— This story is from my recent trip to New York City. See more coverage here.
New York City (Manhattan in particular) is a place where the freedom bicycles bring is instant and often transformative. Unlike in Portland (where the opposite is true), the least efficient and most stressful vehicle to use is a car. Add the high cost and storage challenges, and cars are not a viable option for many Manhattanites. Walking is great, but one can cover only so much ground at 2-4 miles per hour. Buses? They get caught in traffic too. And subways can be efficient, but also unpleasant and — people-watching aside — the views are terrible.
That leaves bikes. For everyone fortunate enough to be able to ride one, bicycles unlock New York City’s potential. And with nearly 30,000 Citi Bikes and over 1,700 docking stations citywide, these two-wheeled marvels and their undeniable utility beckon on every block.
Given all this, it’s easy to see why there’s such demand for teaching adults how to ride. On Sunday I pedaled up the Hudson River Greenway to a park just south of the George Washington Bridge to meet up with True Sims. Sims, 66, a former Portlander who moved to Manhattan in 1980, is a bicycle instructor with nonprofit Bike New York.
When I rolled up to Riverside Park, Sims was with another instructor and a half-dozen students who braved the suddenly chilly and windy morning to become bike riders.
“I just love watching them go through the process and get past the fear,” Sims shared as she kept one eye on her wobbly students. Sims agrees that bike share has planted the cycling seed within every New Yorker. “Citi Bikes has really opened the world to a lot of people who see the opportunity and think, ‘Oh, I can do this, I can try it.’ People practice on them,” she said.
24-year-old Christina George doesn’t look like she’ll need much practice. While she couldn’t ride a bike at all prior to Sunday morning, she zipped along with confidence after just one hour of class (turns out being a skateboarder is a huge advantage). A self-described “bookey” child, George spent a lot of time inside and was never taught how to ride. Now she looks forward to joining the masses. “First the park and more practice, then the streets. One thing at a time,” she said, confidently.
That approach suits Yancy Coby, the 37-year-old Bike New York staffer who was leading the class with Sims. He didn’t learn to ride until he was 13, so he can relate to late-learners. “I tell them, practice first. Find a nice park and practice, practice, practice before you even dare go out there.”
43-year-old Wei Hsu was doing just that when I caught up with her during a break. On the bike, she was very focused and all-business. Off of it, she brightened up. “It’s not as easy as I thought it might be… it’s taking a bit more time than I thought it would,” she admitted, saying she is probably overthinking it. For Hsu, riding will help her stay closer to friends. “I have tons of friends who ride bikes and are, like, ‘cyclists’. Being able to ride with them would be great.”
Hsu still had some work to do when I left; but she’s committed to doing what it takes to become a ‘cyclist’.
Bike New York offers hundreds of free classes for adults. The sheer demand for the service is another sign that New York has become a true cycling city.
“Learning how to bike can really change lives here,” Sims said. “You don’t really need a car here anyway, but a bike really expands possibilities.”