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A Very Long, Roundabout Means of Making an Introduction

November 1, 2010

I’ve been riding in New York City for as long as I’ve been living here, thirteen years. During that time, my riding has evolved in a way that has, in many ways, reflected the changes in the city itself. When I first moved to the city, I came with a GT Timberline mountain bike, complete with front suspension, bar ends, and tires with deep treads. It was a heavy and loud bike, able to take on potholes and the (then) completely unforgiving and unfriendly Manhattan streets.

After I completed a charity bike ride on this tank of a bike, I upgraded to a Bianchi Velochi and joined the ranks of the city’s spandex-clad warriors, doing the requisite Central Park laps and taking day trips across the George Washington Bridge to Piermont, Nyack, and Harriman State Park. The occasional road rash and near-permanent farmer’s tan were proof of my passion, as was one cracked helmet and a hospital trip, the result of a driver who tried to race around me to make a right turn as I went–legally–through an intersection in New Jersey.

Even though I’ve ridden bikes for a long time, I didn’t become that more modern of biking creatures, a commuter, until a work assignment had me up in Boston during most weekdays for the better part of two years.  Now, I grew up a colonial Massachusetts town, went to Tufts University, and truly love Boston, but there’s a reason I left.  Compared to New York, it’s more of a small town with a few big buildings.  So when I found myself away from my wife and home in Brooklyn working long hours and spending the equivalent of a full day on the Bolt Bus or on Amtrak getting to and from Boston, I knew I needed something to help me stay sane and healthy.  I tried a gym membership, but all that meant was that at the end of the day I would still have a long T ride to get back to where I was staying, only to eat dinner and go to sleep, without time for much else.

A bike, of course, was a natural solution.  I could commute and get exercise, killing two birds with one stone, and still have time to catch a movie or meet a friend.  Plus, I could do those things in places where the T didn’t run, without having to worry how I was getting there or getting back.

Still, I had my doubts.  The thought of biking in and around Boston never would have occurred to me as a kid or college student.  Boston has long had a reputation for being a traffic nightmare, with roads that follow the former grazing paths of cattle, terrible drivers, and potholes that can swallow a Volkswagen.  Layer on top of this weather that, for most of the year, ranges from wet and cold to wetter and colder, and the words Boston and biking don’t seem like a natural fit.

But in the time I had been away from Boston the city had taken a more friendly approach to accommodating bicycle traffic, with bike lanes, parking facilities, and sensible policies that made biking more attractive every day. Everywhere I went and at all hours of the day and night, I saw people on bikes and bikes locked up to every available surface.  The idea of biking in Boston, not solely for exercise, but to get from point A to point B, seemed not only attractive, but possible.

So, I bought a bike.

Since I was only in Boston on weekdays, I didn’t want to deal with a bike with gears or a derailleur that might require multi-day stays in the bike shop for a repair.  Walking on Beacon Street one day, I saw a used (read: cheap) single-speed SE Draft with a for sale sign on it locked up in front of a bike shop.  It was probably a size or two too small for me, but the price was right.  I bought it, along with a sturdy lock and a helmet, and rode to work the next day.  I rarely took the T again.

Looking back on it, and despite the weather, Boston and biking are a natural fit.  The city is compact, and the adjacent cities and suburbs of Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, and Newton are all within a few miles of downtown.  A huge percentage of the population, nearly 25% by some estimates, are students, a group that doesn’t tend to own or need cars to get around.  Boston continues to add miles and miles of bike lanes, and on one stretch of my commute through Cambridge and Somerville, I would pass work crews painting lanes.  Each day they were a few blocks further down Mass Ave until, after a few weeks, they were gone and a freshly painted bike lane was left behind.

I was also lucky in that my office was very bike-friendly.  In the time I worked there, the company was in one building and then moved to another.  In one, there was a set of bike racks in an outdoor parking lot and a small gym on the ground floor with a locker room.  Once we moved to Davis Square in Somerville, I could park my bike on a rack in the building’s underground parking lot and clean up in a bathroom with a shower stall.  However, even though my commute was seven miles, I typically kept my pace slow enough that I didn’t break too much of a sweat on the way in.  I saved the fast ride for the way home.

The job in Boston ended, and the bike came back to Brooklyn with me, as did my new perspective on biking, commuting, and the simple act of getting around.  New York changed in the time I was gone, too, with bike lanes on more streets, new parks along the Brooklyn waterfront, and a higher number of bike everywhere I turned.  It was impossible to not notice the amount of people now on bikes when I got back, much in the way that I now notice the sheer number of kids in Brooklyn in a way that I never did before I had one of my own.

Settled in at home, I started running more errands by bike.  I found myself doing fewer laps in Prospect Park and more grocery runs and trips to the farmers market on my bicycle.  Recently, I traded in my SE Draft for something sturdier, an upright, Dutch style Public D3.  Exercise became an ancillary benefit to biking, not its primary purpose.  In that way, my experience has reflected the changes in New York over the past few years.  Bike messengers and Lance wannabes will be an indelible part of the New York biking experience, but it’s increasingly common to see women in skirts, men in dress pants, or people in clothes that, when they are not on their bike, give no hint as to how they arrived at their destination.

In addition to the vast improvements I’ve witnessed when it comes to city biking, I’ve also noticed a related and growing trend.  Animosity towards bikes and bikers is at an all-time high and getting more intense by the day.  From protests against bike lanes to angry editorials in the city’s tabloid papers, the negative stereotypes of bikers as aggressive jerks intent on flouting every conceivable traffic law while mowing down innocent pedestrians, is becoming harder and harder to counter.  Partly, that’s because the stereotype is largely based in truth.  Many cyclists are jerks.  Any bike rider who is being honest has to admit that it’s not just the messengers and delivery guys who are giving bike riding a bad name in this city.

Those on the pro-bike left, if one can put this issue on a political spectrum, often come across as holier-than-thou, revolutionary hippies and tattoo-covered hipsters with no tolerance for those who don’t see bikes as the Savior Of All Humanity.  Those on the right, from the Andrea Peysers and Marty Markowitzes to the reflexively angry commenters on blogs who would post to an item about the Tour de France about the danger posed by bike, come across as holding a religiously intolerant windshield perspective, unable to see why anyone wouldn’t choose a car for any and all transportation needs.  Many blogs could simply post a one-word entry, “Bike,” and find that they’ve raked up more than 100 comments in less than a few hours.  Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if a post about Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure resulted in a comment about someone almost being hit by a biker.

I started this blog because I’ve become increasingly involved in and aware of what has been called this city’s “biking culture.”  That’s not a term I tend to endorse, since it’s loaded with meaning both good and bad, and obscures some of the real issues at stake on all sides.  Much of what passes for discussion in this country at this moment is dominated by the extremes of both sides, leaving the sane, reasonable middle with no room to participate.  Being able to make judgments based on fact while still seeing things from the other side are become rare commodities on the Internet these days.

Much like the ideas put forth at this past weekend’s Stewart/Colbert rally, there is a silent middle majority on the subject of livable streets that just wants to live their lives free from labels.  I have stated before that making a political statement every time one gets on a bike just seems so very exhausting.  Most of the time, I simply want to get from point A to point B and I want to do it in the safest, most efficient way possible.  Many times, but not every time, this means riding a bike.

If all of this sounds self-important or like it’s giving great gravitas to a silly subject, well, it is.  My goal with this blog is, one the one hand, to simply write and post about the bike-related things that I enjoy.  There will be a fair amount of posts and links to bikes and bike products I enjoy or covet, articles that are plain good reads, and other random thoughts of no great significance.

On the other hand, I hope to inject some sanity into what is becoming an increasingly insane debate.  This blog will, at times, come across as smug, pedantic, sanctimonious, wonky, and boring.  I will take that criticism head-on.  Yes, reasonable people can disagree, but disagreement that results in paralysis, or one side steam-rolling over another, is no way to solve anything.  I hope to use this blog to sort out my own thoughts on the subject of biking, and hopefully contribute my voice to a reasonable discussion on how to make New York City a bit safer for everyone, no matter how they get around.

Thanks for indulging me.

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One Comment
  1. November 1, 2010 2:01 pm

    You’re right – most cyclists are jerks, and it’s those few who give us all a bad name. For my part, I try to kill them with kindness. And if that doesn’t work, well, giving them the finger is always fun.

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