Did you know that New York is the birthplace of the bike path?
Brooklyn was the first city in the country where citizens could enjoy a sliver of public road for the purpose and pleasure of getting around on two wheels. That was back in 1894. I live in what is now one of the top five bike-friendliest cities in the U.S., where food and documents arrive fastest at their destinations via bicycle delivery and where asphalt designated for biking measures 250 miles. Still, I rode a bike in New York traffic for the first time only a few weeks ago. I discovered a city pastime that doubles as free transportation 117 years after everyone else.
And it was all by accident.
The idea had been simple – I would pick up my son’s bike on the Upper West Side, ride it across Central Park then walk it to Grand Central Station to catch a train to Connecticut. I’d never risked biking in traffic and I wasn’t about to try.
At the station I rolled my bike past a group of conductors resting by the 3:07 train to New Haven.
“Where do you think you’re taking that bike?” one asked, leaning against a railing.
“On the train.” I answered. I’d done my research about peak and off-peak restrictions so I knew I’d have no trouble.
“I don’t think so…next train for bikes is 8:45 p.m.” I almost laughed then stopped.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope.” He double-checked and he was right – a spike in commuter train travel had expanded the “no bike” rule to include mid-afternoon runs to the suburbs.
I considered my options. I was wearing high heels so taking the bicycle for a 5-hour walk around Manhattan would be punishing. I could meet a friend for after-work drinks or visit a museum but the lock dangling from my son’s heavy bike chain was damaged – I would have no way of keeping the bicycle safe if I went indoors. One choice seemed obvious. I would go for a bike ride – a really long bike ride.
In comfortable shoes I would have walked from Grand Central Station to where Manhattan’s Greenway bike lane runs along the East River. Instead, well…let’s just say there’s a reason the NYC Department of Transportation launched the “Don’t Be a Jerk” campaign featuring Mario Battaglia and John Leguizamo breaking every rule of bike rider etiquette.
I realized the error of my ways and rode my son’s bicycle off the crowded sidewalk to follow German tourists on Bike & Roll rental bikes. The couple looked so poised biking alongside speeding patrol cars, double-parked trucks and texting pedestrians that it seemed reasonable to follow their example. A lifelong Upper West Sider was humbly learning lessons from visitors in my own hometown.
Cautiously I made it to the East River with them. They rode on toward the United Nations and I continued south, relieved to find ample space there designated for bicycles. But that stress-free moment didn’t last long – the Greenway picks up then leaves you feeling a bit stranded here and there until you get further downtown. I found that out while careening out of the way of cars at Midtown parking garages, a gas station, marina, and more. Finally, the bike lanes became more defined and the riding became a real pleasure. Oh, and I became an instant bike lane advocate.
It didn’t take long for me to leave the Greenway to begin criss-crossing Lower Manhattan. On Delancey St. I encountered an old man, at least 85 years old, riding a bike loaded with grocery bags. He rode so serenely – one hand on the handlebar, one relaxed at his side, holding a cigarette – that I decided to fall in behind to match his easy pace. One…two…one…two. Moving at such a steady rate I fell into a state of relaxed concentration – not passive as I might be during a ride in a park, and not in a panic, as I’d been during those first few minutes in traffic – just aware and growing more confident.
I suddenly felt embarrassed that it had taken me so long to try riding in New York when the senior citizen before me did it with such ease. With that in mind I decided to begin following signs for the Williamsburg Bridge and turned onto a side street off of Delancey. Crossing that bridge into Brooklyn was exhilarating – great views, beautiful breezes – but crossing over from pedestrian to New York bike rider was the real reward.
There are two more weeks left to celebrate Bike Month NYC.
Visit www.bikemonthnyc.org to find over 200 rides, workshops, races and events taking place through the end of May that promote cycling in New York City. Events include a breakfast for bike commuters planned for May 20, 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., at the Hudson Greenway near W. 70th St. courtesy of the Upper West Side Streets Renaissance Campaign.
Maria Gorshin, who runs the blog City Girl Writes, is a West Side Rag columnist and native Upper West Sider.
Photo by Maria Gorshin.