“Aren’t you nervous about cycling around here?” a neighbor asked as we waited for the elevator, eyeing the Bianchi bike by my side. It was a fair question. There’s plenty to be nervous about when it comes to cycling in New York City. Taxis that refuse to use their blinkers. Drivers texting. Other cyclists that are in an unreasonable hurry (or are cycling the wrong way down a one-way bike lane). During my first weeks of living in Manhattan, I saw a taxi smash into a courier on a bike in midtown. “I used to be,” I answered. “But somehow the chaos became normal.”
That summer afternoon as I cycled my normal route from my apartment in Harlem — entering Central Park at its northern flank on 110th Street, climbing hills and freewheeling down slope along the park loop south to 59th Street and then back up the east side — I thought about cycling in New York. When I lived downtown, cycling didn’t seem feasible. Not only did I have no place to store a bike, but the short blocks with a stop light at every corner and lack of ample green space nearby discouraged me from giving a bike purchase serious thought.
Before I bought a bike, the CitiBike program — NYC’s bike sharing program — launched. That summer, I got on a bike for brief jaunts, familiarizing myself with the city’s bike lanes and remembering the freedom and fun that a bike can provide. I don’t own a car, and a bike began to seem like a healthy and easy solution for running errands and moving quickly between neighborhoods. When I moved uptown within a handful of blocks from Central Park, it was time to shop for a bike.
I started slow. While Manhattan does have designated bike lanes, many delivery trucks and cars waiting for parking often clutter the space, forcing cyclists back into the road. With every spin, I grew more comfortable in the saddle. Where I might have stopped and waited for traffic to clear in my first few months, I increasingly knew how to flow with traffic, how to signal my intentions, and how to be aware of cars and other cyclists around me. I watched other cyclists for cues and customs, learning with each trip. The change was so small and cumulative, that I barely noticed it happening.
Soon, I was ready to leave the comfort of Central Park. On weekends, we planned longer rides, cycling north to the George Washington Bridge and crossing the Hudson River over to New Jersey. The rivers are flanked with bike paths, and cyclists with a curious attitude will be rewarded with under-the-radar gardens, waterfront cafes and bars, and even quiet forests.
There are still nervous moments. One particularly hot summer afternoon we took a new route home from the George Washington Bridge. Traffic was thick and the bike lane was cluttered with parked cars. As I moved with the flow of traffic through an intersection, I saw a fire hydrant ahead spraying water into the road. Kids were shrieking as they cooled off and splashed with friends. There was no where to go but straight through a waterfall that was soaking the traffic ahead. I steadied the bike and focused on keeping my eyes open as I rolled through the icy spray.
That unexpected moment is one of my most vivid New York City summer memories. There are still places in Manhattan you won’t catch me cycling through any time soon — like Times Square for example — but from a former nervous cyclist, with a little time and experience on a bike, you may begin to see the roads of New York City in a different light.