New York, #1 Bike City

This experience was from two years ago, so the landscape has probably changed since then, but from what I gather, probably not.

My friend got a job with Google Labs in New York and uprooted his family to move to Brooklyn. I was going to be in Annapolis, Maryland while touring with Minnesota Brass, so rather than taking the bus home from Annapolis, I ended one trip by starting another. I took the Amtrak Acela to New York city to visit my friend.

While in NYC, I wanted to ride bikes to get a real feel for what it’s like. Is it dangerous? Is it a cyclists paradise? Some New Yorkers don’t think the addition of bike lanes are good, stating New York will never be like Amsterdam (even though it was once New Amsterdam). My feeling is that it will always be “New York” no matter how many bike lanes are added.

Our bike route took us into Manhattan, where my friend needed to pick up his number for the NYC Century.

My friend’s bike wasn’t equipped with a bell or a horn. Something I consider to be standard equipment. Before we left he remarked, “In New York, I find it easier to just yell.” Advice that would come in handy later on.

Let me preface this ride recap by stating it was the closest I’ve ever come to being hit by a car.

The trip checked several boxes for me, since I was able to:

  1. Ride bikes in New York City
  2. Cross the Brooklyn Bridge
  3. See the USS Intrepid and several museum-worthy aircraft parked on the deck
  4. Almost be hit by a car (bonus!)

I should have put “almost be hit by a car” first on the list, because it actually happened very early on the trip. We took Smith St. from my friend’s apartment towards the Brooklyn Bridge:

Smith Street View

In this photo, it looks very tame: a single lane of traffic, a bike lane, and parking on both sides. It was a weekday, and traffic to me seemed bad. To New Yorkers it was probably normal. But to my eye it was one continuous line of crawling, bumper-to-bumper cars all the way down to the Brooklyn Bridge. Advantage: bicycles.

Nosing In

There’s one thing I learned about drivers in New York. They nose their way in. They need to nose their way in or else they’ll never get anywhere. This means slowly creeping the car into the parallel crosswalk during a green light if a car needs to turn right, no matter the number of pedestrians (no right turn on red is a city law).

Image courtesty of streetsblog

Image courtesty of streetsblog

It also means that when cars are backed up and someone wants to exit their parking space, they nose into the bumper-to-bumper traffic. Most of these actions are annoying but benign because they happen at such slow speeds.

My issue was that I was flying downhill in the bike lane when someone ahead to my right wanted to leave his parking spot, cross the bike lane, and nose into traffic down Smith St. It happened right as I was approaching, but luckily I swerved and he braked. The bike had no bell, and the driver’s window was down. So when I reacted, I resorted to a quick “hey!” so he knew I was there. We both avoided potential disaster, so I feel like it was a win. Like NYC drivers who honk all the time, I “communicated” to him, and he yielded for that brief moment. Long enough that I could swerve rather than going ass-over-teakettle over the hood of his SUV.

The rest of the ride was an uneventful, mostly leisurely ride along the Hudson River Greenway. But my chance encounter with the departing driver on Smith St. had struck a chord. NYC, being the huge city it is, simply has more of everything: more people, more bikes, more cars. To me the experience was more like mountain biking – where I’m just inches away from crashing into something – close quarters with trees, twisting turns, and narrow paths. But in NYC, all the obstacles are constantly moving.

I have a hard enough time avoiding trees on the mountain bike trails, where they stand still. Here they seemed to be closing in. It required a great amount of mental effort, but I didn’t die, and it was great fun.

Justin Foell

About Justin Foell

Justin is an aspiring urbanist stuck in suburbia. He enjoys cycling, beer, yo-yos, computers, and other geekery. Closet railfan.