Summer Streets 2012 — Saturday No. 1

Yes, I was one of those New Yorkers who was never around on Saturdays in August.  Then I started working at Bike and Roll and Summer Streets came into my life.

For those of you who don’t know, Summer Streets takes place every year during the first three Saturdays in August.  From 7am to 1pm on each of these days, the city shuts down Park Ave. and Lafayette St. creating a seven-mile car-free haven for pedestrians, bikes, roller skaters, and scooter-ers.  Plus, the southern two lanes of 72nd St. are roped off to create a bike lane into and out of Central Park.  For anyone north of the event and near the park, it’s the perfect car-free conduit to Summer Streets.

Let me reiterate the virtues of doing anything in New York EARLY!  The cops have blocked off the streets by 6:30am and the world is your oyster!  There are some spandex jackrabbits in the park, but peeling off onto 72nd St. means you’ve left it all behind.

I stop at our first (or last depending on whether you’re traveling north or south) location at 51st St.  There are lots of bikes waiting for participants looking for their FREE one-hour rental.  No one is looking yet.  Bike and Roll provides helmets with the bikes so that everyone can ride safely.  I snag the cameraman for NBC who is filming the various activities available and let him know where we are and what we’re doing.  He says he’ll get to us when he can.

On to the next Bike and Roll rental location at the Midtown Rest Stop at 25th St.  By now it’s a little after

7am, but the streets are still pretty empty.  One or two people step up for their FREE bike rental.  The bikes go out fast after 8am or so.  The NY1 truck is there.  I ask the cameraman to take some b-roll of people renting our bikes and he does.  Everyone likes the idea of a free bike ride.  In order to take a Bike and Roll bike, you need to sign a waiver and leave a credit card (in case the bike sprouts legs and walks away).

The Union Square Farmer’s Market is in full swing and right on the Summer Streets route.  The Saturday market has the largest selections — fresh veggies, cheeses, breads, jams, you name it.  Perfect picnic provisions, if you find a place along the way where you want to stop for lunch or a snack.

SoHo comes next.  The views of downtown are gorgeous and there’s some very interesting street art.  The line is forming for the free bike rentals.  It’s expected.  Everyone remembers the joy of riding a bike and when it’s free its irresistible.  There are a couple of mild hills along the route, but overall it’s flat and easy.  There are small stretches where the route narrows and the bikes can clog up a bit.  Definitely give little kids some space — they have a tendency to swerve unexpectedly (although I did see some solid tiny cyclists who were definitely no more than four).

I finally make it to Foley Square, the beginning (or end) of Summer Streets.  There are so many activities to do and watch!  A zipline (available with timed tickets), a craft center for kids, a performance stage (I saw and heard Chinese drummers who then paraded around the square), strength training, an opportunity to join the Million Trees organization.  It seemed as if you could name it, it was there.  And there was a line for our bikes.

It’s time to head north again to see how things are progressing.  We stop at the Market City Picnic Area at the Midtown stop and taste some amazing, fresh watermelon gazpacho courtesy of Whole Foods.  A free Chobani yogurt is also revivifying (Saturdays in August do have a tendency to be hot).

It looks like our people are doing well despite lots more people wanting bikes than can have bikes.  Everyone seems to be happy except the people who are feeling the heat.  Unfortunately, the one-hour rule gets flaunted here and there despite an admonition that those who bring the bikes back late will be charged $1 per minute.

What’s my favorite spot on the seven-mile route?  Riding through the part of Park Avenue that winds through the MetLife building above Grand Central Terminal.  Look, Ma, no cars!  I’ve never ridden it when there’s actual traffic, but I do ride it four times on Saturday.  Park Avenue on the other side is fairly empty and the ride back up to 72nd St. is just fun and thrilling.

The line at our 51st location is long, far more than we’ll be able to accommodate before the event ends.  We count how many people we’ll be able to put on bikes and tell the rest that they won’t.  No one wants to leave.  The irresistibility of bikes.  The same thing happens at our three other locations.  We are telling people that we won’t be able to put them on a bike and yet they stay.  We also advise them that the best way to guarantee a bike on the next Saturday is to come as early as possible.  Nine a.m. is just too late to avoid a line.

So here’s a piece of advice if 7am is not your style, if you really want to take advantage of all Summer Streets has to offer rent a bike from us at Columbus Circle, Tavern on the Green, or even Battery Park.  All offer reasonably close access to Summer Streets.  Unlike the free bike rentals, if you rent a bike from these other locations, you can drop it off at any other location for just $5 per bike and you can have it for ALL of Summer Streets and beyond (think an afternoon trip to Governors Island).  You’ll have flexibility, time, all the joys of Summer Streets, and (most important for me) NO LINES.