On Biking in New York

June 30th, 2009 § 1 comment § permalink

When I was about seven years old, I took the National Cycling Proficiency Course. It was a six-week program which taught you how to ride your bike safely on the road, offered through my primary school. On the third or fourth week, once we had demonstrated that we could stop, start, and turn left and right around cones arranged in the playground, the instructors led us out in groups of two or three onto the road to let us practice hand signals and turning on a real street. Our route took us in a short loop around the school, which involved turning right across oncoming traffic (remember, this was the UK) from the moderately-busy street that ran through the village. Of course, this involves stopping toward the center of the road and waiting for a gap in traffic big enough to make the turn safely. When it came to be my turn, I dutifully stopped to make the appointed right turn, right hand stuck out to indicate my action. As I was waiting there, a fire engine with lights and sirens blazing crested the hill just in front of me, and came tearing by at full tilt, inches from my outstretched hand. Somehow I managed to pull myself together enough to make the turn before I wilted into a quivering mass on the curb.

At the conclusion of the course, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents award me a handsome enamel pin and an official-looking certificate which would entitle me, should I choose, to ride my bicycle to school and back.

Similar experiences are to be had daily, I’ve found, on the streets of Manhattan. Except nobody gives you a pin for your troubles. With much gratitude to Pat, I’ve recently acquired a used but quite-functional mountain bike, and I’ve been commuting to work on it for about a month now. Though I’m far from a seasoned veteran at New York bike commuting, here are a few thoughts for anyone who’s thinking about giving it a shot:

1) Wear a bloody helmet, and install some flashy lights for the evenings.

Even if you’re only riding on bike paths or bike lanes. In my relatively short time riding around the city I’ve had some close calls and seen even closer ones. Sure, you get helmet hair, but it’s better than the alternative. Also, nobody can see you in the dark unless you have lights. Install some; I found some on eBay for $7. This should be intuitive.

2) Assume all other road users are on a mission to knock you off your bike, and act accordingly.

This includes police cars, buses, little old ladies crossing the street, parents pushing strollers, and other bicyclists. For some reason, nobody thinks to look for a bicycle at a crosswalk, when changing lanes, making a turn, et cetera. Assume you can’t be seen, or if you have, assume the driver/pedestrian/hipster-in-crosswalk doesn’t care. Look behind you, on both sides, before changing lanes. Ring your bell, shout, scream, and make a fuss if someone’s about to pull out or walk in front of you. Pull over if you have to. Be ready to stop quickly at all times. And for god’s sake don’t listen to your iPod on your bike.

3) Obey traffic laws

This dovetails nicely into #2. It makes you a much harder target to hit, and should you be obeying traffic laws, feel free to occupy the moral high ground when other road users attempt to kill you. Or yell, swear and/or flash dirty looks at other said road user. Your choice. Oh, and don’t wuss out and ride on the sidewalk. It’s illegal, and signifantly more dangerous given the amount of pedestrians milling about (who, don’t forget, are out to kill you).

4) Don’t get doored

I refer you again to #2. The danger from drivers does not end when the driver has taken the keys from the ignition. In fact, the oblivious driver is still unlikely to check for oncoming bicycles when he opens his car door into the bike lane. Give parked cars at least four feet lest you find out what it’s like to wear a car door internally. Be particularly wary of stopped taxis, as their passengers don’t even have to pay for the door if you break it, and don’t even have a mirror to look into before stepping out.

5) Bring a change of clothes to work

Or at least a clean shirt. Your colleagues will thank you.

6) Rock the 1980s pant-leg-rolled up look

It keeps your pant leg out of your bike chain. This will not only keep your trousers clean, it will prevent the dangerous scenario of pulling your chain off the chainwheel mid-ride because your errant pant leg got snarled up in it. You could also find a pant clip if you’re that sort of person. Or wear shorts. But if you wear bike shorts to work, please don’t come to my office. I don’t need to see that.

7) Buy a decent lock

I suggest a beefy chain and/or a beefy U-Lock. The Kryptonite brand seems to the the gold standard. An $80 lock is much cheaper than a new bike. If you have quick-release components, lock them up or take them with you. There are pages and pages on locking technique. For an good, yet irreverent video on the topic, I suggest this one by Streetsblog.

8) Enjoy yourself

I’ve found that commuting by bike makes the 30 minutes between home and work something other than dead time where I zone out and sip coffee on the train. I like that sometimes, but I always feel much more ready to actually do work when I arrive by bike. If you’re finding yourself exhausted and sweaty when you arrive, slow down. Take in the view. What’s the rush?