On Two Wheels

MICHAEL CHARBONEAU

 
Image: Chris Maggio

Image: Chris Maggio

 

I’m on my bike, waiting in front of a four-ton Mack dump truck at the stoplight at Allen Street and Houston. It’s Monday morning and I’m on my way to work, but I’m focused on the small ocean of pavement before me and the thrum of the truck’s engine reverberating in my ribcage. To get here, I zig-zagged up and across Bed-Stuy and Williamsburg, summited the Williamsburg Bridge, and pedaled over Rivington Street to this stoplight on Allen. While some bikers see all red lights as a nuisance, I gladly rest. The walk signs on Houston change to flashing red hands and the cross-traffic dwindles. I rotate one pedal up to get ready to take off, and briefly imagine being run over by all ten wheels and eight thousand pounds of the vehicle waiting behind me. Because really, if you’re not contemplating your own death, you’re not riding a bike correctly in New York City.

The light turns green and I pedal hard across Houston to the refuge of the 1st Avenue bike lane. It’s a warm spring day, and the lane is crowded. Workers unload cases of beer just north of 5th Street, an NYPD squad car sits in prime biking real estate between 7th and St Mark’s, and I skirt around a forgotten halal cart dinner congealing in its styrofoam clamshell on 9th. There are cyclists too, of course, all negotiating these obstacles with varying degrees of success. At another stoplight, I observe the crowd: a woman in a flowing skirt astride a Citi Bike, a guy dressed head-to-toe in black denim balancing upright on the pedals of his fixie, and two spandex-clad gentlemen on a pair of sleek red racing bikes, likely the only ones at this intersection who would refer to themselves as “cyclists.”

And then there’s me in my gym clothes and helmet, sitting on a light blue Puch probably a decade older than I am. Two years ago I bought it off Craigslist for $120, and picked it up on the Upper East Side. After a quick test ride, I rode home across the Queensboro Bridge and down into Brooklyn, stopping every ten minutes or so to consult my phone for directions. Since then riding has become, even with the constant reminders of my mortality, my favorite way to get around.

I’m not the only one who’s had their first ride in the city over the past few years. Along with eating designer donuts and living in Bushwick, biking has grown from an activity for intrepid hipsters into a full-blown phenomenon, and cyclists of all stripes have been hitting the streets in unprecedented numbers. The NYC Department of Transportation released its “Cycling in the City” report earlier this year, highlighting the impressive upswing in riders—an 80% increase in the number of people biking to work between 2010 and 2015. New York now has nearly twice as many bike commuters as Los Angeles, a smaller but entirely snow-free city. Even people without their own set of wheels are riding: Citi Bike, which launched in 2013, saw an average of over 38,000 trips per day in 2016 (up 41% from the year before), and has been steadily expanding into the outer boroughs. If you scale out to include all trips and not just people going to work, nearly 1.6 million people, or one quarter of all adult New Yorkers, hopped on a bike at least once in the past year.

To accommodate and encourage this spike in two-wheeled traffic, the city has been laying down bike lanes left and right. Recently I watched as, in the span of just a few days, the DOT revamped a stretch of Sixth Avenue near my office with a brand-new lane, the kind separated from the rest of the street by a line of parked cars. Riding on these lanes is nice—aside from the pedestrians who make it their private sidewalk, the sidewalk vendors who use it for storage, the cops who park in it, and the stray trash and scummy puddles that accumulate there, it’s like having a mini street just for bikes. Although these public works are new, they’re actually just as much a part of old New York as bagels and tenement houses. America’s first-ever dedicated bike lane was opened on June 15, 1894 on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, and is still the thoroughfare of choice for riders headed to Coney Island. Bicyclists, as it turns out, were rolling across the city on two wheels before anyone had even heard of a car.

Unfortunately, urban planning is not a first-dibs arrangement, and drivers have long dominated the tug of war over the pavement. But recently the balance has slowly started to shift. Since 2006, the city has added over 250 miles of bike lanes, although not without controversy. Last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio ignored a community board’s vote against protected bike lanes and moved ahead with the DOT’s plan to build them on Queens Boulevard, also known as “The Boulevard of Death” for the number of crashes that have occurred there. It might seem odd that redesigning a street that has seen the deaths of 12 pedestrians in four years would be called into question, but people love their cars—and in New York, a parking spot is holy ground.

Cyclists are a nuisance to everyone, or so tilts the general attitude toward bikes. When I ride, I understand that every driver either does not know I exist or actively hopes for my destruction. So I try to be the guy who thrusts an arm out every time I make a turn or switch sides of the street, I ring my bell until my thumb is raw, and I strap on lights that are bright enough to be seen from a police helicopter, let alone from a driver’s seat a few feet away. Even still, I’ve been nearly run over more times than I can count: the car that veered in its lane and nearly crushed me against a row of parked vehicles, the pickup that cut me off so quickly my front tire got lodged in its wheel well and tore my handlebars out of alignment, the taxi driver who ran my roommate and me into the curb, then got out of his car to shout at us.

But if the tide – gradually – is turning, even now small victories can be found. The other week I rode to meet my girlfriend for a happy hour drink near Lincoln Center, and when we parted ways I assumed she would beat me home to West Harlem on the 1 train. Google Maps routed me up Amsterdam Avenue, and not knowing that the city had built a bike lane there last year, I expected a white knuckle slog through sixty blocks of traffic. As night fell and the storefronts on the west side went dark for the evening, I cruised uptown on a long ribbon of green painted asphalt. It was not a perfect ride—I still got cut off by a taxi and entertained numerous visions of my own demise. But it was cool enough that I barely broke a sweat, and there’s nothing quite like the feeling of breezing past block after block under your own power. When my girlfriend arrived, I was already locking up my bike.