City Journal Autumn 2014

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Autumn 2014
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By Nicole Gelinas

After The Fall: Saving Capitalism From Wall Street--and Washington

Eye on the News

Nicole Gelinas
Citi Bike and the City
Some thoughts on cycling around Manhattan
6 September 2013

In late spring, just as the Bloomberg administration kicked off Citi Bike, its much-discussed bike-share program, I interviewed a cyclist by Grand Central Terminal, and then watched him ride off into traffic—with no intention of emulating him. Less than two months later, though, I was happily riding bikes through afternoon Midtown traffic and returning them to their docking stations. From what I’ve seen so far, Citi Bike has proved a phenomenal success. The program was designed for people like me: atypical bikers. I’m a woman, whereas the traditional urban biker is a man, and I’m risk-averse, while urban bikers are more often risk-takers. I’m in reasonable shape, but I’m no fitness fanatic. Finally, I live in Manhattan and make many short trips around town on foot or via bus or subway. But I didn’t sign up for a $95 annual Citi Bike membership in June to improve my commuting time. Rather, I thought it would be fun to cycle around the Central Park drives after evening rush hour, when they’re closed to traffic, and to ride along the protected Hudson River Park path. And I signed up to get first-hand knowledge, albeit limited, of how Citi Bike was working.

After two weeks of confining myself to the parks, though, I moved to the streets. By now, I’ve taken bikes crosstown, downtown, and uptown, on trips ranging from five minutes across a few Midtown blocks to 20 minutes down the (sort of) protected Ninth Avenue bike lane from Hell’s Kitchen, before turning east to the Union Square farmer’s market. I’ve ridden in 97-degree daytime heat (last month) and near midnight on a cool evening in Central Park. I’ve taken bikes to and from Penn Station, and even to an appointment for wisdom-teeth extraction (no, I didn’t ride home).

What have I learned? Midtown traffic can be your friend. The cars and trucks are largely stuck: they can’t go fast. The slowest, most cautious bicyclist in the world—me—can beat most of them, at least on side streets. When you confront a double-parked car—or hot-dog truck, police horse, blind elderly man with a cane, man carrying a mattress, or sleeping homeless person—it’s easy to slow or stop, look behind you, and move around the obstruction. Moreover, when a traffic lane is too narrow for a car to pass a bike, or vice versa, it’s easy to “take the lane”—that is, act like a car driver, after looking behind you, just as you would when driving. Failing that, you can walk the bike on the sidewalk for half a block and rejoin traffic later. In fact, I will now gingerly ride down an avenue without a protected bike lane, though I prefer the lanes and never would have tried bike share without them.

I’ve learned who’s doing all that driving in Midtown Manhattan. It’s mostly men ferrying people or things, or waiting to do the same. For the most part, they seem to know what they’re doing. Few seem startled by bicyclists, and most behave predictably and courteously. Fellow bicyclists, meanwhile, include deliverymen, one of whom, while we were stopped at a red light, used his not-yet-proficient English to give me tips on how to avoid cops. The bikers include businessmen in shirtsleeves and shorts and women in casual work attire—skirts and half-sleeve shirts or no-sleeve dresses.

And I’ve learned what works and doesn’t work with the bikes. The keyfob-docking system is ingenious—when there are bikes to undock, and when the docks accept returned bikes without making a grinding noise and giving you a yellow light (inconclusive) instead of a green one (safely docked). I’ve had to call bike share three times out of at least 60 rides so far to report “open” rides after getting a yellow light; I couldn’t undock the bike or re-dock it into another slot. (Customer service has been good, though.) My biggest problem so far, especially when walking home from work, is passing empty kiosks until I’ve gotten so close to my building that I don’t need a bike. Another problem is the system’s limited range. I can’t ride a bike up to Zabar’s on the Upper West Side on a weekend to buy lox and cream cheese, for example, or to my favorite gelato shop on the Upper East Side, because the system extends north only as far as Central Park South. Owners of retail businesses should realize that having a bike dock in front of an establishment, even if it replaces parking spaces, will attract customers rather than repel them.

Why ride? Besides the exercise and challenge, in a dense space, cycling allows for interesting social interaction. As a pedestrian, I often don’t think of cars and trucks as having drivers; on the street, I know those vehicles have people in them—and hope they’re paying attention. To a surprising extent, they are. Cabdrivers have apologized for parking in the bike lane; car and truck drivers have waved me on to go ahead of them. One driver was about to get out of his car and help me shove my bike into a particularly tricky docking station until I got it in after a few tries. A construction worker saw me go by and said, “There’s a lot of girls on bikes now.” A doorman waved parked livery cabs away from the bike lanes. Other women bicyclists nod to me in understanding, as do bikers generally—whether moving to pass me on the left or asking questions about how to use the bikes. Other than a young pedestrian in headphones who refused to get out of the bike lane, I have yet to see anyone genuinely hostile to cyclists.

Biking in Manhattan has turned out to be unexpectedly enjoyable. It’s refreshing to emerge from an Amtrak train into dank Penn Station and know that a pleasant bike ride awaits, rather than a grimy subway trip. I’m not the only one who thinks so: since Citi Bike launched over Memorial Day, 74,856 people have signed up for annual memberships. On good-weather days, more than 40,000 people ride; even on rainy or hot days, ridership tops 30,000.

Many of these new riders are likely New York City voters, and the city’s two Republican mayoral candidates should keep that in mind. Asked whether New York should have more bike lanes in a recent debate, both Joe Lhota, the former MTA chief, and John Catsimatidis, the billionaire oil-refinery mogul, said no. (Lhota later temporized, saying that he wanted more community involvement on bike-lane placement.) With five registered Democrats for every Republican in the city and facing a challenging political climate, the GOP candidates can’t afford to antagonize any voters—especially when many are becoming devotees of a popular new initiative.

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