Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: Cycling in the city

Letter From New York

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NEW YORK — In the mid-1890s, New York was seen as the "Metropolis of Cycledom," home to 250,000 bike-owning citizens, ten cycling journals, 55 cycling clubs in Manhattan alone, twenty-nine cycling academies, and cycling racks everywhere from Madison Square Garden to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bicycles became a status symbol for the city's middle class, which was committed to buying the most expensive, luxurious and tasteful bicycle and accessories possible. Even though it was seen as a genteel, decorous pastime and riding extremely fast was frowned on, the reduction in the cost of bicycles brought a number of new young riders who rode wildly and irresponsibly.

Still, not many years later, the city's citizenry would abandon the bicycle as quickly as it had been taken up. In 1899, approximately 1.2 million bicycles had been produced in America — four years later, only half as many were made. Public interest waned, and the bicycle magazines and schools closed.

New York City spent the decades that followed embarking on a transportation policy that stressed mass and, later, automobile transportation, and completely ignored the bicycle. However, cycling culture was revived in the city about a decade ago. Today the bicycle, rightly or wrongly, is often associated with progressive values like environmentalism, individuality, and for contributing to a more sustainable urban life. In under a decade, the Department of Transportation has constructed a 25-mile expansion of the bicycle network across the city's map. Two-thirds of the mileage is in the outer boroughs. A few of the lanes are state-of-the-art mini-highways, divided from traffic and pedestrians by strips of concrete or rows of parked cars. And the bike lanes are a welcome protection for bicyclists even if motorists complain about their shrinking slice of street space and the added traffic that it causes.

Cycling again growing

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said at a press conference, "Twenty years ago, the city took a big step forward with its first plan to build a bike lane network, and cycling is now growing by orders of magnitude, faster than any other mode of transportation in the city." For example, the Williamsburg Bridge currently has the highest cycling volumes of the East River crossings, with 7,580 cyclists daily. And as a result of the expansion of bicycle routes on city streets and bridges, along with the miles of new greenway paths in public parks, and the introduction of bike share, there have never been more people biking in New York City. A DOT cycling study from May 2014 said that about 778,000 adult New Yorkers ride a bike at least a few times a month.

Advocates of bike culture proclaim its health and environmental benefits, and convey a sense of superiority about being bicyclers. For some it validates the bike owner's hip credentials in the same way that the Victorian bicycle did gentility and respectability. Though danger persists, and in 2016 motorists killed 18 cyclists, as opposed to 14 the year before,

But clearly not every New Yorker sings the praises of bike culture. Many people I know who are in their 70s and 80s view bicyclists as a danger to themselves, especially badly-paid restaurant deliverymen on electric bikes, who seem to follow no traffic rules at all (Of course, their difficult job is totally dependent on how fast they can make deliveries). I am not certain that I can find statistics that bear out how many pedestrians are injured, but the fear and anger that pedestrians feel can't be blithely dismissed.

A friend in his mid-80s told me that he was knocked over by a bike going the wrong way in a bike lane on a one-way street. His feeling is that though cars may be more dangerous and the city's car traffic should be reduced, they mostly obey the rules of the road, while numbers of bicyclists ride illegally on sidewalks, ignore red lights as they race ahead of car traffic, and come at you out of nowhere at top speed with no apparent care for you as a pedestrian except as an obstacle. Another friend is even more critical of bicyclists. He sees them as "flouting traffic rules" like wandering into the main traffic area from designated bike lanes. He adds that "they are a menace to pedestrians and their actions threaten their own safety."

Here to stay

The question remains: are these reckless bikers merely a small sample of the bicycle subculture? Paul Steely White, executive director of the non-profit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives (fiercely committed to reducing the dependence on cars) cavalierly dismisses the uncontrolled drivers as "Lycra louts"—viewing them "as an ineradicable population of jerks who happen to ride bikes."

However, Transportation Alternatives, given its commitment to bikes as a force for achieving a clean environment, exhibits little sensitivity for the fear of pedestrians who have to deal with bikers going fifteen miles or more per hour, utterly indifferent and contemptuous of whoever stands in their way (It would help that the police spend more time enforcing regulations, and that every Citi bike rack listed the rules of the road). Still, bikes are here to stay in the city, and though I am too old to make use of them, younger people have fully embraced them.

How to regulate and control them is the question. In countries like Denmark, cycling is the norm for both general transportation and commuting to work or school. Denmark's bicyclers generally adhere to traffic rules, and a vast bicycling infrastructure exists with segregated dedicated bicycle paths and lanes and the network of 11 Danish National Cycle Routes (which extends more than 7,500 miles nationwide). NYC will never be Copenhagen in relation to bicycling, because we are a less law-abiding and socially conscious society, but it's imperative that we do better.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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