As most New York cyclists will tell you, to bike in this city is to take your life in your own hands. But most New York cyclists will also tell you that the only way to experience this city is from the saddle of a bicycle. It may be dangerous, it may be aggravating, but the freedom is worth it. In fact, the devoted New York cyclist will take perverse pride in braving the daily barrage of enormous potholes, blindsiding buses, maniacal taxi drivers and overzealous cops. But does it really have to be fraught with such danger? Well, no. New York is woefully behind dozens of other major cities when it comes to bike infrastructure, and it’s a damning indictment of our local government’s attitudes toward transportation that so many of these ideas seem utopian even in light of $100 barrels of oil.
WHAT OTHER CITIES HAVE DONE
Portland, Oregon has a rapidly expanding network of bike boulevards: shared, low-density roadways that give right-of-way to bikes at intersections and are designed to give cyclists priority over cars. Curbside bike racks have replaced — or, in cycling parlance, reclaimed — parking spots previously reserved for motor vehicles. Consequently, a full 3.5% of people who commute in Portland do so by bicycle.
-img4- Paris recently instituted a very cheap bike rental program for local commuting, with over 20,000 bikes available at nearly 1,500 rental stations (that’s one about every 250 yards, citywide). Not only has the massive increase in cyclists across the city eased up on transportation infrastructure and reduced air pollution, Parisians have come to realize that bicycling is actually the fastest way to get anywhere in the city. Win, win, win.
Berlin has some of the most developed bike-lane infrastructure in the world, with two-way, pavement-buffered routes all over the city. There are even specific traffic lights for cyclists (and of course, it being Prussia, they’re all strictly obeyed). Public transit also considers the cyclists’ needs, with specially designated spaces allowing for bikes on trains. Just don’t forget to buy a ticket for your bike. Seriously.
But it’s not just the gentrified First World taking significant steps toward a bike-friendly existence. Over the last ten years, Bogotá, Colombia has gotten pretty serious about changing its transportation patterns by putting a moratorium on large-scale infrastructural improvements to accommodate automobiles and beginning a steady rollout of hundreds of new buses, and, perhaps most significantly, instituting a policy whereby the city’s main arteries are closed to traffic one day a week. All of which has made the city better for cyclists.
WHAT WE NEED TO DO
Replacing existing, shitty bike lanes with fully separate routes, a la Berlin. Useful crosstown routes like Canal Street get heavy truck traffic and usually don’t have bike lanes. Meanwhile, the bike lanes we do have are fairly anarchic places, and get taken up by parked cars and idiots riding against the flow of traffic. It also doesn’t help that they’re on the left side of the road, and whichever hapless transit wonk decided to put them there deserves the New York cycling community’s undying scorn.
More greenways. I’m sure someday our city will wise up and build a Delancey Street greenway, or close Bedford Avenue to traffic, or construct an eastside greenway that doesn’t route bikers along Second Avenue, or close Second Avenue off to traffic altogether. Hey, we can dream. And while we’re at it, what about tax breaks for cycle-commuters? Or theft-prevention programs like the one in Amsterdam? Maybe even free commuter bicycles for low-income adults, as with Portland’s “create-a-commuter” program?
Congestion pricing. More money for infrastructure, fewer cars in Manhattan. It’s a pretty simple equation. And it would be a visible, unmistakable sign that the city is willing to make a long-term commitment to sustainable transportation. And it’s a commitment that congestion pricing cities like London, Stockholm, Santiago and Singapore have already made.
Changing the adversarial relationship between cars and bikes. Ok, this is a little more complicated than just adding bike lanes. Cyclists have a lot to contend with: harassment, getting killed, police confiscation of bikes not chained to city-approved bike racks, etc. According to Wiley Norvell of the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, only about a half a percent of New Yorkers cycle commute on a daily basis. If ridership grows, and cyclists become more and more visible, hopefully a little familiarity will breed conciliation.
WHAT WE'RE DOING ALREADY
New York’s bike lanes might be in bad shape, but the network is growing at an explosive rate. “There’s been a ten-fold increase in bike lanes” in the past few years, says Norvell; better still, buffered, European-style cycle tracks, like the one that recently opened on Ninth Avenue, could mean more bike lanes that actually separate cycle and auto traffic. Norvell thinks that protected bike lanes could convince hundreds of thousands of people to make the switch to cycle commuting, a development that could have a major, long-term impact on the city. So could the 1,800-mile expansion of bike lanes outlined in Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC sustainability initiative.
The greenways don’t exist yet, but they might someday. The city already has plans to expand the East River greenway, while the popularity of the Hudson greenway — which is America’s most trafficked bicycle path — will hopefully convince it to expand bike-only routes.