New York bicycle commuters face an uphill climb

A commuter on his way home carries his bike as he approaches the Brooklyn Bridge. The number of bicyclists in New York City has grown by 75% during the last seven years.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The undulating asphalt gave way to a sea of potholes and the bicycle shuddered with each curve and dip. Ahead, the Brooklyn Bridge rose in a long incline toward the camera-ready skyline of Manhattan.

But the cinematic quality of the city was lost on an approaching bicyclist, who saw only a tight grid of streets with thin slices of available roadway -- spaces that momentarily widen, then narrow, in the anarchy of Manhattan traffic.

Only a decade ago, the few bicyclists who tried to wedge into traffic were seen as interlopers, scorned by city drivers and pedestrians alike -- “granola eaters from a fringe movement,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a leading bicycle advocacy group.


But with rising oil prices and heightened concern about carbon emissions, riding a bicycle no longer seems quite so silly. The number of bicyclists has grown by 75% during the last seven years, according to the city’s count.

Soon an ambitious city plan will make it possible for riders to traverse Manhattan via dedicated bike lanes and circumnavigate the island along the waterfront. Sheltered bicycle parking and thousands of new public bike racks are already in place.

“It’s a new paradigm for biking in New York -- a feet-first approach,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, the transportation commissioner who has overseen a $1-million safety campaign that included handing out 10,000 bicycle helmets.

“The bike is not a hobby,” said Sadik-Khan, 47, who cycles to work. “It’s an important part of the transportation network.”

Middle-aged bicycle commuters like Amy Cohen and Gary Eckstein are now more plentiful on the streets than daredevil bike messengers, once the dominant image of New York cyclists.

Every morning, Cohen, 42, and her husband, Eckstein, 45, walk their children, Tamar, 9, and Samuel, 7, to school in Park Slope, Brooklyn, before commuting by bicycle to Lower Manhattan -- a 35-minute ride to work for each of them. As they pedal up the Brooklyn side of the bridge, their wheels rhythmically measure out the wooden beams of the pathway -- thump, thump, thump -- producing a beat overlaid with the occasional sound of a bike bell -- driiiing. Tourists who have inadvertently strolled into the bicycle lane leap back. On the upward slope of the bridge, their legs ache from the strenuous ascent. Reaching the iconic towering arches, there’s no longer a need to pedal. Descending now, faster and faster, the breeze grabs their hair and clothes.

Eckstein was once “doored” -- hit by an oblivious passenger exiting a taxi. Cab drivers still drive aggressively around bicyclists. But among other motorists, the couple have noticed a growing bicycle awareness. Partly, that’s a function of mass: There are simply more bicycles on the street today than when they began pedaling to work 15 years ago.

“The city feels much safer than when we started,” Cohen said. “It even feels safe in the dark.”

Still, Manhattan’s jam-packed streets often resemble a battleground between bike messengers, car commuters, delivery boys, jaywalkers, limousine chauffeurs and taxi drivers. A few years ago, New York Post columnist Steve Dunleavy described a “civil war” on the streets, referring to bicyclists as “pedal punks” and “kamikaze bike bullies.”

“How many times has some mobile moron on a bike, as I opened the [taxi] door after paying the fare, crashed into that door trying to illegally squeeze through?” Dunleavy wrote. “It happens, and the rider protests in profanity and yells, ‘Man, you could have killed me!’ Pity I failed.”

In response, a writer at depicted Dunleavy in unflattering terms, pointing out that motorists kill more cyclists than cyclists kill pedestrians.

Last year, 271 people were killed in New York City traffic -- including 23 bicyclists and 136 pedestrians -- the vast majority by motorists. However, about once a year a pedestrian is killed in a collision with a bicyclist.

Police here largely ignore jaywalkers, cyclists going against traffic and taxi drivers bounding across lanes to pick up customers. And anarchy begets anarchy. Cyclists -- fearing for their lives -- ride on the sidewalk, and pedestrians -- to avoid the cyclists -- step into traffic.

Jessica Lappin, a councilwoman from the Upper East Side, hears the horror stories almost daily.

Seniors in her neighborhood feel “terrorized” by delivery people who barrel down the sidewalks on two wheels, causing elderly residents to duck and dive. “While I understand that the cyclists fear for their lives in the streets,” she said, “the answer can’t be whizzing by on the sidewalk at 20 mph and running into pedestrians.”

Lappin added that she supported bicycling in general and -- if it was safer -- would probably bicycle herself.

At the foot of the bridge, Eckstein goes north, while Cohen heads south. She deftly weaves her sport bicycle through the crowd of bankers and secretaries flowing through the canyons of Wall Street. She locks the Cannon at the rack outside the Jewish Child Care Assn., where she works as a grant manager. On sunny days, the street overflows with bikes.

“It’s a beautiful way to start the day,” she said of her commute.

In theory at least, Manhattan is ideal for cyclists: a grid, flat and finite. But Transportation Alternatives estimates that cycling commuters make up less than 1% of New Yorkers. In contrast, almost 40% of Copenhagen’s 1 million residents bicycle to work -- even during long, cold winters.

“We’re not Copenhagen, but we can do better than 0.5%,” said Sadik-Khan, the commissioner.

Among bicycle activists, hope is tempered with skepticism.

“For me, the level of frustration has never been higher because the potential has never been greater,” said George Bliss, an inventor, entrepreneur and longtime bicycle activist. “This moment could pass, and we could end up with nothing.”

On a recent Friday, Bliss, 54, rode in a demonstration that began shortly after 8:30 p.m. when dozens of cyclists fanned out from Union Square, closely followed by scooter-riding police officers. In the spring night, the swarm of cyclists brought to mind a colony of bats as they wove between the cars on the darkened streets, dispersing and gathering seemingly without aim. Soon the police lost the trail.

The idea for collective protest rides first took hold in the early 1990s with cyclists demonstrating for better biking conditions in San Francisco. In New York, protesters from the group Critical Mass now gather once a month for a ride through the city, often followed by police who try to ticket them for any traffic rule infraction.

After half an hour, Bliss peeled off and pedaled across town to the Hub Station, his bicycle shop in the West Village. The shop also serves as the headquarters of his other business, Pedicabs of New York, which offers trips by streamlined bicycle rickshaws.

For 20 years, he has fought to allow more bicycles on the streets, but he has recently tired of the protests.

“It used to be celebratory: couples on a Friday night going down to Union Square for a bit of pedaling,” Bliss said. “Now it’s a fight: anarchists and cop-haters playing a silly game with the police.”

Because officers don’t ticket drivers parked illegally in bike lanes, the paths often resemble an obstacle course of taxis and trucks unloading people and goods. Bliss said that if officers began clearing bike paths by ticketing and removing illegally parked vehicles, perhaps cyclists would stay in their lanes and order would eventually come to the streets of New York.

“This is a moment when everything can happen,” he said, referring to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s willingness to work with the cyclists and the increasing number of cyclists on the streets. “But,” he added, “there are some serious cultural structures that have to be dismantled.”