Riding a bike in Manhattan is like everything else in this city; you never know what to expect, there’s something new around every corner, and the bike people watching is world-class. Portland is weird, Manhattan is wild.
I’ve spent just two days rolling and walking around the east side of lower Manhattan from about West 25th down to the Brooklyn Bridge and City Hall. I realize there’s a lot more to see, but the experience has already made quite an impression.
The first thing I noticed was the bike traffic. A great sign! An obvious presence of bicycle riders is the first sign that you’re in a cycling city. When there are ample people on bikes, the infrastructure is almost secondary, because the humans themselves force — and reinforce — the idea that bikes belong.
In Manhattan, it feels like the majority of people on bikes are deliveristas — professional food delivery riders who zoom around on throttled electric bikes. I reported on them on my previous trip in 2012 and their numbers have swelled since then. So too has their speed. 11 years of electric battery technology and a boom in ordering-in apps has made these fast food bikes ubiquitous here.
I’m glad deliveristas have gained a more organized advocacy voice since my last trip. Given the challenging — and too often deadly — conditions they work under, tensions around illegal mopeds and e-bikes using bike lanes, and attention by New York City Mayor Eric Adams on e-bikes in general, they are going to need it.
Another big change since I was last here is the presence of Citi Bike, NYC’s bike share system. And that’s an understatement. Citi Bikes are everywhere. And now the fleet includes zippy e-bikes with futuristic front lights. I’ve used these for two days. They work great, although it’s odd and a bit of a bummer that they have only one gear (I prefer to pedal a higher cadence and would love to start on an easier gear).
The presence of deliveristas and two types of Citi Bikes (electric and not) alone would be enough to create a bit of chaos on the bike lanes. Add into that mix tourists on hotel bikes, folks on commuter bikes, mopeds, e-scooters, and so on and so forth.
The mix of vehicle types — and the mix of people riding them — in Manhattan is more diverse than anywhere in North America. That’s a guess, since I haven’t been everywhere, but if there’s another place with such a vast diversity of humans and modes of conveyance in bike lanes, I’d love hear about it.
All the bike and assorted micromobility traffic puts a tremendous pressure on the infrastructure network. And to the DOT’s credit, the cycling system here holds up relatively well. I say “relatively” because it’s nothing like the European cycling capitols, but for the US of A, it’s not bad at all.
Like I said, you never know what to expect. One block you’ll have a wide, physically-protected space, the next block you’ll be sharing space with drivers (all of whom are on their phones) or squeezing between a curb and a delivery truck. It’s probably because I don’t know the routes (which shouldn’t be a requirement in a good network) and because I’m new here, but there have only been a few blocks where I felt I could relax and enjoy the ride.
New York City has had an impressive run at building out a quality bikeway network for the past 15 years or so (since former NYC DOT Chief Janette Sadik-Khan burst onto the scene in 2007), but if a calm, “8-80” experience is the goal, there’s a lot of work to do.
And the bumps! My goodness the streets here are rough. There aren’t potholes, but with sewer grates and uneven surfaces all over the place, the ride is quite jarring (the very high tire pressure on most of the Citi Bikes doesn’t help).
Bumps are relatively minor quibble. Given the legacy of car-centric street planning here, and the crush of human and vehicle traffic everywhere, I give a lot of credit to advocates and the DOT for squeezing in a useful bikeway network and taking road space wherever they can.
Given the chaotic feeling of Manhattan streets, it’s a testament to human nature that — at least in my experiences so far — folks on both sides of the windshield seem to be pretty good at sharing space. Unlike in Portland, people here expect chaos, so they go with it. They adjust.
I’ll test this claim out a lot more today, as I ride across town over to Brooklyn to see Portland’s very own Sam Balto and Hood River resident Megan Ramey lead a ride that shares lessons from their creation of bike buses.
I’ve got a lot more cool stuff to share. Stay tuned!