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.

(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.

(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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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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