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What it’s really like to be a bike commuter in NYC

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Four New Yorkers who use cycling as their primary mode of transportation sound off


No discussion of transportation in New York would be complete without talking about one of the cheapest, easiest—and, increasingly, most popular—ways of getting around the city: biking.

To wit: a New York Times report from earlier this year noted that about 450,000 bike trips are taken every day in the five boroughs, with one in five of those trips being taken by someone who’s commuting. There are now more than 1,000 bike lanes in the city, a number that has doubled from a decade ago. And Citi Bike, which launched in 2013, has increased its membership numbers to approximately 130,000 in the past few years.

Biking is also becoming more popular among New Yorkers; in a recent Transportation Alternatives poll, 40 percent of those surveyed supported the expansion of protected bike paths in the city, and approximately 70 percent support the expansion of Citi Bike.

This doesn’t mean that everything is completely rosy for bike commuters in New York City; though Mayor Bill de Blasio has championed the progress made by the city’s Vision Zero program, 13 cyclists have been killed in traffic crashes this year, and more than 2,700 have been injured. While things are getting better, there’s more the city could do to make its streets safer.

But with a more robust network of bike lanes, more options for novice cyclists, and more public support, now’s a great time to give cycling in the city a try if you’ve been on the fence. To gauge what it’s like to be a bike commuter in New York, we talked to four cyclists who’ve been doing just that for several years—read on for their stories.

Ryan Sutton, 38, Hell’s Kitchen
Years biking in NYC: five

What's your normal daily commute?
Around noon or so, I leave my apartment in Midtown West, hop on a Citi Bike around the block, and ride down the Hudson Greenway to the Vox offices in the Financial District. [Sutton is the restaurant critic for Eater NY, Curbed NY’s sister site.] It’s a 5.6 mile trip that takes just under 25 minutes.

What's the best part of bike commuting?
The joy of experiencing the natural beauty of this island every day, from the Hudson to the East River to the Harbor to Central Park, and the feeling of being in control of your own destiny.

What about challenges you face while riding?
Pedestrians, without a question. Drivers are predictable; they follow the rules of traffic and they don’t want to hit you any more than you want to hit them. Pedestrians are chaotic. They cross when they shouldn’t. They’ll walk in bike lanes with their backs facing bike traffic. They’ll step into a bike line three feet in front of you in the middle of the block so you’ll have no reaction time—that is precisely what sent me to the hospital with a mild concussion a few years back (I was okay, I managed to get back on my bike and ride to the ER).

If there was a second biggest challenge, I’d say charter buses, which I believe have killed two cyclists this year.

What’s your favorite route to ride in the city?
The Hudson Greenway is by far the safest route, but man, the East River greenway by the two bridges is the prettiest, especially at dusk on a full moon night.

I pretty much stopped riding in Central Park after a pedestrian got killed a few years ago. I’m not assigning blame, that was a tragic incident, but no matter what the rules are in Central Park and no matter how wide the bike lanes are, there are just too many pedestrians in the Southern half of the park doing their own thing to make it a safe ride for anyone.

“Cycling should be a pleasure and riding through Central Park, by contrast, is stressful, mentally taxing, and dangerous.”

Your primary ride in NYC is a Citi Bike—what do you think of the system?
Like any other form of public or semi-public transportation it has problems; it needs to better serve Northern Manhattan, The Bronx, as well as outer Brooklyn and Queens. But I’ll take it over risking my road bike getting stolen or damaged any day.

What can the city do to make cycling better and easier?
Pedestrian education and citations is what we need to make cycling (and walking) safer in New York. Pedestrians, especially tourists, need to know about the existence of bike lanes, and that if they walk into a bike lane, they will get ticketed, hurt, or killed. They should have instructional videos at every major airport, especially LGA (I’m inclined to say folks from non-major U.S cities are less likely to be familiar with bike lanes than tourists from around the world).

What advice do you have for cyclists who are just getting started?
Helmets are good, you should probably wear one, but more than anything, eye protection is the most important thing when cycling. A bike helmet might save your life once or twice in your life, and hopefully you'll never have to rely on it at all. But eye protection will save your ass literally every time you step on a bike.

Maegan Gindi, 29, Ditmas Park
Years riding in NYC: eight

How did you get started with biking in NYC?
I got started in 2009; my significant other (at the time) and his roommates all rode bikes because it was fun, quick, and cheap. I was freaked out initially, but finding a good hybrid helped me feel comfortable.

What's your normal daily commute?
I used to live off Flatbush Avenue near Prospect Park and my normal commute used to be a straight shot down Flatbush Avenue to Tillary Street. I do not recommend this, especially for the faint of heart. I have had my fair share of close calls and held my breath more times than I care to remember.

What are the biggest challenges you face as a bike commuter?
Cars, police, pedestrians. I think most people don't respect cyclists and their safety. I don't think most pedestrians and motorists don't understand what cyclists go through on a daily basis. Everyone should be required to cycle, walk, and drive at least one entire day in this city in order to build some mutual respect.

Looking before you open your door, before you cross the street, before you make a U-turn, using your turn signal, etc., would make the cycling experience much safer for everyone—including motorists and pedestrians.

Have you ever gotten into any run-ins with drivers?
Drivers have yelled at me for a variety of reasons—mostly doing things they think are unsafe but are done specifically to ensure my safety. I'm a motorist, too, and I try to give cyclists as much room as possible when driving. It's all about mutual respect and courtesy. I've never had a cyclist get in my face because I know how to navigate them while driving.

Judge Rules That Contested Brooklyn Bike Lane Can Stay
“Everyone should be required to cycle, walk, and drive at least one entire day in this city in order to build some mutual respect.”
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

What's the best part of commuting in NYC via bike? The worst?
The fact that I am not beholden to the MTA; I know roughly how long it will take me to get from Point A to Point B without issue. It is better than caffeine in the morning and I look forward to the ride home every day no matter how tired I am. I am energized by the experience and it keeps me in shape. It saves me money. It gets my blood and endorphins flowing.

The worst: The fear of getting hit by a car or semi-truck because they just do not look. The fear of getting doored by someone not looking. Police giving us tickets and points on our licenses for running a red light or rolling through a stop sign. A ticket for these offenses should not be equivalent to a two-ton vehicle.

What's your favorite bike route in NYC?
Any that takes me out of the city ! Probably the tree-covered trail in Van Cortlandt Park that goes up to Yonkers. It's so stunning and peaceful.

What can the city do to make cycling better and easier?
The city should be friendlier to cyclists because we reduce car and train traffic exponentially. Those LED signs that tell you that there will be traffic delays? Maybe they can say to check for cyclists before exiting the car. Fix potholes in the bike lane if you want them to actually be useful, and make them wide enough to avoid being doored.

What advice do you have for cyclists who are just getting started?
Always wear a helmet, get lights and a bell (if you don't want to yell at people), and use hand signals. Leave enough space between you and cars when possible because, more often than not, they don't know you exist when they are making that right-hand turn. There is nothing protecting you and your body from the road or another car other than your eyes and your instincts (and your helmet)—don't forget that!

Brian Van Nieuwenhoven, 38, Gramercy
Years biking in NYC: 12

When did biking become your primary mode of transportation in New York?
I used to bike for work/school long before I moved here, went cycling for fitness in Manhattan back in the mid-’00's, and ultimately found myself commuting daily from Kips Bay to Flatiron (not very far) starting around 2011. I've changed jobs and apartments since, but have still found it really convenient. [My commute is from] First Avenue in the 20's up to Times Square.

What are the biggest challenges you face as a bike commuter?
Apart from angry drivers trying to kill me? Rain. And wet steel road plates.

What's the best part of commuting in NYC via bike? The worst?
The best part is the exercise, an unconscious but absolutely virtuous aspect of the commute. The worst part is the lack of safe and accessible bicycle lanes that connect to each other. I'm constantly on streets with no bicycle lanes or painted lanes that are overrun with chaotically-placed cars.

What's your favorite bike route in the city (outside of your normal commute)?
There's a bike path leading from Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx into Van Cortlandt Park that pops out by the Putnam trail and Broadway on the west side of the park, but not before a huge fast descent and a double-roundabout ramp leading to a gorgeous lakefront vista. It's a real hoot.

“I’m also happy to see [Citi Bike] expand out to other neighborhoods that I can now access with shared bikes.”

Do you use Citi Bike? And if so, what do you think of the system?
Citi Bike is my preferred bicycle mode. The system needs more bikes and more rebalancing, but I'm also happy to see them expand out to other neighborhoods that I can now access with shared bikes.

What can the city do to make cycling better and easier?
I think we need protected crosstown bike lanes and better facilities on the Midtown avenues to close that gap. I know my view is Manhattan-centric, and the city can overall use more bicycle path expansion outside of middle Manhattan, but Manhattan is the destination for so many commutes. We also need NYPD to work with the other city agencies in handling bicycle lane access and alternate routes—right now, for security reasons, they've got several critical bicycle paths in Manhattan fully closed with no alternatives, and that's become a common situation.

What advice do you have for cyclists who are just getting started?
Nothing is more critical to safe, enjoyable cycling than hand-eye coordination and a good sense of balance. It's a breeze if you just stay upright and ride defensively, like the way drivers are taught to drive defensively and give other cars space to make mistakes. The feeling of not having control is what terrifies so many people who just jump into traffic with a bicycle.

Melissa Petro, Upper East Side

How did biking become your primary mode of transportation in New York?
I'm a freelancer/part-time gig worker and I literally couldn't afford to take the train in some days I had to come into the office, so it made financial sense to invest in a cheap bike. Once I started riding, I preferred it to the train. It was faster and more fun.

What's your normal daily commute?
I used to ride from my home on the Upper East Side to Harlem once a week, and on other days I'd commute to Midtown West. Both locations were extremely difficult to get to by train, or would require multiple transfers. A bike was a breeze!

What are the biggest challenges you face as a bike commuter?
I had to stop when I got pregnant. At first, I didn't stop, but then I took a spill on some gravel in Central Park—luckily I landed on my side and not my belly.

“Sometimes I like riding through Times Square, because it’s so alive and reminds me how wild it is that I live here!”

Have you ever gotten into any run-ins with drivers?
Nope, but pedestrians in the bike lane are the worst. I rode my bike up the Eighth Avenue bike lane and it is basically full of tourists and other walkers.

What's your favorite bike route in NYC?
I like coming down Ninth Avenue. Sometimes I like riding through Times Square, because it's just so alive and it reminds me how wild it is that I live here!

What can the city do to make cycling better and easier?
Get walkers out of the bike lanes, somehow! Let us bring our bikes in buildings. I believe it's the law to bring a bike into one’s workplace—I still get hassled all the time. If there was some reasonably priced bike storage in the city, that'd be awesome. I wish there were laws that required landlords to create a space to store them.