Take a Bike!

Ditch the Subway. Keep the Cab Fare. Miss the Bus. Try a Two-Wheeled Commute for a Change.

Armed with a helmet and a pack of baby wipes, Gary Young does combat every weekday morning. He wages a battle that could cost him his life, but one that he finds so enriching, it thrills him. Simply put, he rides his bike to work, from Park Slope in Brooklyn to midtown Manhattan.

"It makes me more alert, more happy; I just can't describe it," says Young, a 41-year-old reporter for American Lawyer Media. His enthusiasm is not dampened by hassles that range from grooming in his office bathroom to once being run off the road by a driver. "I just love biking."

The half-hour commute of a 48-year-old attorney, Bill, from his Brooklyn apartment to his downtown Manhattan office also sounds like an adventure. "It's great. You have a closer image of New York on a bike. I actually get to see the peregrine falcons going to their nest" high in the Brooklyn Bridge's western tower. "That really beats the subway."

Bill, too, has had his run-ins with cars. A Brooklyn accident kept him off the bike for a few months. He's been "doored"—bike jargon for colliding with a suddenly opened car door, usually yellow. He got a $100 ticket for running a red light on his bike and wishes traffic laws were enforced as aggressively against drivers as cyclists. But he's been biking to work since 1997 and is not about to stop.

Young and Bill are part of a stream of cyclists who daily roll over bridges into Manhattan. On clunky junkers or sleek titanium racers, clad in Lycra shorts or denim skirts or suits with ties, wearing special cycling shoes or three-inch wedgies, an estimated 100,000 New Yorkers commute to or within Manhattan by bicycle. While that might seem like a lot, it pales considering that they vie for space with the 980,000 vehicles that each weekday clog the borough's streets, potentially turning a pleasant passage into a noisome and occasionally harrowing trek.

Even so, you should try it. That, at least, is the message of Bike Week, a 10-year-old springtime ritual designed to offer encouragement to New Yorkers who already commute by cycle and to convince those who prefer more traditional transit to give a bike a spin. Recruits are provided with practical help—guided rides, bike route maps, repair classes, and free breakfasts in every borough—and courted with more aesthetic lures, including a film festival, art show, and bike messenger's race. Bike Week runs from May 14 to 20. (See the calendar for details.)

"The culture is so geared to motor vehicles, it's oppressive," says Craig Barnes, events coordinator of Transportation Alternatives, the nonprofit group that organizes Bike Week, with sponsorship from the city's Department of Transportation. "It's a real catch-22. People say they'd bike if they saw more infrastructure, like bike lanes, parking, traffic law enforcement, but city planners and politicians say they won't give more until they see a need for it. Who's going to make the first move? We try to link these two things."

A 1999 planning department survey of 1378 cyclists found that of the 848 who came to work by bike, most commutes began and ended in Manhattan, with Brooklyn coming in second, followed by Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx. Twenty-three rode from outside the city limits. The overwhelming majority (70 percent) were male. The average commute was 6.2 miles each way and took 36 minutes. The typical cyclist had been commuting by bike for 7 years.

City cycling is not new. New York's first bike path, along Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, opened in 1895 (it was widened a year later after 10,000 riders crammed the opening celebration). Nor is the city's nightmare traffic a modern invention. Before automobiles, the streets were clogged with buses, trolleys, and horse-and-carriage rigs. But bicycling has always been officially regarded as a marginal mode of transport, despite its advantages. Compared to a car stuck in rush-hour crosstown traffic that in midtown averages 5.6 miles an hour, a bike offers faster, more nimble travel. The economic and environmental benefits are obvious. Ultimately, the choice to ride a bike is personal and political.

"At its deepest, riding in the city becomes a way of seeing, a form of self-expression, a consciousness," cyclist Chip Brown wrote in the July 1988 issue of 7 Days. "Usually it starts as a simple case of convenience. . . . At times in New York, which puts a price on everything, the freedom and mobility of a bicycle can make you feel . . . rich. Gliding by the limos of fat cats mewed up in traffic, you know that life is just and fortune has many guises."

When Brown wrote that 13 years ago, New York's plans for cycling were at best nascent and at worst hostile. Ed Koch's 1987 attempt to ban bikes from midtown was overturned in court, but the move mobilized cycling advocates to organize for better biking conditions. Ten years later, in 1997, the city's planning department issued a Bicycle Master Plan calling for a 909-mile bicycle network—nearly five times as big as what is available now (see chart). Noting the city's density and generally flat topography, planners concluded that New York is "ideal for cycling." Given New Yorkers' "predilection" for short trips (63 percent of all local trips are under five miles, according to the 1990 census), the department's goal was to have 10 percent of all short trips made by bike. When last counted in 1990, bike trips constituted .9 percent of all trips made by vehicles in the city.

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