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.
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.
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.”
J.A. Lobbia’s “Get Rolling!“: A Bike Week Calendar