Cyclists riding across the Brooklyn Bridge. New York City has 480 miles of bike lanes and paths, including one over each East River bridge.
Stu Cohen has not been involved in any of the police clashes or court
cases or competing City Hall bills of the past few months. He does not
see himself as a bike warrior. He simply wants to do what the majority
of residents of Amsterdam, eight million Chinese in Beijing, and a half million or
so other Americans (according to an estimate by the U.S. Census) do every
weekday. He wants to use his bicycle as his principal means of
So, how did he get into that argument over his bike last week in the middle of Tiffany's?
"I always take my bike in with me," Cohen told the employee at the Fifth Avenue jewelry store who stopped him. "It's a folding bike; it's the same size as a stroller." It made no difference; he would still have to leave.
It isn't easy being one of some 100,000 daily bicycle riders in New York
Yes, cycling is fast, cheap, and pollution free. Yes, as any of those
bicyclists will tell you, it offers good exercise and provides a great
sense of freedom.
But Cohen, who commutes via a Dahon-brand folding commuter bike
from his home in Stuyvesant Town to his job in a non-profit agency
in Tribeca, also has the typical catalogue of bicyclist's woes -- he
sometimes gets bike grease on his pant leg (he wears a dress shirt and khakis, rather than spandex); he has been
"doored," the term cyclists use when a car door unexpectedly opens in
front of them; he was recently cut off by a car with a "W" sticker.
And if New York has become a better place to bike in recent years,
bicycling in the city has somehow, in recent months, become a political act -- even a criminal act.
Arrests at a Critical Mass event
More than 250 cyclists were arrested and had their bikes confiscated in
protests of the Republican National Convention this summer. Since then,
bike advocates, the city, and the New York Police Department have been
battling in a series of lawsuits that will decide how, when, and where
groups of cyclists can ride. (See related article Can Critical Mass
Negotiate a Truce?)
Recently, Bronx City Councilmember Madeline Provenzano introduced a
bill that would require licenses on every bike in the city - and
threatens jail time for those who do not comply. Cycling groups say
Provenzano has a history of being anti-bike: she has stalled another
bill that would allow bikes inside public buildings and even tried to
remove bike lanes from her neighborhood.
"I have personally had a lot of trouble with bikes," Provenzano said.
THE STATE OF CYCLING IN THE CITY
The city's first urban bike path opened
in 1895 along Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. On the first day, 10,000 riders
showed up to ride, and it continued to be so popular that the city widened
A century later, that bikeway was still heavily used, but there
were few others. In 1994, the city with some 5,700 miles of streets had
only 56 miles of bike paths. An invention called the automobile had pushed the bike aside.
Over the last decade, however, things have changed considerably.
After years of work by cycling advocates and with millions of dollars in federal transportation funding aimed at
reducing traffic and pollution, the city has begun to build more bike
lanes, install bike racks, and outline a plan for car-free greenways, including a
32-mile loop around
Today, there are 408 miles of bike lanes and paths in the city, and pedestrian and bike pathways
over each of the East River bridges.
"We hope that one day New York will be one of the world's great
bicycling cities." Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall recently
told the New York Times.
Still with all of these measures, New York can't exactly be called bike
An average of 20 cyclists are killed each year by motor vehicles. A reminder of the
danger of riding on the city streets came last Thursday when a bike messenger was killed in midtown after
he tried to swerve around a double-parked truck.
New York City is also often referred to as "the bike theft capital of
the world." Between 60,000 and 80,000 bikes are reported stolen each year
(many more go unreported), and only two percent are ever recovered,
according to the New York Police Department.
Some of the heaviest and most expensive bike locks on the market are
named after the city: an eight pound, steel chain that sells for $129.99
is called the "New York Fahgettaboudit" lock.
When it comes to policies that encourage cycling, New York surely lags
behind European cities, but it is a poor second to other U.S. cities as well. Chicago is
planning a downtown "bike station," where cyclists can safely lock their bikes, take a shower, and even grab
a cup of coffee on the way to work.
"We're doing little better than running in place," said Charles
Komanoff, a long-time cycling activist who has been riding in New York
for 30 years.
The city's streets can be hostile and dangerous places.
Many motorists - who already spend hours stuck in traffic - do not
welcome cyclists or bike lanes and complain that cyclists don't follow
"The bike lane on 62nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues is a nightmare
for us residents," Sunset Park resident Noel Waters wrote on the Community
Gazette's message board. "The lane has no
connecting points. Nobody asked for it and nobody uses it. The
Department of Transportation has allowed double parking outside the lane
on alternate parking days in order to keep the bike lane open, which
I've never seen a cyclist on."
Cyclists, in turn, often feel threatened by cars that cut them off, park
in bike lanes, or honk their horns. And some cyclists lash out.
"I scream, bang on hoods, and I've taken off side mirrors," said Mike
Kowalski, who manages a bike store in Tribeca. "If a car gets into my
lane, I see it as a violation."
While cars, bikes, and pedestrians all have rights to the city streets
and are required to abide by traffic regulations, the real issue,
advocates argue, is which party can do the most harm. Roughly
200 pedestrians are killed each year by cars, compared to about one
pedestrian every couple of years who is killed by a bike.
Critical Mass riders state their views
On the last Friday of every month, the battle between
bikes and cars plays out in a dramatic event, called Critical Mass.
Hundreds of cyclists ride together in a large group, taking over street
lanes, riding over bridges usually open only to cars, and occasionally
stopping in the middle of a busy intersection, raising their bikes in
the air, and shouting slogans like "One Less Car."
The goal is to raise awareness of bicyclist and pedestrian rights and
promote alternative forms of transportation, but it also offers cyclists
the rush of speeding through the city's streets in the safety of a large
crowd of other bicyclists.
For years, a few hundred participants have attended the New York City
event, often with police escorts and little objection from city
In August, a few days before the start of the Republican National
Convention, 5,000 cyclists joined in the ride. The police, already
prepared for the dozens of anti-Bush protests that would occur over the
next few days, wrapped giant nets around part of the group, arresting
more than 250 for traffic violations and disorderly conduct and seizing
Since then, city officials and city cyclists have been locked in a legal
In September, five cyclists, who had their bikes confiscated, went to
court to block the city from seizing more bikes. A federal judge ruled
in their favor, saying that the city could not take bikes of people who
were not charged with breaking the law.
The city, arguing that the ride is a safety hazard and violates traffic
rules, asked the court to ban the cyclists from riding without a proper
parade permit or even to congregate at the usual meeting place at Union
Square without permission from the parks department.
Lawyers for the cyclists say they do not need a permit. Bicycles, they
say, have as much legal right to the road as automobiles, and
the millions of cars that clog the city streets every day do not need a
The battle between Critical Mass and the city has divided cyclists.
Some say a group of reckless bikers are hurting the cause. But others
argue that the case is helping build new grassroots support for
"The more people who bike the better," said Noah Budnick of
A BIKING BACKLASH?
Citing the issues with Critical Mass and her own
negative encounters with reckless cyclists, Bronx City Councilmember
Madeline Provenzano recently proposed a bill (Intro 497) that would require bike riders over the age of 16 to
register their bike with the Department of Transportation and pay a fee
of no more than $25.
Those who fail to do so would be subject to a fine of up to $300 and up
to 15 days in jail.
"I have personally had folks ride their bikes into my car, and there is
nothing you can do legally." said Provenzano. "Bikes should be subject
to all of the same laws as automobiles."
Last year, Provenzano tried to get bike lanes removed from her Bronx
neighborhood after 19 residents of Morris Park received
tickets for parking in the lane. She said the lanes were painted incorrectly, are barely used, and the local community board did not
want any bike lanes in the area.
The group Transportation Alternatives called the council member's bill "a malicious
attack against people who ride bikes in New York City."
The Department of Transportation did not return calls seeking comment on
the bill, but few other council members have voiced strong support for
When City Councilmember John Liu, who chairs the transportation
committee, was asked about the bill, he told Newsday; "When I was a kid,
I had a license plate on my bike. I'm trying to remember which cereal
box I got it from."
WHAT CYCLISTS WANT - AND THE ROADBLOCKS THEY FACE
argue that bold new policies are needed in order to convert an average
New Yorker who may ride along the bike path a few times a year into
someone who considers a bike as a mode of transportation on par with the
subway, a bus, or taxi-cab.
1. Bikes in Buildings
The first hurdle, advocates say, is for the city
to allow bikes inside buildings. There is a shortage of bike racks in
the city, just 1 for every 33 riders. In surveys, New Yorkers have cited
concerns over theft as the biggest deterrent to cycling in the city.
In 1999, a bill (Intro 155) was introduced to the City Council that would that
would require all buildings to make reasonable provisions for those who wish to bring
bicycles into their workplace.
But in the five years since the bill was introduced, it has gone
nowhere. For the last two years, Councilmember Madeline Provenzano, who
chairs the Housing and Buildings committee, has refused to hold a
hearing on it.
When asked about the measure, Provenzano said she thought it was a "good bill," but that the commitee's schedule is full until the end of the year. But she said she may consider it next year.
"And of course, I'd like to consider my [bike license] bill at the same
time," she said.
2. Car-Free Areas
Another issue is creating more car-free areas in the
city. Those that do exist are often crowded. The Hudson River is
frequently filled with cyclists, rollerbladers, joggers, and walkers.
For years, pedestrians and cyclists have been trying to ban automobiles
from Central Park and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Both parks already have
some car-free hours. Automobiles use the drives during morning and
evening rush hours during the summer, but pedestrians and cyclists want
cars banned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Transportation officials argue that banning cars from the parks would
force automobiles onto side streets, particularly during rush hour,
creating havoc for drivers and the surrounding neighborhoods. Despite
support from environmental groups and the majority of the City Council
members that represent the neighborhoods adjacent to both Central Park
and Prospect Park, the effort to make parks car free has not been
3. Traffic Enforcement
New York City automobile drivers run 1.2 million
red lights a day, according to a 2000 report by the city comptroller.
Advocates also say the police must do a better job of enforcing traffic
laws and politicians must create stiffer penalties for drivers who hit
pedestrians and cyclists.
Red light cameras, which
can spot someone running a light and issue a summons through the mail,
can help law enforcement cover more of the city. However, legislation
that would pay for more red light cameras is currently stalled in
4. Reduce Number of Cars
Some advocate more stringent methods.
The only way to really make streets safer, they say, is to reduce the
number of cars on the road. And one way to do that is to add tolls to
the East River Bridges or fees to use certain streets in the city.
London began issuing a "congestion
charge" for motorists
who drive through the central part of the city. The number of cars
decreased, and the number of bicyclists increased. The money raised from the charge goes
back into improving the city's transportation system.
The idea of putting tolls on East River bridges comes up periodically,
most recently from Mayor Michael Bloomberg who proposed a toll in order
to help balance the budget. The plan never materialized and recently
Bloomberg called the idea "impossible to enact."
IS CYCLING A CULTURAL THING?
Even if all of these suggestions were
implemented it is unlikely that New Yorkers would rely on bikes in
the same way the Chinese or Europeans do. Car culture pervades America,
and to a certain extent New York.
Charles Komanoff believes that this can change over time. The more
people bike, the less abnormal it will seem; the less abnormal it seems,
the more people will bike. He adds that New York City is already on its
way to being separate from the rest of the country, both culturally and
New York City is already the only city in the country where most
residents don't own a car. Komanoff dreams of a New York City "where you don't have to be an
athletic, young, risk-taking eco-freak to be a cyclist."
Bicycle Advocates and Clubs
New York Bicycling Coalition
New York Cycling Club
Five Borough Bicycle Club
New York Bike Messenger Association
Right of Way
Bike the Big Apple Tours
League of American Bicyclists
Maps, Plans, and Rules
Department of Transportation Bicycling Maps
NYC Bicycle Network Development Plan (1997 city plan to encourage cycling)
NYC Greenway Plan (1993 city plan to build 350 miles of greenways)
Bicycle Traffic Rules and Regulations
Gotham Gazette's Related Articles
Can Critical Mass Negotiate a Truce?
Car Free Parks
Yield to Bicycles
Lessons Learned in Creating the Hudson River Parkway
Manhattan Waterfront Greenway
Bikes Against Bush Protest
Biking Is A Good Alternative
Other Web Sites
You Know that You're a New York City Cyclist When...
Photos of Abandoned Bicycles of New York City
Crank and Hub: Tips for City Bike Commuting
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