Cycling is an excellent way for travelers, new residents, and lifelong city dwellers looking for an exciting and practical way to get around. With growing cycling infrastructure complementing a rising community of cyclists, it’s now more promising than ever to ditch the metrocard in favor of a saddle. Riding a bike through New York City offers something for everyone, whether you’re a commuter, a casual weekend rider looking to explore, or an athlete looking for a fun and stimulating way to stay fit. While cycling may be dismissed as childish or a peasant’s mode of travel, the economical and health benefits of riding a bike cannot be ignored. Once you experience the liberation and allure of striking the perfect pedal stroke to get from Astoria to DUMBO, your future trips might just be made strictly on two wheels. With that said, there are a couple things you should now about cycling in this city, which like everything else to do with NYC- gets its own set of rules.
So, without further delay, let me lay out the reality of cycling in NYC and what it has taught me over the last 6 years.
Discovering the incredible scope of NYC and all of its variable scenery, neighborhoods, architecture, parks, and nature; most of which are connected by a system of over 1,000 miles of dedicated bike lanes.
While most of the city really is just a huge concrete jungle, no two neighborhoods are ever alike. The variability of our communities in terms of housing stock, historical charm, greenery, how built up or suburban they are, and overall vibe is incredible. Nature is hard to come by, but there are some great parks in town that will get you pretty close to it. I’ll gladly spill the beans on Van Cortland being the best- offering large tracts of unspoiled forested land and gravel bike paths. Forest Park in Queens is also a good bet, and of course you have your usual contenders like Central Park and Prospect Park which offer great roadways closed off to cars and nice landscaped scenery. Jamaica Bay and the Rockaways offer a slower paced, more coastal and Mid-Atlantic vibe then the rest of the city, along with the chance to take in the little natural beauty that remains of this barrier island, marshland geography. Neighborhoods like Park Slope, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Ditmas Park, Jackson Heights, the Upper East Side, Riverdale and Forest Hills are great centers for historical architecture ranging from brownstones to single family tudors, Victorians, and prewar apartment building that all have a nice amount of old, tall, big, leafy trees.
There are extensive waterfront parks and places to ride, namely Astoria Park, the gantries in Long Island City, the East River State Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the 69th street Pier in Sunset Park, and a path that skirts the Lower New York Bay and Bay Ridge until Coney Island. Manhattan is basically encircled by bike paths all along its marine perimeter offering nice parks and excellent views. The whole city is connected by bridges which are attractions and engineering marvels in their own rights, complete with dedicated bike paths.
Greenways & Bike Lanes
Greenways are the true trophy winners of bike lanes. Talking about connecting different areas on a bicyle, these are quintessential bike highways with their own rights of way and even painted asphalt with lane markers. While regular bike lanes painted on the street creates issues because of illogical placement close to parked cars, greenways are usually in no way affected by them. These types of lanes offer long stretches of safe cycling that allow higher speeds and more piece of mind. Bike lanes on the other hand, while built with good intention, can often be problematic because of issues with being doored (read below) and cars that are constantly double parked in bike lanes that you must ride around. Nonetheless, they are beneficial to those who wish for a “dedicated” space on the road that makes getting around easier.
Take a look at this map highlighting all bike lanes in the city-from shared routes with cars, to standard lanes, to my favorite Greenways. (Manhattan’s West Side, Kent Ave in Brooklyn, Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, and Cross Bay Blvd & Belt Parkway through/around Jamaica Bay are my favorite greenways).
Cycling in NYC is a fast,convenient way to get around town or to work- offering freedom, mobility, and cost effectiveness that amounts to less money spent on the subway and owning a car.
There are some up front costs associated with owning a bicycle (mainly buying one) and a couple of maintenance kinks here and there that will have you spending money, but for the average commuter, it’s a more sensible way to get around the city because of its remarkable potential for speed and much cheaper cost than other transportation alternatives. When I commuted from Woodside, Queens to Midwood, Brooklyn, the travel time using the subway would take me on a 1 hour and 20 minute detour through Manhattan, including the walking. When I biked those 12 miles, I cut my travel time down to 55 minutes, surprisingly. Cycling can definitely be just as fast as the subway, if not faster. You also have the freedom and flexibility to take your desired route whereas trains run on set lines that may not take the geographically sensible way to get there. Queens to Brooklyn, or northern Queens to southern Queens, for example. Don’t get me started on why there aren’t crosstown lines connecting the outer boroughs. Sorry, you have to go through Manhattan first!
One spends $116.50 for a monthly unlimited metrocard, amounting to nearly $1400 annually. That’s a big chunk of change for not so reliable MTA service, and is more than enough to purchase an all purpose bicycle with necessary add ons like a lock, helmet, rack etc. I won’t even mention the cost affordability compared to a car, but after monthly payments, insurance, parking, maintenance, and gas- it’s a hell of a lot more than the cost of using the MTA. I understand people enjoy the convenience of a car, but living in the city means that it’s way more of a hassle and an expense than it needs to be. Plus, when you have an alternative way of transport that’s entertaining and keeps you active, why would you pass that up? Which leads me to my next point…
It’s incredibly fun & healthy!
Anything is more fun than taking part in a collective human cattle experience first thing in the morning. Squished and smelly subway carts, for the win? Nope, not on my watch. Taking the train during rush hour for me nowadays is an uncomfortable waste of time, and borderline real life nightmare. If you have to go somewhere, why not at least preserve your personal space and get in a light workout simultaneously? If sitting still playing candy crush for 40 minutes underneath someones crotch is a better utilization of time, I’ll be damned. But I know there’s lot of people, including myself, that enjoy the exhilarating and real life experience of pedaling your way to your destination! Not to mention, we enjoy the many health benefits of a cardiovascular workout routine-including improved fitness and endurance, decreased stress levels, and disease prevention. Check out the many other positive effects of taking up cycling to get inspired. Even if you’re not cycling to work, you can still enjoy the benefits of a fun, healthy way to get around NYC for leisure and fitness.
Now that I have painted the rosiest picture of cycling in NYC, it’s time to let loose the pesky demons that can plague us cyclists. If it makes reading through them any better, just know that some of the items I list below deal with pure luck, or lack thereof.
Pot holes and poor road conditions can have a negative effect on your bike health or even your personal safety.
Hitting a famous NYC pot hole is an all too familiar occurrence for cars and cyclists alike. I know where the nastiest pot holes are on the routes I frequent the most, so I can swerve around them, but there’s still plenty of roads that I bike down which have LOTS of unsuspecting, cycle-thwarting hell holes. Add this into a shitty urban concoction of glass, nails, bumpy roads and other unidentifiable road debris out to kill you, it can seem as if biking in NYC is a pervasive struggle. Most of the time though, with enough vigilance and awareness, these obstacles can be spotted out and avoided.
That’s it. Shit weather. New York has a thing called Summer, Winter, and 2 weeks of in between, transitional semi-pleasant conditions. Sometimes it can rainy and be cloudy for multiple days, other times it can be sunny and dry. You can never get too comfortable with any type of weather here because it is always changing. The summer and winter seasons can be extreme in terms of heat and cold, which may not make for the best cycling conditions. The months with the best cycling are usually April, May, June, September, October, and maybe November. Of course it is possible to cycle year round in all precipitation, but there’s some extra measures and additional precautions to be taken with that. (Ie: protecting yourself and your bike from rain and all temperatures- extra gear/equipment). Look for light winds and temperatures in the 50s-70s for optimal riding. AKA 5% of the year.
Cops may be out to get you
Yep, red light tickets are a thing. You technically can’t go through red lights on a bike in NYC. Nothing beats the confusion and lunacy of having a cop car pull up next to you with their siren on only to ask you to pull over. Better just to avoid the situation from arising and be extra careful around intersections. It’s impossible to get every cyclist to stop at every red light, especially if it’s not a busy one with no cars coming, but hey, the NYPD is going to do what they want to do. I personally think there are more important things for cops to do than to stop cyclists and taunt them with hundred dollar fines.
The danger of being doored and other general safety issues when riding with traffic
Being doored is when a driver or passenger recklessly flings their door out into a cyclists pathway, only to cause a terrible collision that ranges in severity from a few bruises to broken bones or even death for the cyclist. It’s one of the worst things that can happen to a city cyclist. Not only will the rider be hurt, but their bike could be damaged or destroyed. Getting doored a scary prospect that I always think about when riding, and prevention can only go so far. When riding in bike lanes, stay as far away from the door zone (4 feet away from cars) as possible. The issue with that becomes riding too close to cars squeezing dangerously close to you as they pass. In that case, just take up the whole damn lane. You’re entitled to it as a bike rider and need to maintain your assertiveness on the road.
If you ever get doored, be sure to follow these recommended follow up procedures to preserve your rights as a cyclist in the case that the accident is so severe that a report needs to be filled with police. You may be entitled to compensation because of damage to you and/or your bike. Even if the accident is low impact and you feel fine in the moments after, it’s always a good idea to take the drivers information in the case that you discover something is wrong the next day.
This one speaks for itself, really. Theft of bicycles is a HUGE problem in this city, and clipping a bicycle off a flimsy chain is an all too common occurrence that happens when thieves take advantage of easy targets. The market for stolen bicycles in New York definitely exists, and will continue to be that way as long as one could fetch a couple hundred bucks for a bike. The goal here to defeat this hapless occurrence is to deter thieves as much as possible by making it a difficult job for them to steal your bike. Strong U-Locks to secure your frame are my recommendation, as well as locking up your wheels (yes, they will go after your tires/ wheel set as well). Whenever I leave my bike out in a public street, I make sure to secure it to an official NYC bike rack or street sign. Spots that are well lit, trafficked by people, and under surveillance are less likely to have issues with robbery. If your bike is stolen, report it and look for it on Craigslist. If you can keep your bike inside a building or a protected area, do so!
Sweating-If you’re a commuter
Commuting to work by bicycle is truly an astounding way to start ones day, paving the way to an alert, clear mind jump started by some cardiovascular exercise. It’s also a great way to deter your cowokers from getting to close to that sweaty and smelly funk emanating from your de-stressed and energy charged body. You, or they may not be able to see past the funk in order to justify working up a sweat right before clocking in. The solution here is to bring a light change of clothes and a deodorant stick to freshen up, or just not to exert yourself too much when riding. I’ve seen people ride bikes in fancy suits and nice clothes, so I’m sure they’ve all figured something out. The ideal setup to combat this problem is to have a job that somehow provides a shower and a locker room. Alas, you can sweat to your unbounded pedaling desire!
Don’t let a couple of obstacles get in the way of enjoying the reward of cycling in one of the greatest urban conglomerations in the world. New York City has so much to offer to urban cyclists. We are more advanced and pro-active when it comes to creating a decent cycling infrastructure, and there’s a bursting cycling community here. Cycling in NYC is much like any other aspect of life in this city. Everyone is kind of out to get you and you need to do your best to hold your ground, stay focued, and not let other people stomp all over you. An unsure and in-confident cyclist is an accident waiting to happen. Those fit and weathered enough for the task will succeed. It’s a popular hobby that will only continue to grow as people find out how awesome it is, and as the subway slowly but surely continues to fall apart and increase fares…
Some last pointers:
- Get a bike from a highly regarded Bikestore (NO BOXSTORE BIKES) or find one on Craigslist. Get one that fits you properly and is suited to your gender. Test it out before you purchase.
- Figure out what your riding needs are, ie: commuter/fitness/race and find the bike best suited to that purpose.
- Know minimal bike maintenance. Know how to patch a tube, replace a tire, pump air, and keep your moving parts free of debris and oiled appropriately.
- When riding, be assertive and aggressive. Do your best to follow traffic rules.
- Don’t let cars overtake you if there’s not enough clearance to avoid the door zone-take up the whole lane!
- Make yourself as visible as possible. Be a riding circus clown. Have all the lights, reflectors, and neon streamers clinging to your bike/body as you please.
- Wear a helmet and don’t listen to music on earphones, stupid.