Nightmare Gridlock: Tough Going Even for Bikers

Wednesday night’s rush-hour commute was thicker and meaner than the first night of the New York City transit strike, and for bikers, it signaled the end of the free ride.

Mayor Bloomberg decided to open up Fifth and Madison avenues to cars and trucks to ease the gridlock, reserving just one lane on each avenue for emergency vehicles.

While bikers could still dip into the reserve lanes to skirt past traffic, by 6 p.m. last night, those reserve lanes had become extended sidewalks for the crowds of pedestrians making the trek back home.

At Columbus Circle, I joined up with the evening "bike pool" organized by the environmental group Times Up! Although it was cast as a way to encourage more folks to commute by bike, most of those who turned out for the ride seemed to be messengers and veteran cycle activists with track bikes.

I felt a moment of elation as all 18 of us set off, plowing headlong into the crush of cabs and commuter buses jammed across 59th Street, with Queen’s triumphant song "Bicycle Race" blaring from a pair of speakers towed by a guy pedaling the Times Up! "Sound Bike."

For a brief second, it seemed like cars were getting out of our way.

But when we rounded onto Fifth Avenue, the Sound Bike guy in the lead picked up the pace, weaving us in and out of traffic as he blasted a Twisted Sister track at deafening levels, oblivious to red lights, jammed intersections, and the throngs of people everywhere.

Unwilling to privilege my two pedals over all the bipeds spilling into the street, I slowed down to take in the frustration of harried drivers blaring their horns for no good reason because the traffic wasn't going anywhere. It was chaos. On Fifth Avenue, hustling cabbies mowed down the orange cones protecting the bike lane to pick up fares. On Broadway south of 14th Street, the extra traffic lane that the city cordoned off for bikes had become free parking for holiday shoppers dashing into stores.

So much for the strike making New York a more bike-friendly place.

Even the Sound Bike guy seemed demoralized when I finally caught up with the crew at the Times Up! headquarters on Houston Street. "The previous night worked because we were able to stay together," he said of the bike pool they held on the first night of the strike, when Fifth Avenue was still free of cars and hence a bliss to ride. "But I don't know if we'll do another evening ride again. It's not worth it. The traffic is just too ridiculous."

So much for biker solidarity. In this strike, it's survival of the fleetest.

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