In bike nirvana, trying to stay sane in the lane

Michele Herman in 2002, back in the “bad old days” before the city’s current bicycle revolution.    Photo by Douglas Gowland
Michele Herman in 2002, back in the “bad old days” before the city’s current bicycle revolution.  Photo by Douglas Gowland

BY MICHELE HERMAN  |  I’ve been thinking about the ’80s lately. I’ve been remembering how mad I was then, and how I swore at strangers on the street. I was mad because I rode my bike in the city every day, and let me tell you — Manhattan in the ’80s may have been on the upswing, but those streets were mean.

I should clarify: The streets themselves were fine. I loved the streets. I loved the rubber on the blacktop, sticking out an arm to signal and leaning in to take a turn. I loved being out there in all weather, going to all corners of the city, usually quicker than the subway. I loved the coasting-with-the-current feel of riding down the surprisingly steep hills of Fifth and Ninth Avenues I loved looking up and finding my little 10-speed self in the seamy razzle-dazzle of Times Square, the center of the universe. 

It was just the pedestrians, drivers, motor vehicles and the city’s cockeyed priorities that made me crazy. Pedestrians jaywalked in front of me while giving me dirty looks or yelling at me. Drivers told me I had no business being on their road, and sped up at puddles. Doors opened a crack, hands emerged and cigarette ash or cold coffee tumbled toward my feet. Worse, doors swung wide open without warning. Older men in sedans rolled down their windows to lecture me: The streets are not safe for a young lady like yourself. Cars were mostly small but they stank. Buses snorted out hot clouds of particulates as big and black as ground pepper. Bike racks were nearly nonexistent; theft was a fact of life. Bicyclists got ticketed all the time, but speeding drivers and jaywalkers — never. 

I got so mad that I got involved in the movement to improve cycling conditions. I wrote articles and essays about biking and bike design, all aimed at making the city a more bike-friendly place. In the early ’90s I co-wrote the Bicycle Blueprint, Transportation Alternative’s book-length master plan for bringing bicycling into the mainstream in New York City. It was a stirring document, full of hope and exhortation and sensible action plans. 

Life on the streets settled down for me in the years since. I learned to count my breaths and not engage. And, as drivers gradually resigned themselves to sharing the road, I experienced far less overt provocation. Cars got less noxious (though unfortunately much bigger). Bus breath switched from a solid to relatively odorless gaseous state. The Hudson River bike path, our very own Northwest Passage, provided a calm and much-needed route from the Lower to the Upper West Side.

And now, with last year’s rollout of Citi Bikes and the ever-expanding network of bike lanes — two of the more revolutionary signatures of the Bloomberg years — the big change is a’coming, the one we cyclists marched for and dreamed of: a relative golden age for bicycling in New York City. 

The streets are starting to look like an architect’s rendering of a friendly, green city, complete with flowers in the traffic-calmed intersections and smiling couples riding side by side. (Note: Doing so is dangerous and inconsiderate.) It’s becoming possible to imagine the post-petroleum city we rhapsodized about in the Blueprint. 

So then why am I mad again? Why am I yelling at strangers? This time, weirdly, I’m rarely mad at the worst offenders — the actual drivers of motor vehicles — I’m just mad at the fact of them.

What’s getting to me, I’m sad to say, is being relegated to, segregated in, stopped in my tracks by bike lanes that are great in theory but often a mess in practice. I’m mad at the pedestrians and my fellow cyclists who use them thoughtlessly, but I’m even more mad at the city for doing the biggest rijiggering of public space since one-way streets — while completely failing to prepare or educate the public. 

I have no beef with the painted lanes on the cross streets. They carve out a narrow safety zone, and lately I’ve been noticing that drivers are starting to respect it. Sometimes the protected lanes on avenues are O.K. — if traffic is light and I’m not venturing into Midtown and there’s no broken glass (and since the street sweepers can’t get in, the shards remain until they’re ground to sand), and there’s no truck unloading or cars parked or a work crew tearing up the lane. I didn’t include pedestrians in my list because there are always pedestrians — ears plugged, eyes down — blithely crossing the lane midblock.

I defy anyone to ride a bike up through Midtown on the Eighth Avenue bike lane during rush hour and not emerge from the experience shaken and disgusted. The sidewalk is unusually narrow, and a chunk of it is taken up with subway grates. Between the Bolt Bus stops, the hotels, the Theater District, Port Authority and a major construction site, the western sidewalk is thick with luggage-toting tourists and weary commuters. The dike inevitably breaks and a sea of pedestrians fills the bike path. They trudge along as if they have no idea the bike path isn’t a courtesy lane designed for them. I don’t swear anymore. I just yell, “It’s a bike path, people!” shake my head and wait for them to scatter. 

I’ve read the statistics about bike lanes, all of which point to an impressive increase in safety. But I can tell you that on the ground the lanes require a kind of exhausting vigilance that I find far more enervating than riding with the traffic. Please understand that I am not minimizing the twin dangers posed by cars: the physical danger of being crushed and the chemical and geopolitical danger of petroleum. But cars have one thing going for them: They can’t go sideways. And when you ride with the cars you have a little flexibility to get around obstacles.

I understand that we city cyclists stir up a lot of emotion. I have friends who admire me, friends who think I’m reckless or insane, and others who think I’m not militant enough in my denouncement of private cars.

What I try to remember is that my life could easily have traveled a slightly different path. Instead of being a 30-year veteran of the streets, I could find myself wobbling for the first time on a Citi Bike, completely unaware that it would be polite for me to ride on the right side so that faster riders could pass me. I could be a driver complaining (quite legitimately) about cyclists who dart stealthily without signaling, angry at being expected to give up a chunk of what until recently had been considered my turf. I could even be one of those tourists in the Eighth Avenue crush who doesn’t see the harm of stepping onto the nearly empty strip of land just off the curb. 

I will now take a deep breath and count to 10. And I will say to the de Blasio administration while it’s still new and idealistic: Keep on slowly squeezing the cars until the tipping point arrives when it’s just not worth the aggravation of driving in Manhattan. Until that great day comes, bombard pedestrians, cab riders, drivers and bicyclists alike with signs and public-service announcements. And to all pedestrians and new cyclists, I say, Welcome. Exercise your muscles, but also your eyes and ears and common courtesy; I wish us all a long, safe and exhilarating life in the metropolis. 

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