If your first reaction to this was, "Why don't we put this person on a bike in New York, ASAP," then I guess you'd get along with my editors. And so here we are.
Professional obligations (and my many, many qualms) aside, I actually do want to learn. I live in Bushwick, and trips that are a 5 minute ride for my friends turn into a 20-30 minute solo walk for me. It's no way to live, and if the spirit moves, I'd also like to be able to go on day trips to, say, Red Hook or the Rockaways without having to spend hours underground first. A person can only spend so much time living in fear of death, or in belligerent opposition to other people on bikes.
I also had to assume I'm not the only person with this problem. There must be an awkward stage in between "terrified pedestrian" and "seasoned urban cyclist," and I may as well find out what that is. So, with these justifications in mind, I decided I'd try out try out some of the most common trips in the borough — a commute to work, a trip to and around Prospect Park, etc. It would be a week of fearing for my life, looking like a dweeb, and also getting around faster, seeing my surroundings in different ways, and expanding my horizons or whatever. Let's learn together.
When the helpful folks over at Ride Brooklyn agreed to lend me a bike for this, I also insisted on a tutorial. I've done plenty of riding on bike paths and in deserted small towns, but never on busy roads that are shared with cars, delivery trucks, other people on bikes (maniacs, all of them), and god knows what else. It's a different skill set, and I need advice.
So, after setting me up with a bike map and a silver, 8-speed Schwinn, complete with safety lights and a bell (by far my favorite feature other than the brakes), the store's Brand and Marketing Manager Al gives me some pointers, then takes me on a good, old-fashioned ride-along.
Among other things, I learn why you shouldn't ever lock your bike to scaffolding (it's easily unscrewed), where to ride in the road (toward the outside of the bike lane to avoid having car doors open into you, and in roughly this same spot even if there isn't a marked lane), and major avenues to avoid (Atlantic, Fulton, the packed-with-pedestrians bike lanes on 1st Ave in Manhattan).
"Ride with purpose, and people will make room for you," Al tells me. Fair enough.
My original plan was to
puss out ease in and take the bike on the train home from their Park Slope store, but rush hour is just starting, getting back to Bushwick would take three transfers, and the incident-free 4-block ride-along has me feeling ballsy.
After a few circles around Fort Greene Park (where I am the only adult on a bike, and the only one wearing a helmet), I take Al's advice and ride home via Willoughby Ave, which is tree-lined, devoid of heavy traffic, and totally idyllic. I never even knew this street existed before this trip, I'm outrageously proud of myself, and think this will work out.
The only problems I run into on my ride involve other people on bikes.
Getting quickly from North to South Brooklyn without endless train transfers or an overpriced cab is one of the biggest reasons I wanted to try this out in the first place, so I decided to make Prospect Park my first official trip, and it's a little dicey.
I've always understood why we need bike lanes, but now I really start to care about it. I also start to see why following basic traffic laws — not running red lights, going the right way on one-way streets — doesn't necessarily pay off if you're on a bike (you know, not that I'm endorsing that).
There's not a lot of respect or a clear, established place for bikes in the urban traffic heirarchy, and it doesn't help that I'm not adept enough to be really aggressive about staking out my place. Over the course of the week, obstructions in the bike lane include but aren't limited to an entire lane of buses, an entire row of police cars, dumpsters, an old woman in a Buick who almost drifts into me, a guy on a cell phone who almost pulls his parked SUV out into me, massive construction projects, double parked cars, deliveries, delivery men, and a woman riding the wrong way on a bike, with her dog.
In spite of this I actually do alright on streets in my area — namely Dekalb, which is busy but manageable — but bigger, more serious avenues like Vanderbilt get overwhelming, and I develop the embarrassing habit of getting off and walking my bike on the sidewalk for scarier streets. One old man laughs and asks me if I "got tired."
Once I get to the park, it's beautiful and the bike path is impeccable. But that part you already knew.
A lot of people are firmly in the "never, ever take a bike on the subway" camp, which I definitely get. It's cumbersome and takes up space that could be filled with actual people. But shit happens, and it's a problem that's pretty unique to riding in New York, so I decided it was worth a shot.
Before this, I actually tried to ride back home from the park, but Bedford is busy, and even with my lights on, biking on a crowded street in the dark made me nervous. Plus, it was past rush hour (when both the MTA and common decency dictate that you shouldn't bring your bike on the train), so it seemed like a good time to try it out.
Carrying it down the stairs and through the emergency exit doors is easier than expected since the station's fairly empty, but even at 8:30pm, I have to wait for three trains to pass before one comes that's roomy enough for me to get on (which I do in the very last car, another MTA stipulation).
It all goes unremarkably — there's room for me to stay out of everyone's way, and even sit down — until the way out, when the bike almost gets away from me and slides down the giant escalator at Broadway Junction and into a group of children. But only almost!
As with most things, I cheated here, and worked from home until rush hour was safely over. That plan wasn't quite as solid as I thought, since mid-day tends to be the busiest time for giant, unwieldy delivery trucks.
Bedford is a mess of flatbeds and most of the actual bike lane is torn up and blocked off with construction, so I spend a good half mile of the trip walking my bike through Hasidic neighborhoods. On the bright side, earlier that day my neighbor made me download the Ride the City app, and it's a minor revelation. Routes are divided into "Safe," "Safer," and "Most Direct," and I only wish I'd known about this at the beginning of the week.
The "safer" route eventually takes me to Flushing Ave, with its relatively new (as of 2010) lanes, complete with a divider between you and the rest of traffic. By the time I get to the office I'm actually awake and in a good mood, not the sweaty, bruised mess I expected to be.
Nope, sorry, too terrifying. I need way more time to work up to this. And what's really the reward for making it — then having to bike in Manhattan? Jesus. For what it's worth though, Al tells me the Manhattan Bridge is the best of the bunch for cyclists, and the Brooklyn Bridge is the most fraught. Also, keep a sharp eye out at the intersection coming off the Williamsburg bridge (around Delancey), it's one of the toughest in the city. If I ever work up the courage and skill set to see for myself, I'll report back.
Surprisingly, I'd do it again! Once I find a cheap, decent bike to call my own (donations accepted), I will. Granted, it won't be as a die-hard bike commuter in full kit so much as a neighborhood-centric dilettante, but that's really the only hump I was trying to get over in the first place.
It doesn't hurt that the best trip I had was actually the one I had taking the bike back to Ride, most of which I spent on the Brooklyn Bridge waterfront bike path, and then on Dean street. So, in spite of a few close calls and a lot of embarrassment, I left the whole thing feeling good about it, not embittered and terrified.
I'm also pretty sure I'll get less skittish with time — a week of learning to bike in city traffic doesn't stack up to, say, a lifetime of pedestrian experience or a decade of driving, so I can only assume it's a bit of a process. That, and finding a decent-looking helmet.
Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.