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Old 10-03-04, 07:33 PM
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Spin City


Published: October 3, 2004

OVER the summer I decided that I was going to bike to work. I had always been a weekend rider, going on epic loops through the city, for 30 or 40 miles in an afternoon. From the vantage point of a bike, the city presents itself as a savorable panorama passing by at a speed somewhere between the blur outside a car window and the plodding pace of walking.

Most of my favorite bits of city life were discovered on my bike - the little smoothie shop I love in Inwood, the ghostly side street in Bedford-Stuyvesant that pleases me with its distinctly urban stillness. But like most New Yorkers, I felt that the streets were probably too dangerous for using a bike as serious transportation.

Now, however, I imagined I would join an intrepid crowd of two-wheeled warriors, elegantly swooping through rows of stalled cars and past flat-footed pedestrians. Sure, mine would be a white-knuckle ride, but it would be worth it.

On my first day out, my vision of going up against the mean streets crumbled. A few blocks from my apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, I found myself riding a broad, well-marked bike path leading directly to my first destination, the Manhattan Bridge. After a smooth East River crossing and a dash west on Canal Street, I hopped on the West Side Highway bike path, and before I knew it I was at my office in Times Square.

The trip was not just painless; it was relaxing and deeply enjoyable. As I locked up my bike, still stunned at how easy the seven-mile ride had been, I wondered: Could New York be on the verge of becoming a bicycle-friendly city? I decided to try to find out by spending one week biking everywhere.

The city has nearly quadrupled the miles of bike paths, from on-street lanes to greenways, since 1997, and more people than ever are cycling. According to the city's Department of Transportation, the number of people riding through Midtown in 2003 had tripled since 1980, to about 15,300. Still, New York is no Amsterdam, where bikes have not only their own lanes but their own traffic signals, or Chicago, which recently opened a bike depot in the heart of downtown. New York's relationship with bicycles has always been complex, from its apex in the late 19th century, when the velocipede set off a craze that spawned 53 bicycle clubs, to its nadir a century later, when Mayor Ed Koch tried to ban bikes from Midtown.

Though New York's topography - flat and compact - is perfectly suited to biking, temperamentally it has never been able to make peace with the bicycle. In the minds of many, bikes are at best a toy trotted out on weekends, and at worst a human-powered missile, often guided by messengers who delight in mowing down little old ladies.

Since 1973, Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group, has fought to improve conditions for cyclists and won some big victories, like getting bicycle access on all the East River bridges. But Noah Budnick, who runs the group's bicycle programs, said the city still had a long way to go. "I don't know how you can say the city is bicycle-friendly," he said one morning as we dodged traffic. "I am riding on a side street in Midtown, and I am scared out of my mind. And I have been riding in the city for 10 years."

Iris Weinshall, the city's transportation commissioner, sees changing that reality as part of her mission. "It is an integral part of our thinking now," she said. "Every project we begin, we take cycling into consideration. We hope that one day New York will be one of the world's great bicycling cities."

I was about to find out how far it had to go.

The Commute

Commuting was the heart of my bicycle plan. I would save $4 a day, get in shape, and could cover the distance in less time than it took on the subway. But the idea raised a host of questions. Would I be safe? Where would I keep my bike all day? Would I be a sweaty mess when I got to the office?

Riding a bike in Manhattan traffic requires a peculiar combination of patience, persistence and pluck. On the first day of my experiment, I would need all three.

I wanted to try First Avenue, which several messengers told me is something of a bicycle superhighway. On a good day, a skilled rider can sprint uptown, hitting each light as it turns green.
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