When New York City locked down last spring due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the normal ebb and flow (mostly flow!) of the lives of those staying in the city had to change radically – and I was one of those here during that strange and unmoored time. Like so many, I cleaned, learned to make sourdough bread, and had endless Zoom meetings and virtual cocktail hours. Some of these things have already faded as the city begins its reawakening, and others will as reopening continues. However, one of the changes that I as well as so many others also began during that time will continue in my life – biking in the city.
I grew up riding bicycles daily as a kid (not in NYC). When my daughters were small, we taught them to ride in Central Park, but walking the bikes to the park because of my strong feeling that riding a bike on city streets is highly unsafe was unwieldy and meant we didn’t ride regularly. Over the years, if on vacation in a place where it was easy to ride on a dedicated bike path (I’m looking at you, Huntington Beach, California!) I always took the opportunity to do so. But I never thought I would ride regularly in NYC until the fatigue with being home most of the day with only a daily walk outside overwhelmed me.
Hello, Citibike! I had seen them for years now, but always thought of them as being for those intrepid people who rode in the midst of traffic fearlessly. I had never really explored the system of bike paths that has been developed in the city over the past decade (and honestly, needs expansion). But in late March of 2020, I got on my first Citibike and there has been no looking back. From late March to Dec 31 of 2020, I rode 126 hours and 1313 miles on Citibikes, and am on a similar pace so far in 2021. So what changed? Am I now confident weaving in and out of automobile traffic? In a word – no. But I have discovered many enjoyable bike paths and have figured out some tips and tricks that might help you if you decide you would like to try biking in the city.
First – Citibike or your own bike? For your own bike, you need to know where you will store it, and how you will lock it up if you choose to go somewhere and then walk around. You are responsible of course for maintenance. But on the plus side, any bike you would purchase for yourself will be much lighter and easier to ride and maneuver than a Citibike. Citibikes are meant to be tough, and lock into the Citibike racks, and they are HEAVY. You will really notice this on a hill (and I will say that Central Park is much hillier on a bike than I ever noticed as a walker) or on a day with a lot of wind. However, Citibikes are easy to check out and check in if you are planning to bike somewhere else and then walk or go into a building. Citibikes are $15 for a day pass of unlimited 30 minute rides, but if you plan to ride regularly as I do, the yearly membership of $179 (billed annually) for unlimited 45 minute rides is the way to go. There are extra charges for an ebike (which gives you a little extra power on hills) and if you go over the time limit (but you can keep docking your bike and checking it back out for a longer ride without incurring extra costs), and of course a large charge if you don’t return the bike! Since I began riding last year, Citibike partnered with Lyft and you can now check out Citibikes or use your membership within the Lyft app. You scan the code on your bike with your camera phone and it unlocks automatically and starts timing your ride. When you dock the bike securely (look for the light to turn green, and enable notifications to see on your phone that the return was registered), the ride ends and you get a receipt.
There are many dedicated bike paths you can use to avoid the risk of riding in NYC traffic. My favorites are the Hudson River Bikeway along the west side, and the three different loops within Central Park. Some streets in the city have bike lanes next to the curb with parked cars between the bike lane and moving traffic, but if you use those, be aware that trucks are often double parked in the lane, and parked cars can open car doors into the lane. In addition, people can emerge between parked cars and may be hard to see in advance.
When first starting to bike in the city, I would suggest going on the dedicated bike paths, and either early in the morning or on a day where the weather is a little off. The bike paths can get quite crowded when the weather is excellent, and it will take you a while to get accustomed to the paths. Also, if you are using Citibike, pick a less hilly path (the Hudson River Bikeway is very flat; the Central Park lower loop that only goes up to 72nd is reasonably flat but the upper loops have some serious hills) and check the weather for wind. Early on, I often had the experience of biking four miles from midtown down to Battery Park and thinking what good shape I was in, only to realize when biking back that the wind was at my face and it had been helping me along on the first leg of the journey – and Citibikes never feel heavier than when riding into a stiff headwind!).
In terms of safety in general, biking in NYC is not without its risks (for that matter, neither is walking in the city). We have all seen the white bicycles installed in locations where a bicyclist has been struck my a motor vehicle and killed. Even Bono (from U2) a few years ago had a fairly serious bike accident inside Central Park. Helmets are not required, but of course are a good idea. I have a collapsible bike helmet that fits easily in my bag, that I bought at the MoMA design store (see it here). Practice defensive biking – just as good car drivers are constantly aware of their environment, a good bicyclist should always be looking out for pedestrians and other bikers (including electric scooters and rollerbladers, who also use bike lanes). Don’t stop suddenly or you might get rear-ended – I have seen that at crosswalks where one bicyclist stopped suddenly to allow a pedestrian to cross and another bicyclist was not expecting that and hit the stopped bike. Those crosswalks, by the way, are intended to remind bicyclists to yield to pedestrians already in the crosswalk, not an indication to stop. Look out for pedestrians ambling in the bike lane, and when you are a pedestrian, please stay out of the bike lane!
I even biked all last winter, and had never before biked in serious cold or snow. If it is cold, be sure to dress in layers, as biking makes you heat up and you may need to unzip some layers even on very cold days. Covering your face, ears, and hands is particularly important, and I found that mittens kept my hands much warmer when biking than gloves. Biking in snow is just like driving in snow – take your foot off the gas (stop pedaling) when you see ice or snow, and “pump” your brakes instead of stopping suddenly (squeezing and releasing the hand brakes quickly).
My final safety tip relates to the bike equivalent of “road rage.” If you bike enough, you will have people yell at you as they pass you. Don’t let them affect you, as they are clearly having a worse day by behaving in that way than you will letting them upset you. And obviously – don’t be that person! Don’t yell at pedestrians loitering in the bike lane, either – you can use the bell lightly if you are worried that they might step in front of you but that or a quick “on your left” should be done only as a safety signal and not as an intentional way to startle or scare them. I remember when first biking, there were so few people on the bike paths that we would routinely greet each other when we did pass. Now on a day with good weather, the crowds on the bike paths can be intense.
Getting upset while on a bicycle takes away from what I have found I love so much about biking – I find that it is not only a physically satisfying experience (that free feeling I had on a bike as a child, almost like flying!) but also a meditative and calming mental one. Starting as a way to get exercise during a time of lockdown and isolation, I have since found it to be as good for my mental as my physical health.
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