Dispatch: The unique utility and daunting challenges of biking in New York City

New infrastructure in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood is some of the best in the city. (Photos: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)

I have spent the last few days in New York City before I take off on my trip to Europe this evening. I’ve spent a decent amount of time here in the past, and have always used the subway to get around (as well as a lot of walking). On previous visits — before I was as inclined to notice bikes and active transportation infrastructure everywhere — I didn’t realize how important bikes were to the transportation system here. I mean, who needs a bike when you have the subway?

But I’ve realized I was mistaken. In many ways, New York’s dense and well-used public transportation system makes the unique benefits of bikes even more obvious.

I was intrigued last year when new NYC Mayor Eric Adams detailed a plan to expand the city’s bike infrastructure network after he started his term last year — even pledging to become the “bike mayor”. But local journalists and transportation advocates have noted that this hasn’t gone quite as planned. Less than half of the miles of protected bike lanes Adams said would be constructed in 2022 actually came to fruition. As I biked around Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, this was evident.

A street in Brooklyn that Google Maps recommends as a bike route. No bike lane in sight, but at least the parked cars get buffered protection!

This isn’t to say New York’s transportation department is a standout for falling short on active transportation promises. After all, advocates from BikeLoud are suing the Portland Bureau of Transportation for exactly that in our city. But I think the culture around biking in New York makes these failures all the more apparent.

Personally, I was surprised by the complete disrespect I saw drivers demonstrate for people using the existing bike lanes. I don’t think I was able to use a non-physically protected lane for an entire block without having to move out onto the street or sidewalk because of bike lane blockages. Public school buses and delivery trucks use the bike lanes as loading zones and other drivers just seem to use them as extra on-street parking space.

As far as I noticed, many people driving cars do not feel it’s their responsibility to pay attention for other road users. Again, this isn’t specific to this city, but because the streets are so narrow and crowded here and the pace of life so hurried, people biking really need to advocate for themselves in a way I am not used to.

Most New Yorkers don’t own cars, which is a good thing. But 8.5 million people live in this city, so there are still a lot of personal vehicles on the street. And even if an inadequate bike network isn’t forcing people into cars quite to the extent it might in other cities with less robust public transit, it still demonstrates a disregard for the many, many people who use active transportation to get around here. And I’m sure there are quite a few people who live here who would get rid of their cars if they felt comfortable biking around the city! At least they might be less inclined to defer to a cab or Lyft for going out on a crisp evening.

Plus, there are problems with the subway and bus systems that would make biking a really great option for more people to use if it was safe to do so. During the pandemic, many people in NYC (and other places) took up biking for leisure and as a way to travel while maintaining social distancing. But public transit in New York City wasn’t perfect even before the pandemic. Especially outside hyper-dense Manhattan, there are lots of gaps in the network that make going by subway inefficient.

My friend who lives in Brooklyn told me he bikes to work in a different part of the borough because of how expedient it makes his commute. If he were to take the subway or bus, it would take about half an hour longer than it does to zip through the streets by bike. He also said he feels relatively safe biking around the city because car traffic is usually so congested and slow during commuter hours. For this Portlander, though, it was daunting.

Still, I had an invigorating time biking around New York — I could look around at all there is to see here while still going fast enough to get places at a reasonable speed. And I know my perspective is limited since I stuck to a relatively small area of the city — I wish I had been able to spend more time biking and seeing more of the sights. I hope to explore more during my next visit, and I hope to see more of Adams’ promised protected bike lanes.

Taylor Griggs

Taylor Griggs

Taylor was BikePortland's staff writer from 2021 to 2023. She currently writes for the Portland Mercury. Contact her at taylorgriggswriter@gmail.com

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1 year ago

Most of the cars on the streets of Manhattan come from the outer boroughs and the suburbs. NYS has given the City a green light to implement congestion pricing but the city is dragging its feet.

1 year ago

When I lived – and biked – in NYC in the 90s, I learned two things:

New Yorkers will NOT do something for only one of two reasons:

The first reason is that they will get killed. That is, it’s just plainly obvious that if I do x, I will get killed. Simple.

The second reason has two parts: The thing I’m about to do is illegal, AND (here is the critical second part) I will get caught and be held accountable.

The absence of the second part of the second reason is the reason you saw all of those parked trucks, buses, and cars in the bike lanes in NYC: New Yorkers make an informed decision every day, many times a day, to do whatever the heck they want, whether it’s illegal, immoral, or just a bad idea, based on whether they will get caught. If not, they will do it.

To be fair, Portlanders are now catching onto this idea, judging by the number of speeding cars I see everywhere here.

For bike infrastructure, it all goes back to design affordance: what the design AFFORDS determines how it will be used. So if a car or truck CAN park in a bike lane, it will. If a road design ALLOWS speeding, drivers will speed. And so on. Good intentions simply do not work.

1 year ago

When accounting for the density of the neighborhood directly adjacent, I would say the Hudson River Greenway is the nicest piece of active infrastructure I have ever ridden on.