NYTimes.com Article: Spin City
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I HEART HUCKABEES - OPENING IN SELECT CITIES OCTOBER 1
From David O. Russell, writer and director of THREE KINGS
and FLIRTING WITH DISASTER comes an existential comedy
starring Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Hupert, Jude Law, Jason
Schwartzman, Lily Tomlin, Mark Wahlberg and Naomi Watts.
Watch the trailer now at:
October 3, 2004
By LYDIA POLGREEN
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
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
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
I was about to find out how far it had to go.
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
But this would not be a good day. For starters, it was
raining. After I crossed the Manhattan Bridge, I missed the
green light at Delancey Street because a delivery van was
blocking the bike lane, and a taxi had me boxed in on the
The bike path heading north ends at Houston Street, so from
there you are pretty much on your own, dodging lumbering
buses and squealing cabs. The rain and the dull patter of
traffic lulled me, and I didn't notice when a man with
gout-swollen legs and a cane emerged from a town car and
stepped an uncertain foot onto the blacktop. I careened to
a stop just in time, my back wheel popping off the ground
as I slammed on my brake, my feet tumbling out of my toe
Shaken, I got back in the saddle and pedaled slowly to 45th
Street, where I cut across town. As I turned onto Seventh
Avenue and saw the steam rising from the Cup Noodles sign
in Times Square, I felt a surge of relief.
The Night Ride
Getting home late at night can be a drag.
There is nothing worse than that long, sticky wait for a
train after midnight, or forking over $10 to $15 for a cab.
Michael Musto, the Village Voice columnist and an intrepid
cyclist, told me that people laugh when he shows up in
black tie on his battered bicycle. But, as he pointed out,
"It is cheaper than a cab and faster than the subway."
One Tuesday night, I tried it myself. After a Brooklyn
Cyclones game in Coney Island, full of hot dogs and cold
beer, I decided to return along the Bedford Avenue bike
path, from Sheepshead Bay to Atlantic Avenue. Just before
midnight, I set off.
As I rolled through Sheepshead Bay and Midwood, I could
have been in any small town; big houses sat on well-tended
lawns, and a canopy of huge trees drooped over the streets.
But crossing Flatbush Avenue gave me a start. Stately
houses became chock-a-block tenements. The pavement rapidly
deteriorated, and seamless lawns gave way to liquor stores,
Laundromats and check cashing shops.
I crossed Atlantic Avenue, and was minding my own business
when a woman leaned out of her minivan window and yelled,
"Bitch!" This happens sometimes when you're riding a bike.
People hate you for no good reason. I sped up my cadence
and slipped into the darkness.
In 1999, the Department of City Planning conducted a survey
to find out why New Yorkers did not bike to work. The
biggest reason was not fear for safety but fear of bike
More than 10,000 bikes are reported stolen in New York
every year, and countless more thefts go unreported. Many
people try to get around this by buying a beat-up bike. But
any bicycle, ugly or not, has value to thieves. "If you buy
a bike for $50 and lock it with a $10 lock, of course it is
going to get stolen," said Will Wood, owner of Spokes and
Strings, a Williamsburg bike shop. "But if you have a good
lock and are smart about where you lock it, you will
probably be fine."
But having a good lock solves just half the problem. You
need a secure place to lock your bike. The Department of
Transportation has a program to install bike racks around
the city, wherever there is demand and enough sidewalk
space. There are thousands of racks, but still not nearly
enough, something I discovered on many occasions, most
surprisingly around Madison Square Garden, which sits atop
a transportation hub. I once spent 20 minutes searching for
a place to lock my bike, but found only lampposts sternly
warning against locking bikes there. I locked mine to one
anyway, hoping it would be there when the Prince concert I
was headed to was over. Luckily, it was.
To the Beach
No matter what the Metropolitan Transportation Authority
says, getting to a quality beach on public transportation
is no picnic, and driving is lousy, too; there's traffic,
then parking, then the hike to the bathhouse. One Sunday
morning I decided to try it on two wheels with my
We discovered that the ride to Jacob Riis Park is one of
the city's hidden gems. Completed mostly on flat off-street
bike paths, it was an irresistible ride through Prospect
Park's loop, and along Ocean Parkway, which has a lovely,
shaded lane that is the nation's oldest urban bike path,
designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and built in 1895.
From there we took Neptune Avenue east, and were soon back
on a bike path, the Shore Parkway Greenway. At first the
path was not promising, with scrub brush to the right and a
clogged highway to the left. Then, a twinkling vista of
sailboats and glittering waves appeared, and the Marine
Parkway Bridge beckoned. Before we knew it, we had crossed
Rockaway Inlet, and the ocean air washed over us.
On the way home, Candace had a flat tire, and we discovered
that we had left home without some urban-cyclist
essentials: a spare inner tube or a patch kit and a pump.
Candace flagged down a cyclist who turned out to be a
firefighter. He gave us a tube and even installed it, but
it magically deflated near the A train at Rockaway
Boulevard. We were deflated, too, and took advantage of one
of the great benefits of cycling in the city, the ability
to bring your bike on the subway.
To the Bronx Zoo
On the last day of the experiment, only one borough
remained unvisited, the Bronx. (I disqualified Staten
Island because it is not possible to reach solely by bike;
the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge has no bike path.) I had never
been to the Bronx Zoo, which is a good 18 miles from my
apartment, so that seemed a reasonable destination.
First, Candace and I stopped at Spokes and Strings to make
a minor repair on my bike. There we met Nita Zackson, Ann
Hall and Joan Redican, three women from Bellerose, Queens,
who were deep into a long ride that would take them over
several major bridges in the city. "It is amazing how easy
it is to ride a bike in New York now," said Ms. Zackson,
59, a Y.M.C.A. wellness coordinator. "It just seems to get
better and better. Now you can go practically anywhere."
Inspired, we set off despite threatening clouds. We started
at the Williamsburg Bridge, which has a terrific path
except for one problem - huge bumps that have caused
several cyclists to crash.
The East River path in Manhattan is a sorry mirror image of
the Hudson River path. It is rutted, impossibly narrow in
spots, and in Midtown it ends abruptly, spilling riders
into a chaotic intersection off the F.D.R. Drive. Though
the path continues uptown after 59th Street, we never got
back on because the signs were confusing. Instead, we took
First Avenue to the Willis Avenue Bridge. Here again, signs
were sorely needed to help a cyclist cross the bridge
safely, and it took considerable trial and error to figure
out which side to use.
The bike lane system in the Bronx, as in the rest of the
city, can charitably be described as incomplete. We
followed a bike path on Prospect Avenue until it ended just
past Boston Road, then muddled our way through Crotona Park
and over to the zoo.
As we passed the polar bears, it started pouring.
Determined to make it home on our bikes, we took Fordham
Road to the University Heights Bridge into Inwood, barely
escaping being mowed down at the bridge entrance, where
again no signs indicated where the bike path was.
Candace gave up when we got to the A train in Inwood. But I
pressed on. At first it seemed I had made a terrible
mistake. The rain intensified, soaking me as I ground my
way down the deserted West Side path. But there were
compensations. Sure, I would have been dry on the subway.
But I would not have seen how New Jersey floated like a
shrouded outline, ethereal across the Hudson, nor the way a
blanket of clouds muffled Manhattan's spiky skyline. I had
the path to myself, and I sped up.
As I exited on the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge,
my cellphone rang. It was Candace, who had just arrived
home. I checked my odometer: I had traveled 42 miles, more
than 200 total for the week. I was sopping wet, chilled to
the bone and exhausted. I had never felt better. I stashed
my phone in my backpack, threw my leg over my bike, and
Though calling New York bike-friendly would be a stretch,
the frosty relationship between city and bike has thawed.
Adrian Benepe, the city's parks commissioner and a lifelong
cyclist, told me that one day he hoped to see ribbons of
green joining the city's neighborhoods, a seamless network
for cycling and nonmotorized forms of transportation.
This is a cyclist's dream. Clearly the city isn't there
yet, but it has progressed. Or, as Mr. Benepe put it, pun
perhaps intended, "We are on the right path."
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