Jan 31, 2014 Urban design
How New York makes city cycling easy and safe.
72 hours after I left Auckland, I was on my bike, high across the East River on the Brooklyn Bridge, making for Manhattan. Despite jetlag, in four days of riding all over New York — sharing the wrong side of the road with thousands of taxi doors and eight million pedestrians to whom a crossing signal is an offhand suggestion, I felt safer on my bike than I ever do in Auckland.
I grew up on two wheels. We rode across Papatoetoe to school every day and, throughout my teens, my mates and I would race one another across South Auckland. We were Greg LeMond, Laurent Fignon, all the 80s Tour de France heroes (pre-drugs). We raced because we wanted to get a spot in the always-overflowing bike sheds. (Those sheds are gone; the property manager reckons he sees only four or five bikes at the school these days.)
The 90s saw all my mates get off their bikes and into cheap Japanese imports, but I kept riding, and worked in bike shops. Apart from blatting down Great South Rd in rush hour, the most extreme sport I could think of was being a New York City cycle courier. This past May, I finally made it to Manhattan.
I’d taken the Gentleman’s Steed — my Giant touring bike with flat bars and a Brooks saddle — to ride the 5 Boro Bike Tour, a mad, thrilling experience that started back in 1977 as a bike education project with a bunch of high-school kids, and is now a big tourism event and even bigger fundraiser for Bike New York.
They close 65km of roads to cars for half a day and fill them with 32,000 riders — people of all types. Imagine a ride from Devonport up to Greenhithe, down the Northwestern Motorway through Avondale and Onehunga, across to Pakuranga and back around St Heliers to a party at Silo Park, and you get some idea. Like a lazier, more picturesque Round the Bays, with a coffee break halfway.
We rode at a leisurely pace, arriving on Staten Island four hours after we started in Battery Park. It was an out-of-body privilege to ride on a freeway closed for the day, but the real surprise came from exploring the city by bike on the days either side of the ride.
We left my sister’s house in Brooklyn and joined the commuters rolling down Prospect Park West’s protected bike path, bagels in hand, shooting the breeze with the locals. We parked in a 12-bike corral outside a cafe and argued the merits with the experts — there’s a lot of healthy debate in the New York bike community. No one absolutely agrees on anything.
We cycled over the protected bike path on Manhattan Bridge, me riding eye-to-eye with the D Train on my left, tenth-storey apartment windows on my right, Beastie Boys in my headphones and a million questions in my mind: how did insanely litigious, snow-and-heat-wave New York go from a bike ban in the 80s to a 10,000-bike-share scheme today — while in temperate, spacious Auckland, cycling still sits below the margin of error in every survey? How is it I feel so safe here on a bike? Why do I have to fear for my life every time I head out in Auckland?
We stopped on the Lower East Side to take in the bikes-only traffic lights, counting 29 other two-wheelers at one intersection. Right the way up Manhattan on 2nd, across to the New York branch of my workplace on 33rd, dismounting as instructed to walk along the new pedestrian boulevard in Times Square, then back down a protected bike path on 9th, all without a single bird being flipped.
It all felt strangely right — and I felt energised, localised, happy and safe. Nine out of 10 car horns were polite warnings. Fellow cyclists yelled out helpful things (“You’re going the wrong way up the lane!”). I noticed we never had to grapple with New York’s infamous “I’m walkin’ heah” pedestrians, because that’s partly what all the bike infrastructure there has been about: keeping cars, bikes and feet moving in their own spaces.
In Auckland, I commute most days on that same Giant. I really love my cars, but getting around by bike is quite simply easier, cheaper, better for me physically and mentally, just as fast or faster over 5km, and frankly a fuck-load of fun when you’re not being screamed at by people who don’t get it.
I used to riff on that negative energy, riding like a cockroach, scuttling from safety to centerline, unloved and alarming. But I have kids now, so it’s not about me any more. My eldest, Ruby, is seven — same age as I was when I started riding to school — but I wouldn’t let her near an Auckland road by herself.
It’s not her; it’s just that our culture has shifted so far, and her rainbow eyes of joy won’t protect her from people who nod at proto-Clarkson columnists like the Herald’s Eric Thompson, who got incensed by an ad to Slow Down Around Schools.
I’d like my family to be able to ride the ridges via Great North, Ponsonby, Karangahape and Grafton Rds to the Domain without fear of being spread across the street. I would like my kids to grow up on two wheels in their own city — one that knows how to look after people, however they get around. If they can do it in politicised, motorised New York, they can do it anywhere.
First published in Metro, July 2013. Photo by Gemma Gracewood.
Also on metromag.co.nz: Bike better, Auckland: Could We Do What New York Did?
Greg Wood flew to New York courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines, with the kind assistance of MokoISM.