New Yorkers should love bicycling. We’re control freaks. We want to get from here to there in a New York minute and moan about the subways and the buses, about lunatic taxi drivers and the gridlock that slows us down.
The other day I jumped on my bicycle and rode downtown to meet Janette Sadik-Khan, transportation commissioner for New York City. She is the driving force behind the city’s new bike lanes and now also a piñata for their vocal opponents.
I started out along the Hudson, then headed east at 40th Street, past that nowhere stretch of depots that muscles its way toward the chaos of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The waterfront is bucolic and almost Zen-like without a million other bikes around, but I’ve also come to love those gruff, empty, brooding blocks on the far West Side, which I almost never bother to walk. River gives way to industry then density, silence to the din of Midtown — a classic New York transition, an urban glory best absorbed, I have come to realize, from a bike.
It’s too bad that so many New Yorkers still complain about the bike lanes’ contribution to the inconvenience of urban driving instead of promoting them for their obvious role in helping solve the city’s transportation miseries, and for their aesthetic possibilities. I don’t mean they’re great to look at. I mean that for users they offer a different way of taking in the city, its streets and architecture, the fine-grained fabric of its neighborhoods. Decades ago the architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown wrote about how we see cities differently at different speeds. Las Vegas was their example, and they wrote about driving versus walking (skipping over the bicycle). But the point stands. On a bike time bends. Space expands and contracts.
I’ve had plenty of accidents over the years and know that it may sound a little crazy to talk about meditating on urban scenery when the issue is crashing into double-parked cars, abruptly opened taxi doors and reckless riders, which is where properly designed and enforced bike lanes come in, or increasingly will, as their network grows.
So far the city has installed some 260 miles of lanes during the last four years, “hard miles,” Ms. Sadik-Khan puts it, meaning lanes in the densest, most contested parts of town, the ambition being to link these better and set up a bike-sharing system before Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s term expires in two years. At the moment the lanes are disjointed, often badly marked and hardly policed, provoking antipathy and occasional chaos in the streets. Consolidating them will require a consistent, identifiable design vocabulary, a permanent architecture. This has to include more dedicated lanes, separated from automobile traffic by medians and parked cars, a feature that improves safety — as it already has along Ninth Avenue, for instance — and getting riders, drivers and pedestrians to follow the rules of the road. Cultural shifts like that take time. Bike riders especially need to follow those rules.
European cities have had decades to develop cycling cultures. The Dutch and the Danes are said to be among the happiest people on earth, which I can’t help but imagine must have something to do with their bike culture. You find bicycle clubs for the elderly there, clusters of teenage boys with girls perched on the backs of their bikes, commuters chatting along the bike paths, which provide a natural mix of intimacy and distance. On a bike, the city shrinks.
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