Take a Bike!

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

Now, cyclists have about 75 miles of greenways—car-free trails set aside for bikes, pedestrians, and skaters—and 107.5 miles of bike lanes on the city's 6374.9 miles of streets. The fact that cars, trucks, cabs, vendors' carts, and pedestrians typically appropriate the bike lanes makes half of them useless. Cyclists are not limited to bike lanes, and riders can legally use almost any road in the city (major highways excepted; no riding on the sidewalk if you're over 14) and generally do.

But while caved-in pavement, slick metal utility plates, tire-swallowing sewer grates, cell-phoning drivers, and seemingly random traffic patterns conspire against cyclists, the single biggest deterrent to biking to work is theft. According to the 1999 planning department survey, 51 percent of cyclists said they did not commute by bike for lack of safe parking. Transportation Alternatives estimates that 40,000 bikes are stolen in New York City each year, costing owners a total of about $10 million. Many cyclists have been robbed more than once; only one in 45 stolen bikes is recovered.

Illustration by Glenn Hilario

In 1999, Bronx City Council member Adolfo Carriòn Jr. introduced a bill to require commercial building owners to make "reasonable provisions" to allow cyclists to bring their bikes inside. The bill called for no retrofitting of buildings; freight elevators and basement storage were deemed acceptable. But the bill hit one of the city's most invincible obstacles, the real estate lobby.

"Of course we ran into resistance to this kind of progressive environmental initiative," says Carriòn. "We worked with the Building Owners and Managers Association, and at first they were supportive, but they got some flack from their membership. I got comments from people in the real estate industry, and they had lots of misconceptions, even though we were not talking about gutting valuable real estate space. We're simply talking about giving access in buildings where the infrastructure, like freight elevators, is already there." The bill was tabled, or, as Carriòn says, "put to sleep," but he hopes to revive it this year.

Building Owners association spokeswoman Cheryl Mitchell said the group considers bike access "a terrific idea for new buildings" but that the freight elevators of many existing structures are set up off loading docks and are inaccessible from the street. "Bikes also bring in dirt, so there's a cleanliness issue," she said, adding that safety restrictions limit access to freight areas.

Practical concerns are the main impediment to bicycle commuting—after theft, the next reason cyclists gave for not wheeling into their jobs was a lack of shower facilities or a place to change clothes. But the difficulties inherent in commuting by bike have as much to do with the city's political infrastructure as they do with the quality of streets. The skew to cars, despite their disadvantages, is so profound, politicians and bureaucrats spend entire careers simultaneously trying to accommodate and tame traffic. Obscured by the auto bias are transit alternatives, including bicycling, that, if developed, could take away New York City's oddly prideful boast of having "the world's worst traffic."

"Transportation policy is really about equity and who goes where and how," says Barnes of Transportation Alternatives. "It's about what it really means to own a car, and what it means to live in Bed-Stuy and only have the A train to use and it's jammed every morning. We try to look at transportation outside of the traditional box of car culture. We want to shift away from always having six lanes of 30-mile-an-hour traffic."

That cycling is not considered a serious transit mode is clear from recent media coverage of the extension of a bike path along the West Side, from 59th to 72nd streets, which was portrayed as charming but little more than a perk. "It's not just a fluff thing," says Barnes. "It should be a useful transportation corridor and not just a Sunday kind of thing." Already, cars—particularly cabs—are encroaching onto the waterfront bike lane.

Charles Komanoff, a longtime cycling advocate and co-founder of Right of Way, which works for pedestrian and cyclist safety and published a pamphlet chronicling the death of walkers and bikers by motor vehicles, says, "What we want is a transportation system that makes it possible for ordinary people to ride a bike, a city where that becomes culturally and legally and physically and politically viable. Cycling," says Komanoff, "satisfies a utopian urge."

Related article:

J.A. Lobbia's "Get Rolling!": A Bike Week Calendar

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