Kenneth Jackson recalls his first class bike trips in the 1970s with a certain fondness. “You and I and a dozen other people would go out on bikes and we’d ride around Manhattan. And we’d say, ‘This looks interesting! Let’s go down here!’” These were as much exploratory missions as they were teaching moments.
In recent years, things have changed. His now-famous midnight bike ride is attended by more than 200 students, has been covered by the Wall Street Journal, requires a police permit, and is accompanied by an ambulance. “It’s not spontaneous anymore. … It’s gotten bigger, it’s less fun, it’s more bureaucratic. I have to know which streets are one way, where there’s a bathroom, where people can get a hamburger.” Suddenly, Jackson’s bike ride is one of the hottest Thursday nights of the semester.
In much the same way, biking in New York City has exploded over the past ten years. More than 200,000 people now bike on a daily basis. Furthermore, almost 10,000 people commute by bike from Brooklyn to Manhattan over the Williamsburg, Manhattan, and Brooklyn bridges on any given day. Down at City Hall, Mayor Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan are watching, and attempting to accommodate the growing two-wheeled masses. And in Morningside Heights, Columbia administrators and students increasingly point to biking as a choice mode of transportation. As Jackson notes, “There’s almost no downside [to] a bike.” And yet, as New York City is seeing, “bicycling requires change.”
Central Park: “A serviceable machine”
By now, I know the six-mile outer loop of Central Park by heart. I mentally prepare myself to climb the Three Sisters, a trio of steep hills in the north part of the park, before even leaving my building. Slow and steady wins the race, I’ve learned. My right hand shifts my gears automatically now. My first inhales after entering the park at 110th and Frederick Douglass are familiar, and I am comforted by the silence, interrupted only by the chatter of tourists and the whine of road bikes speeding past. The initial wafts of horse shit usually hit around 72nd Street. I weave in and out of the pedicabs, with their dinging bells and unpredictable paths. After navigating the tourist chaos that is south Central Park, I am rewarded with the sweeping reservoir views of the East 80s and 90s, before flying down the hills of the Harlem Meers. This was my first bike ride in New York, in spring 2010, and it remains my favorite.
In fact, this is where some of the first bike rides in Manhattan took place. The bicycle exploded across America in the late 19th century, especially in New York. The city’s parks department was integral to its success. By 1885, Brooklyn park officials developed rules for cyclists, primarily applicable in Prospect Park, and noted that “this machine … would be found very serviceable” for traveling “upon the park and parkways.” “Wheelmen” formed clubs across the city and Long Island, and were required to obtain badges to ride in parks.
In 1894, the country’s first bike path was completed on Ocean Parkway. The path’s speed limit was 12 miles per hour, a pace most modern-day Central Park racers would scoff at. Shortly thereafter, additional bike paths along the waterfronts of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx were constructed. In 1936, under Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, the west drive of Central Park was finally opened to cyclists in order to establish a space for them outside of streets and park paths, which were deemed “dangerous.” Moses was integral in championing additional bike paths in parks across the city.
Interest in cycling as a recreational activity and competitive sport ebbed and flowed, then picked up speed again in the 1960 as the city began to close avenues and park drives to cars at certain hours to accommodate cyclists. Street bike lanes emerged in 1978 in Manhattan, connecting Central Park South to downtown. In the 1990s, the city government decided to recuperate the once-industrial western shore of Manhattan and develop a bike greenway.
Today the Hudson River Greenway stretches from Dyckman Street in Inwood to Battery Park, and is the most heavily used bikeway in the United States.
For most of the bicycle’s history, it has served as a purely recreational tool for New Yorkers. It’s only with the development of bike lanes and greenways, especially on inter-borough bridges, that cycling has become a practical means of transportation.
Williamsburg Bridge: “There’s strength in numbers”
Nearly every weekday, Laralyn Mowers commutes from Crown Heights to Manhattan over the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges. Mowers, who began commuting by bike in April, received her masters in human rights from Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in the spring, and is a former employee of ModSquad Cycles at 114th and Frederick Douglass. “I can get anywhere in New York on my bike faster than on the subway. I have control over my life when I take my bike,” she explains. Even though she suffered three accidents this summer, she still believes commuting by bike is the best option in New York City.
Mowers is joined by more than 17,000 New Yorkers who cycle to work on an average weekday, many of whom come from Brooklyn to Manhattan via the bridges. Commuter cycling in New York City grew by 13 percent between 2009 and 2010. More than four times as many people commuted by bike in 2010 than in 1986. Every Manhattan avenue except 11th and 12th avenues now carries more than 1,000 cyclists a day.
Why are so many people commuting by bike? George Beane, Upper West Side resident, bike commuter and member of the Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District, says it’s simple: bikes are the “fastest, cheapest, and most fun way to get around.” In many cases it’s easier to get around New York on bike, especially within Brooklyn, and between the east and west sides of Manhattan. New York’s population is rapidly growing in places like Hell’s Kitchen, Greenpoint, and Bushwick, where subway service is inconvenient and bus service is painfully slow.
Biking, by comparison, is fast. Each year, Transportation Alternatives, a bike activism organization, sponsors a morning commute race in which three people travel from their homes in Fort Greene to their offices in Union Square. A cyclist, a taxi passenger, and a subway passenger speed to work, coping with traffic and train delays along the way. For the past eight years, the cyclist has won.
The Department of Transportation, under Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan, is encouraging New Yorkers to bike to work, primarily by constructing new bike lanes, increasing bike parking inside and outside of office buildings, and developing a new city-wide bike share, which will launch next year. As Brent Tongco of Bike New York, a bicycle education and advocacy group, notes, “The DOT has done a tremendous job in building bicycle connectivity. Ten years ago I wouldn’t be able to find a bike lane for the life of me. Now they’re almost everywhere.”
Both Beane and Tongco add that rising concerns about health, efficiency, and cost motivate people to bike, too. For the price of a monthly MetroCard, you can buy a decent used bike to commute. Though Beane has been biking in the city for 45 years, he has noticed that the recent surge in cyclists is among “all ages and all incomes.” Tongco cites rising environmental awareness as motivation for many people to bike, even though New Yorkers’ carbon footprints are below the national average.
Ultimately, however, the commuter biking movement is building on itself. Beane notes that “people are following the lead of other cyclists. What works for some gets picked up by others.” Seeing other people biking safely, and talking about how much they enjoy it, empowers new cyclists. This cyclical effect makes biking safer for everyone—and safety is paramount. “There’s the strength in numbers idea. You won’t have more bicyclists without infrastructure improvements, and you won’t have those without more bicyclists. Janette Sadik-Khan is a visionary and she knows this is cyclical, and she wants to take the lead … so that the people come out of the woodwork and start biking,” Tongco says.
There are plenty of cyclists who have climbed out of the woodwork and are riding on the Williamsburg Bridge when I journey across it on a recent Sunday afternoon. I enter the bridge from the Manhattan side, exiting the trafficked chaos of Delancey Street. The climb up is always steeper than I remember. At first I’m speeding past the pedestrians in our semi-shared lane, then they’re passing me and I’ve lost my breath. Cyclists coming from the Brooklyn side fly by me on their sleek road bikes and European-style cruisers. As I leave Manhattan behind, the sound of traffic below me on the bridge dissipates, and the J train rumbles by. When I look up, I am surrounded by sweeping views of Brooklyn, lower Manhattan, and the East River. This, I remember, is why I started biking in New York—to feel connected to the city itself, to experience it as I move through it. Within minutes I reach the top and descend into the industrial, bike-laned quiet of south Williamsburg.
The DOT’s all-stops-out effort to increase biking in New York is not to be underestimated. As part of PlaNYC, the city’s sustainability initiative, the DOT constructed 200 bike-lane miles between 2006 and 2009. In the same period, it installed 3100 on-street bike racks. Commuter cycling grew 45 percent. By 2030, the city will have 1800 bike-lane miles. The DOT has also led innovation in cycling infrastructure. Not all bike lanes are created alike. Some are separate white lanes painted on the road, others are protected bike paths that utilize a lane of parked cars to separate vehicle and bike traffic. Many bike lanes are painted green to increase motorist and pedestrian awareness.
Bike parking, a seemingly small issue, has been another force for innovation within DOT bike policy. Under the Bicycle Access to Office Buildings law, passed in 2009, office building owners are required to accommodate cyclists who bike to work, if they so request. The DOT has grown the network of outdoor bike racks and developed a sheltered bike parking structure.
A lack of residential bike storage prohibits many people from buying and commuting by bike. For this and other reasons, the DOT has partnered with Alta Bicycle Share, a private company, to develop a city-wide bike share, which will launch next summer. For an annual fee of less than $100, city residents will have access to 10,000 bikes at 600 stations across Manhattan and Brooklyn, and potentially other boroughs. Modeled after similar programs found across the U.S. and Europe, the NYC Bike Share will allow people who either don’t have the physical space or desire to own a bike to move throughout the city on two wheels. It will also allow locals and tourists to rent sporadically, for recreational purposes. Once again, the DOT and Commissioner Sadik-Khan are driving the increase in cycling.
Columbus Avenue: Towards “complete streets”
Yet the uptick in ridership has not been met with city-wide acclaim.
“What are cyclists?” asks Jackson. “Are they vehicles like a car, or people like a person? They can’t fight with cars, but it’s not fair for them to fight with people either.” This dichotomy is at the heart of many New Yorkers’ discontent with the growth of bicycling. Deliverymen on tricked-out bikes frequently ride on sidewalks or on the wrong side of the street. Nearly every cyclist runs red lights (myself included). “Lots of people see bicyclists as menaces, and Janette Sadik-Khan as a Nazi,” Jackson says. It often seems that cyclists want all the rights of the road and none of the responsibilities. Drivers complain that cyclists riding in traffic are unpredictable and don’t signal. Pedestrians, accustomed to looking out for cars but not bikes, are caught off-guard.
Bike lanes and street redesigns have attempted to create a third space for cyclists, in line with their seemingly separate status. The Columbus Avenue redesign, between 96th and 77th streets, is a prime example. The bike lane lies on the east side of the street and is separated from traffic by a lane of parked cars. Like most street redesigns in New York City, the Columbus one was decided between the local community board, the DOT, and residents. In 2009, Community Board 7 requested that the DOT develop a plan to implement a protected bike lane on the Upper West Side. Mel Wymore, outgoing chair of CB7, says: “There was a lot of common support for a bike lane on the Upper West Side, especially on Columbus.” The lane was seen as the first step in “creating a network of viable lanes” in the neighborhood. In April 2010, the DOT responded with a complete street redesign plan for Columbus between 96th and 77th streets. From here, CB7 approved the plan with community support.
Construction was slated to start on the redesign in August 2010, when the community board was on a summer hiatus. The DOT, without CB7’s consent, changed several design elements before implementation, in what Wymore sees as a mix of an increase in available funds from the city and a “broader vision” for the avenue. The new plan more than quadrupled the number of pedestrian islands and reduced parking even more. “It would have been nice to have been involved,” Wymore states. “We didn’t have an opportunity to inform the community.” As a result, many people who supported the new bike lane as a temporary measure were “disconcerted by the permanence” of the new plan.
“There’s a difference between thinking about a bike lane and the actual implementation of it,” Wymore asserts. “The physicality [of the Columbus redesign] was different than what people thought.” As a result, he created a working group last fall comprised of various stakeholders, such as avenue businesses, concerned residents, local government officials, and cycling advocates. The group went block by block to assess problems with the redesign. The most outspoken critics were (and still are) residents in need of parking and business owners who rely on loading and unloading, both of which were significantly reduced by the redesign. 81st Street was also heavily hit by the changes and produced angry residents and business owners, some of whom have now come to firmly support the bike lane. There were concerns about the new pedestrian islands, which can be confusing for pedestrians themselves. “The bike lane was blamed for a lack of parking, and loading/unloading spaces, but it wasn’t the bike lane’s fault,” Wymore says.
The group produced a report with specific adjustments for the bike lane, such as signage and turning lane changes. Wymore credits the group’s success on the fact that “we were able to be data-driven and specific” in addressing the issues instead of relying on opinions and feelings. “I think the DOT is dedicated,” he notes. “People sometimes feel like the DOT does not have a robust public process before it moves forward, but its job is enormous.”
My ride down the Columbus lane is short and bumpy. As I enter on 96th Street, I immediately hit a series of storm drains and sewer covers that last the entire lane. It’s nice not having to worry about cabs cutting me off, but I nearly hit three pedestrians, who seem to think that the bike lane is actually made for casual strolls, chatting, or waiting to cross the street. At 81st Street, I run into the Sunday farmers market. While the street redesign stipulates specific hours for normal merchant deliveries, there’s a constant flow of movement between farmstands and trucks on Sundays, and I’m right in the middle of it. I do my best to dodge farmers carrying crates of produce until I finally arrive at 77th Street and rejoin traffic. Thanks, DOT and CB7, for building me a bike lane. I appreciate the sentiment. But next time, I might just ride with traffic instead.
I am reminded by Tila Duhaime of Upper West Side Streets Renaissance that the Columbus redesign is not just about me as a cyclist. Rather, it’s about making the street “more democratic” for all. The increased bike traffic on Columbus since the redesign is “speaking to a large unmet need” among cyclists for safe streets. Yet the new Columbus is also designed to “improve the streetscape generally” especially for pedestrians. The goal is to make the street safer for everyone. The DOT’s data from the first six months of the new Columbus show that the redesign has done just that. Total crashes are down 34 percent, and vehicular speeding has also dropped. Sidewalk bike ridership has dropped from a pre-redesign high of 9.3 percent to a current maximum of 2.8 percent. City Councilwoman Gale Brewer’s office, in a separate survey, found that 70 percent of locals surveyed believe the street redesign is “moving in the right direction.”
Beane also points to cyclists as just one element of establishing “complete streets.” He believes that the new Columbus is closer to achieving this goal than the old. Because the bike lanes went in with other, more controversial changes, such as decreased street parking, all of the subsequent complaints were associated with the bike lanes. He attributes this to “growing pains” and nothing more. “Merchants have gotten accustomed and deliveries are working out well now.” Like Duhaime, Beane points to the community task force established by Wymore as the driving force in resolving the problems that arose with the redesign.
Wymore believes that the Columbus redesign should be the first of many DOT initiatives to “engage the whole city around the idea of complete streets.” The Columbus changes have been a challenge and a shift for the community. “It’s difficult when you’re talking about change of behavior,” he notes. The issue is not just that bike lanes, street redesigns and the changing urban landscape require personal, everyday changes, but that “people keep being taken by surprise” when these changes arrive on their block.
Morningside: “A much bigger idea of what New York is”
By now, I know Broadway between 110th and 116th streets on two wheels just as well as I do on two feet. I’ve ridden these six blocks in the freezing cold and in mid-August sweat, coming back from a day trip to Brooklyn and from countless loops in Central Park, in the setting sun and at two in the morning.
I pass Westside and Deluxe on the uptown side and know that I am slowly, block-by-block, making my way home. I dodge delivery trucks and wave to friends before pulling over at the gates. On my way downtown, everything is a blur until the chaos of the 110th intersection. Only there do I begin to feel the anonymity and freedom of leaving Morningside Heights.
Stephanie Jurburg, a Columbia College senior, explains why biking is especially viable for college students: “It’s cheaper than the subway, for one,” she notes. And furthermore, “You get to see way more. … You know where you are.” Cycling “gives you a much bigger idea of what New York is.” Grasping that “bigger idea” is why many of us chose to attend Columbia in the first place.
It’s for these reasons that Elizabeth Kipp-Giusti and the Columbia EcoReps are developing a campus-wide bike share program, to hopefully launch in 2012. The project was born out of Columbia Public Safety’s mysterious “bike closet,” a collection of abandoned bikes on Columbia’s campus that public safety officers clipped. The issue was simple: the bikes were taking up valuable space in Low Library. A working group, which Kipp-Giusti was a part of, started examining the feasibility of turning the collection into a bike share last year. In the same way that the City’s bike share is not targeting the most avid cyclists, who already have their own bikes, the Columbia share would serve people who are interested in cycling but not yet committed bikers. “A bike share is a program for a people who happen to have a couple of hours and want to go for a bike ride,” she explains. She envisions students using the bikes to pick up groceries at the 72nd Street Trader Joe’s or taking a day trip to the Brooklyn Bridge. The program does not seek to revolutionize the way students get around the Morningside campus but rather “provide a choice to students who want to get out into the city more, which is one of the main purposes of being at a school like Columbia.”
Yet the University also must consider liability, rider education, and the actual mechanism of checking bikes in and out. Most pressing among the unresolved issues is who will have access to the share. Would the program be limited to students, or would faculty and staff be included as well? Currently the bike share committee within the EcoReps is working to garner student council support, and writing a strategic plan to bring before the administration. The challenge is developing the program so that it can last long after students on the committee graduate.
Beyond the bike closet, Public Safety has been the origin of the majority of the University’s bike-related initiatives. Ricardo “Ricky” Morales, crime prevention director, lists the host of efforts his office has made to support cyclists: installing more than 200 bike racks across the University’s campuses, creating a program to register bikes with the NYPD in case of theft, selling expensive but effective U-locks at cost, and distributing bike maps and information. Morales mentions, with special pride, his twice-annual “Ride your bike to campus” events, which offer University students and staff free bike tune-ups and the opportunity to register their bikes with the NYPD. At the August event, 61 bikes were registered and students came from as far as Brooklyn to participate. Because of Public Safety’s efforts to “constantly promote how to secure your bike,” bike theft has decreased in recent years, and Morales believes theft rates are “evening out.” In terms of additional initiatives, Morales asserts that “what we have done is good enough.” He believes that the University’s efforts are to increase cycling are “perfect.”
The Office of Environmental Stewardship and the Work/Life Office are also working to promote biking among faculty and staff, and to some degree, students. According to Nilda Mesa, associate vice president of environmental stewardship, her office tries to advertise Public Safety’s bike-related initiatives. Environmental Stewardship hasn’t conducted a formal survey on cycling in the University community, but Mesa has noticed “that the level of interest amongst both faculty/staff and students has increased” in recent years. She points to the growth of the city’s bike infrastructure under Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan as the cause. The number of bike parking options has increased across campus, and, apart from providing information and developing the bike share, Mesa seems to think that this is the best way to promote biking in the community. She notes that, while “we can always do more, New York City has come a long way over the last few years, and so have we.”
Yet there is a general consensus among students and faculty that the university does indeed need to do more. Several students involved in realizing the EcoReps bike share explain that the initiative is now primarily student-driven, even though it originated within the administration. “You could make the argument that this is not one of the most pressing issues” the University is facing, so “it gets put on the back burner,” Kipp-Giusti says. “I don’t think there is a lack of interest from an administrative standpoint, but I do think that other things have been prioritized.”
Meanwhile, Christia Mercer, associate professor of philosophy in Columbia College, believes the University needs to step up its efforts to make biking to campus a feasible option for faculty and staff. “It makes me happy to bike” from her home on 105th Street and Central Park West, “but in the past year it has become more of a chore” with the lack of bike parking on lower campus, she explains. Now that commuter cycling has become more popular, bike parking is even more difficult to come by, and Mercer doesn’t see carrying her bike up Low Steps to her office in Philosophy Hall as a viable option.
After her bike was stolen from a bike rack in front of the guardhouse at 116th and Amsterdam, Mercer reported the incident to Public Safety, who never followed up on her report. “This happens all the time,” Public Safety told her. “They never catch anyone.” This, along with the lack of parking, leads Mercer to believe that “Columbia hasn’t gotten the fact that the bike culture has changed,” even though University administrators argue otherwise. “They don’t make it easy for those of us who have bikes.”
Ultimately, increasing infrastructure for cyclists, whether at Columbia or in New York City as a whole, must originate with increased communication between cyclists and the people who design the systems they use. It has been thanks to outspoken cyclists such as Mercer and Kipp-Giusti that the University is being to act.
New York City: “A time of tremendous adjustment”
With so much progress made in the past ten years, is New York City on track to be the next Amsterdam? Certainly, every cyclist I spoke to for this story couldn’t help but dream.
Over the next five years, “cycling will become taken for granted as another form of transportation,” Beane asserts. He notes that, while “we are going through a time of tremendous adjustment,” cycling will become more integrated into daily life, and pedestrians and drivers will adjust. He envisions interconnected bike lanes throughout New York City, specifically the extension of the Columbus lane uptown, and connections in midtown.
Before traveling and biking through Europe, “I didn’t know that post-modern countries had adopted the bike,” Jurburg says. “New York is falling behind.” And yet she confirms that cycling is taking on here, and will continue to. With reason, she points to the fact that police are cracking down on cyclists as a sign that cycling is being integrated into the cityscape. “You don’t regulate something that’s insignificant.” Mowers, however, argues that the police “need to back off of cyclists.” Instead of “punishing the bikers” as cycling becomes more prevalent, she hopes to see “a legitimate plan for biking to become a real transportation alternative.”
“We want as many people to bike as possible, from all walks of life,” Tongco says. “We want to stress the importance of safety for complete living streets.”
For now, I hop on my bike outside my building on 114th Street and fly down Broadway with traffic. On two wheels, New York is mine.