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New York Postcard: A Two-Wheel Tour Through A Suddenly Bike-Friendly Big Apple

One writer discovers that a New York once suicidal for cyclists has given way to a city of bike lanes and cheap public access to this environmentally friendly mode of transportation.

Easy crossing?
Easy crossing?
Christa Eder

NEW YORK — The sun's burning hot, without the faintest trace of a breeze. As early as 9:30 a.m. the temperature hits 30° Celcius (86° Fahrenheit), and it feels like 40° (104° Fahrenheit) because the canyon-like streets between Manhattan’s skyscrapers intensify the heat. But for New York in the summertime these are actually crisp temperatures. Whatever. I’m going on a cycling tour. From Zen Bikes on 24th Street, which many say is the best bicycle shop in Chelsea, I head out on a lightweight model toward the East River.

The first test of courage is immediate. Because 24th Street has no cycling lane, I must navigate between the fenders of cars and cabs. It goes surprisingly well if I make sure not to break the flow of traffic, which means giving clear signals and no dithering. New York drivers seem to be a lot more relaxed and considerate — and they drive more slowly — than the aggressive Munich drivers to whom I’m accustomed.

There’s no shrill, impatient honking, and drivers aren’t lowering their windows to hurl vile remarks my way. Only twice does someone honk and flash their lights, but only so they’ll be seen, not to vent frustration. It only takes me a few minutes to reach the East River Esplanade. I stop to breathe in the fresh air before starting my ride along a luxuriously wide cycling lane right on the river bank.

No longer just a car culture

Until a few years ago, cycling in New York City was considered a suicidal activity. Now it’s regarded as chic, sustainable and cool to pedal through the city streets. In the past few years, the number of cyclists has risen about 60% — a considerable figure in a nation not known for a cycling affinity. An estimated half-million New Yorkers, from Wall Street bankers to aging hippies, are now cycling.

The boom owes a lot to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who in recent years has had 500 kilometers (310 miles) of new bicycle lanes built for a total network now of some 1,200 kilometers (745 miles). And New York’s first public bicycle sharing program has been operational since late May. In Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, 6,000 blue “Citi Bikes” (The financial services company Citigroup is sponsoring the program) are available at 330 stations, and by the end of the year there should be 10,000 bikes at 600 stations.

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(Photo: Salim Virji)

One month after the program started, Citi Bikes had covered nearly a million city kilometers (over 621,000 miles). The bike-sharing fee is $9.95 (plus tax) for 24 hours and $25 (plus tax) for a week — dirt cheap, although a $100 security deposit is required. Renting a bike from a private company costs about three times as much. You do get a map and helmet thrown in for that, but no lock, so you can’t leave the bike out of your sight for a minute. With Citi Bikes you could turn it in at the nearest station, although you wouldn’t be guaranteed an available bike when you returned.

If you want to go through Williamsbridge to Brooklyn, you have to turn in time and merge with the traffic — for example, on eight-lane Delancey Street at the Bowery in the Lower East Side. Delancey Street used to be the most feared street for cyclists, where the most fatal accidents took place. But the street now has a wide, green “protected bike path” with a buffer zone between cars and pedestrians. There are, incidentally, different categories of cycling lanes. Second-class are the “bicycle lanes” — marked lanes with buffer zones — and the less safe “shared lanes” to be shared with drivers. Anyone unaccustomed to big-city traffic should keep to the protected paths at first, or take a guided cycle tour.

Nice and navigable

New York is laid out in a clear way, and with few exceptions — the bridges, Brooklyn Heights or north Manhattan — it is agreeably flat. The cycling paths are also well planned and developed. Even Times Square, Broadway and other major thoroughfares now have cycling lanes, making it relatively simple to get from place to place safely. Although significantly more New Yorkers are cycling, the number of bike accidents has fortunately not risen, statistics show.

Williamsburg is relative paradise for a cyclist: fewer cars, lower buildings, better air, a sensational view of Manhattan and comfortable, wide cycling lanes that make it possible for two cyclists to ride side by side. At noon, from Kent Avenue to Greenpoint, I practically have the streets to myself. Among the old piers and disused industrial sites, new organic stores, yoga studios, community gardens, bars and cafés are opening. Wander into Ovenly at the end of Greenpoint Avenue, and you’ll find yourself in one of Brooklyn’s best bakeries where you can sample still-warm quiches, apricot thyme scones and iced ginger and hollyhock tea — everything “handmade and sustainable,” of course.

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(photo: Pascal Subtil)

For the moment, Williamsburg is considered New York’s “Best Hipster Neighborhood.” Ever more “creatives,” artists and start-ups are moving here because they can no longer afford Manhattan rents. Mayor Bloomberg’s “Neighborhood x Neighborhood” initiative is an attempt to make New York known beyond the tourist attractions, and to nurture the local economy. Along with Williamsburg, Bushwick and Fort Greene, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island are also part of the new campaign.

From Greenpoint back to Brooklyn Bridge Park, the cycling path leads to the Red Hook Container Terminal, where things become less navigable and more desolate. It’s soon to be extended to Bay Ridge and on to Jamaica Bay. When that’s completed, it’ll be possible to cycle almost entirely around Brooklyn.

In the shimmering late afternoon heat, with a glowing face, I cycle through Brooklyn Heights, and via Manhattan Bridge, I’m back in the oven that is Manhattan in summer. Broadway, Chinatown, Little Italy and the Flatiron District fly by. My body is pulsing and pumping, and everything feels oddly familiar, as if I’d become part of the flow.

From now on, there’s only one way I’m going to be getting around New York, and that’s by bike.

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