City Biking

A friend asked:

“I’ve been meaning to ask to you, what’s it like to bike in Manhattan? Round here in the sticks, we’ve got dedicated bike lanes, no pedestrians to speak of, and as much medium-long distance road biking as one could ask for… but biking in the world’s greatest city… how does one deal with the crowds, cars, and frequent stop lights? (Please forgive my ignorance if NYC has bike lanes.)”

I have horrendously mixed feelings about NYC biking. I commute nearly every day year round; if we didn’t have world-class public transportation and I didn’t have a job where I can work from home whenever I feel like it, I would be riding every day. Chicago biking was way better than NY biking in every detail (unless you get bored with flatness).

We do have bike lanes, although they are universally and enthusiastically adopted as double-parking lanes. Just a couple of hours ago I was riding down the 2nd Avenue bike lane in Manhattan, and in the middle of the block a slow-moving taxicab started to turn sharply into me and the bike lane. I used the alert system I’ve been trying out lately — screaming a terrible, bloody-murder scream at the top of my lungs. This stopped him, and he actually screamed a terrible bloody murder scream back at me, which made me laugh and buoyed my mood all the way to the Manhattan Bridge.

When I was living in Oxford, every now and then I would put my bike on the bus to London (and once I rode to London from Oxford) and ride around there. Riding in London — even outside the congestion-charge zones — was ridiculously, profoundly peaceful compared to NYC. I thought I might as well be in quiet parts of 1990s Denver or anywhere else.

You ask specifically: crowds? One avoids them, which means avoiding Times Square and Soho on weekends; if you have to go a route that might take you through Times Square (Broadway is generally convenient for this) you might try 9th Avenue instead, or you might just suck it up and take Broadway and stay with the cars to deal with the annoying clumps at 42nd and 34th. Ha, on Thursday (after I started writing this) it came out that Bloomberg is planning to try closing Broadway to cars around those places: sounds good to me.

Cars? You’re generally going faster than them anyway. I have no compunction about taking as much of a car-traffic lane as I need to feel safe: if they’re honking at you, you know for sure that they see you. You need to be assertive and go in a straight line, and stay far enough away from the parked cars to keep from being doored. This means that usually in a bike lane I’m nearly in the car lane anyway.

I have been doored, in 2006, creeping up between a parked car and a taxi that I didn’t notice was discharging its passengers. Got an edge-of-door shaped bruise down my thigh, and some scrapes.

I have been caught between a parked car and a big white box truck that was moving, I think in 2005. That was fucking scary. My handlebars — already a too-narrow-for-me 36cm — got hooked on some piece of the rear of the truck, which steered me to the left into the parked car, then pushed the handlebar into the car, then kept turning the handlebars, which pushed my wheel against the car, ultimately bending it like a taco, but freeing up enough room for the truck (oblivious) to unhook my handlebars and let me stop getting pulled along by it. The wheel wasn’t salvageable, but I was intact. Pedestrians stopped to help me make sure I was okay, and it was in Manhattan so it wasn’t far from a mediocre bike shop, where I got the crappy front wheel that I still ride today — pretty sadly out of true, though after an emergency swap in of a very fancy wheel of Sara’s, I might at least try to true it.

Those experiences have taught me some valuable caution around the range of possible encounters with cars. My comfort zone for speed of creeping along stopped traffic, for the door zone in general, and for passing between two vehicles, has gotten much larger. These are crucial city-biking senses, and I’m glad I learned them before I damaged my brain stem. I think they will serve me well, but that assumes that driver behavior is consistent in different places, and my experiences as a driver have shown me that it isn’t necessarily. I think for my purposes it should be.

Stop lights? Essentially one treats them as ‘Yield’ signs. I am more cautious than many cyclists I see, but more flagrant than some. The “no cop, no stop” rule is a decent rule of thumb, but Brooklyn especially is full of maniac drivers who can appear out of nowhere at very high speed, or who don’t turn on their headlights in full darkness, so a more nuanced, cautious mode of law-scoffing is in order.

There are some nice rides available not too far from the city, but you have to ride through awfulness to get to most of them. I haven’t had a particularly nice city ride since Chicago.

The only places I’ve encountered real psychopaths were both north of Oxford. Once I walked my bike in front of a guy who was second in line at a roundabout, and for some reason he honked at me. With my NYC reflexes I gave him the finger. This inspired him — with his 6 year-old son in the backseat — to chase me (riding now) down Banbury Road, trying to hit me with his car. I got up on the sidewalk, and still through several intersections he would gun his engine and turn abruptly into the cross street to try to hit me. Still, on a bike you’re faster than a car, so I lost him in traffic even in his murderous rage. The other time was not car-related, but a good vignette: a maybe-20-year-old guy on a lovely rural path who was majorly freaking out and being restrained by two friends. As I approached I slowed and started to ask the friends “do you want me to call the police?” He broke free of his friends and started full-out sprinting toward me. In like PCP-grade monster mode. I was on the big chainring, and so my acceleration — panicked, now adrenaline-augmented — was nightmarishly slow at first. At one point he was maybe three feet from me, but after that I was going fast enough to outpace him and, once I was far enough away to feel relief, laugh diabolically at him. By the time I rounded a corner about 50 yards from him, he had slowed. I didn’t call the police, but I did twitter about it.

But that didn’t happen in a city, it happened in the sticks. The two points being 1) that British people have a pretty limitless capacity for random psychotic destructiveness, under the right circumstances, and 2) that nothing like this has ever happened to me in New York. Although NY has its share of horror stories: this just this month and this unforgettable one from 2004: “Woman Struck by 3 Hit and Runs, Police Say”.

Which is why you ride in a straight line, take the lane, keep freshly-charged batteries in your bright lights, and even wear a big yellow Browne Belt at night, because as dorky as it looks, you will always look more fashionable alive and in motion than dead and dragged 17 miles across two boroughs.

But you keep riding, because it’s fun and smart and fast and physiologically imperative. And because sometimes you get out of New York and find lovely back roads that you could ride for weeks, and you need your saddle-area to be in shape to ride for that long.