowd onto them at busy times of day— as the Columbia University economist William Vickery—one of the brainchilds of congestion pricing, argued way back in 1963. It’s a market driven theory that would make our city’s transportation infrastructure more fair.
New York City walkers, subway riders and cyclists like myself pay roughly the same amount in taxes as automobile drivers yet only around 13 percent of New York City area workers choose to commute into Manhattan by car or carpool according to the city’s Department of Transportation. In 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would spend $1.6 billion of taxpayer funds over the next ten years to resurface roads—an investment that’s primarily a response to complaints by automobile drivers about potholes.
Through no fault our own, most of us assume a sense of entitlement when it comes to the street once we’re behind the wheel of a car. We’re conditioned to believe streets and roads were created solely for the automobile. That thinking has roots in the automobile manufacturer lobby, neglect of public transit systems and myopic car-centric urban planning from the likes of Robert Moses. It was the sort of thinking that fueled earlier exoduses to the suburbs— a trend that has since reversed—a trend that urban design and infrastructure investments have failed miserably at keeping up with.
Saying there’s an ‘us vs. them’ psychology between New York City bicyclists and cars would be an understatement. But no matter how snarky or rude some cyclists may seem, they are essentially human eggshells on wheels operating on very limited amounts of space, most of it unprotected the unpredictability of automobile drivers.
While it’s true, the city’s bike infrastructure has grown from being a radical idea in the early 1980’s to nearly 2,000 miles of designated bike lanes, only around 480 are exclusive or protected. CitiBike, the public bikeshare program, has been a huge hit, logging more than 43 million rides so far, contributing to an estimated 80 percent rise in the popularity of cycling between 2010 and 2015 according to the city’s Department of Transportation.
Biking is a low cost, exciting, and healthy mode of transportation and I’d wager more people would take it up if they felt just a bit more safe. It’s likely the implementation of congestion pricing would incentivize thousands of automobiles off Manhattan streets, which would feasibly provide city planners an opportunity to do what’s fair for a majority of New Yorkers, repurpose select traffic lanes now surrendered to cars into wider sidewalks and protected bike lanes.
I feel fortunate that I was conditioned early on to think of my bicycle as a primary mode of transit early on in life. I’m from a rural area outside Birmingham, Alabama, where on most summer days in those years before I could drive, a bike was how I got to the places my friends were—usually a swimming pool in a town about five miles away called Columbiana. Logic and calculation motivated me to pedal rather than ask my Mom to drop me off. I appreciated the mobility a bike offered in case I got bored, wanted a milkshake or a change of scenery.
Although it was far more scary for cyclists when I arrived in Manhattan nearly 30 years ago, I grew frustrated by how long it took to me to get from one side of town to the other. I couldn’t wait to blaze down busy avenues on a bike. From bustling Midtown, to the hidden mysteries on side streets in the Village or Chinatown to the narrow canyons of lower Manhattan, where at night it felt as if a Dick Tracy comic had come to life. These were spellbinding experiences that could only be had outside the protective bubble of an automobile—I heard, saw and smelled unique markers in each neighborhood, images embedded in my conscious to this day. New York City was also seemingly a place where the status of owning a car was null and void, unlike back in Alabama, where the site of an adult using a bike for transportation, was seen as eccentric at best.
But then one day in the early 1990’s, I was riding on East 6th Street, and a police car pulled up beside me and an officer looked at me as if I were a festering boil and he yelled, “Don’t you see all those cars back behind you? You’re holding up traffic, now get the hell out of the way!”
Today, with more people cycling to work, school or play, he city’s collective psychology has changed and cops have taken to giving cyclists tickets for running lights or not using bike lanes—we are seeing a normalization of bicycling as a mode of transit and congestion pricing will help usher in the next era of a more bike friendly city.
My irritation with car chaos evaporates while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on my bike ride to work. No matter how many times I do it, the views are often stunning. Depending on the weather, clouds might frame the lower Manhattan skyline, and off in the distance sits Midtown, a bit south, there’s the Empire State building saying hello with its reflection. Shiny new towers continue to spring up higher and higher in Hudson Yards and the river rolls on by down below. The descent into the architectural masterpieces of lower Manhattan is a Gotham postcard come to life, still, there is always just a slight sense of dread about the sort of choked up mess in streets below.
Cody Lyon is a New York City-based journalist.