In which I join the clannish ranks of the bike commuters

18 Dec

A few months ago, I joined the ranks of the 45,000 some New Yorkers who commute to work by bicycle. I don't ride every day, unfortunately. I skip it and take the subway if it's raining, exceptionally cold (as in, below 30 with a significant wind chill) or if I have some plans after work that would keep me out until some very late hour. I'm also fortunate that both my apartment building and my office building have space to accommodate my parked bike. I've noticed some things about biking in New York.
Green bike lane in BrooklynGreen bike lane in BrooklynAfter telling people that this is how I prefer to get to work, I've been called “crazy”, “psycho”, and the like. It seems like many people assume it's both dangerous and scary to bike around the city. I agree that it takes some getting used to, but compared with both Portland, Maine and Middletown, Connecticut, New York is markedly more bike-friendly. A lot of this is due to Janette Sadik-Khan, NYC's rock-star Commissioner of Transportation. Under her leadership, the NYC DOT has taken a very aggressive approach to creating bike lanes on city streets. Most of these have been shared lanes painted alongside one or two vehicular lanes, and in most cases they represent a net reduction in either parking space, driving space, or both. Less space for cars, more space for non-cars. To force the point home, some of these lanes are painted bright green. There are also excellent, well-signed bike lanes on all the major East River bridges.

The demographics of who commutes by bike are kind of interesting, if not predictable. My ride takes me from Park Slope through Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Downtown Brooklyn, Chinatown, SoHo, the Union Square area, and ends in the Flatiron District. A lot of these areas, especially the ones in Brooklyn, contain a large population of white, middle-class “yupsters” like me. And indeed, I encounter many other people using the same route I take. Most, like me, and riding to work in a light jacket and jeans and carrying a messenger bag.

I've had some run-ins with cars. My experience has mostly been that passenger cars driving in residential areas pose the least risk. On Bergen St. between Park Slope and Cobble Hill I routinely zip past a long line of stopped cars, while the bike lane remains totally clear. By contrast, delivery trucks in commercial areas seem the most likely to be reckless and oblivious to cyclists. Twice I've narrowly avoided being sideswiped in the Chrystie St. bike lane in Chinatown.

Like most other cyclists, I ignore red lights (or treat them as stop signs, in busier intersections). I imagine this is against some sort of traffic law, but I've done this, and seen others do it, right next to a police and there has been no reaction. Honestly though, I think traffic laws should recognize the right of bikes to ignore red lights and other traffic calming devices. A lot of highways have a different set of rules for 18-wheeler trucks than they do for normal passenger cars (which lanes to use, weigh station requirements, etc). It makes sense to me that city streets here could permit bikes more freedom. After all, bikes weigh typically less than 1/1000th as much as cars, travel perhaps 1/4th the speed at most, and we can see and react to our surroundings much better than motorists can.

Ultimately, I've been pretty happy with the experience. It makes sense from an economic standpoint too. Bikes are comparatively cheap to own and maintain, and it combines the time I spend getting to and from work with the time I would otherwise have to spend getting exercise. On the whole, I recommend it.