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?
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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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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