It was stinking hot in Manhattan last week – post-thunderstorm, postseason NBA and post-numerous sleepless nights for me bar hopping round town. Just the right time to give the Citibike a spin: like many New Yorkers, I would be trying these out for the first time. Right down to the financial institution sponsorship, this was going to be just the same as riding a Barclay’s bike through Piccadilly.
How green of me – I thought, here are two developed cities where the car rules, public transport is overpriced and overcrowded, and where cycling has been pushing for a greater share of the infrastructure. Sure, they have these elements in common, but the experience of cycling around town was sharp reminder that you can’t make those kinds of assumptions about places that have such complex identities. It’s like using the ‘I [heart] NY’ T-shirt to make judgements about the fashion scene.
Wide cycle lanes on the avenues are a treasure and a curse, for no sooner do you want to turn left or right than they disappear and you’re left to fend for yourself with taxis trying to weave around one another.
So, purring down 3rd avenue from where I was staying in the Upper East Side (la-de-da) things went from peaceful to challenging to terrifying pretty quick. I’d heard warning that junctions could be tricky, but the absence of any interest from pedestrians in what cyclists are doing and the willingness of taxis and other motorists to cut up cyclists at any opportunity made the traffic lights an extra jolt of fear.
Let’s not for a second suggest London is a paradise for cyclists; like everything here, its just a different ball game. Stateside the trouble comes at junctions and in the lack of infrastructure beyond cycle lanes on the avenues. In London, there seems to be a lot more trucks trundling around and much less space between them, the cyclists in the cycle lanes and the railings/walls.
Now, that may be anecdotal, but where New Yorkers park their bikes remains a bit of a mystery to me. In fact, considering how few parks there are in comparison, I’m not sure where they go when they’re not going to work. London seems to have bicycles lying around all over the place; New York – or at least the parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn I went to – not so.
But maybe the most telling moments came when talking to locals about cycling. “What, you’re riding around on those things?” said the guy who’s flat I stayed in (thanks airbnb!), “Dude, those are for delivery guys. Unless you have a deathwish.”
So I noticed that crucial difference: from the looks of it, a lot of the people that used the roads in New York needed to, which meant very few were wearing team jerseys or putting the hammer down in some kind of impromptu peleton along the Thames embankment.
It’s impossible to have anything other than a narrow and personal experience of a city, especially one as sprawling and diverse as New York. For me, the highs came in finding beautiful neighborhoods and cruising around on a quiet Saturday morning through various quarters of Brooklyn. The lows were oblivious/suicidal pedestrians (‘I’m walking here!”) and the general sense that by cycling you were as welcome as lettuce on a rack of ribs.
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