If the weather report featured a beauty index, last Sunday would have set a record. It was dazzlingly clear, sunny but not hot, with no humidity and barely a breath of wind. It was the day of the New York Marathon, in which I was not running, though I always get the urge, during the marathon season, to buy sporting goods. This year it was bike accessories: a copper bell (ding-ding!) and two lights (it’s the law), on rubbery straps, which can be removed to foil thieves.
So on Sunday I was riding my bike on the boardwalk, having given up an excellent parking spot to spend the day at the beach, when I came upon the birth of a new sport, one that I think may be indigenous to Rockaway: duneboarding. Sand deposited by the hurricane had been bulldozed into three big hills on the beach just west of 116th Street, and the neighborhood kids were “sledding” down them on their Boogie boards. Some kids were sitting, some were doing belly-flops, others were lying on their backs, in the luge position. The sand made for a nice soft landing, and then the kids dragged their boards back up the hill to go again. There were dozens of kids, from toddlers to teens, climbing and sliding and shrieking on the artificial dunes. Maybe they’ve been doing this in the Sahara for millennia, but if so why has there never been a bid to make duneboarding an Olympic sport?
I was back in Manhattan by a little after sunset, which occurred at 4:47 P.M. on the first day of standard time, cruising for a spot. I was determined to find a Tuesday-Friday spot, to take advantage of the High Alternate Side Holidays—Idul-Adha and Election Day on Tuesday, and Veterans Day on Friday. I spurned a Monday-Thursday spot, hard as it is not to take the first spot you come to. I have been trying to figure out how to combine bike riding with car parking. On days when I have to sit in the car, should I ride my bike over to where the car is parked, lock it up there, and come back for it in order to ride to work? Or do I dare to put the bike where I hope to park the car, so I won’t have to backtrack? Last Friday, I couldn't decide, so I took the train to work.
The new bike lanes were the subject of an excellent article in the Times this week, in the Arts section, by Michael Kimmelman (“Pleasures of Life in the Slow Lane”), who made some of the same observations that I was just about to make. For instance, now that Janette Sadik-Kahn, Mayor Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner, has built more bike lanes, the same thing is happening with bikes as happened with cars when Robert Moses built more bridges: there are more of them.
The last time I biked to work regularly was during the Koch Administration. He had painted some lines on Sixth Avenue and called it a bike lane, but by the time Rudy Giuliani took over, those lines had been erased. No one took them very seriously anyway. The new bike lanes are more permanent-looking, and some of them are downright dedicated, with medians of potted plants or lanes of parked cars between the bike lane and heavy traffic, and even an extra lens in traffic lights to regulate both bikes and cars in turning lanes. I was curious to see if I would actually feel safe in a bike lane. And the answer is:
No, not particularly. And it’s not because of the trucks double-parked, or the taxis dropping off passengers, or the jaywalkers popping out like Jack-in-the-boxes from between parked cars. It’s because of the other bicyclists. With rare exceptions, they are as cut-throat as speeding taxi-drivers.
My model for bicycling is European: I think of the matrons I saw in the French countryside, pedalling serenely into the village for a cabbage or whatever, wearing flower-print housedresses, bedroom slippers, and maybe an apron. In Ravenna in winter, Italian women in fur coats cycle majestically alongside the canals. New York City is not exactly the People’s Republic of China yet, but there are throngs in the new bike lanes. O.K., I exaggerate: at one red light I counted nine bikes waiting to cross the street. But I do not exaggerate when I say that everybody is trying to get ahead of everybody else.
Biking in the city does have its aesthetic pleasures. If not for the (unprotected) bike lane on Sixth Avenue, I would probably not go out of my way to visit the flower district. And from the (protected) bike lane on First Avenue I admired a brick wall with ivy growing nine stories high and changing color. The bike lane on Broadway below Times Square is a joke, clotted with oblivious pedestrians, tourists lugging wheeled suitcases, and panhandlers in Minnie Mouse costumes. But Robert Moses’ Law also works in reverse: if you narrow Broadway down to one lane and have it dead-end at Herald Square, the cars go elsewhere, leaving a few precious blocks of midtown wide open for bicyclists.
The first day I rode to work, I got all the way to Times Square before realizing that although I had remembered my Kryptonite lock, I had forgotten the key. I had been planning on checking out this garage that rents parking spots for bikes, so I went over there: the Hippodrome. “Sure, we can lend you a lock,” the manager said. I gave them my credit card, they lent me a chain and a lock, and I signed up to park my bike in midtown for twenty dollars a month.
Am I crazy? Who would have believed that a car owner who goes to so much trouble to find free parking on the street would pay to garage a bicycle? The fact is that it’s not so easy to find a pole to lock your bike to in midtown. There are no more old-fashioned parking meters—they have all been replaced by bulky MuniMeters. The bike racks that the city has provided are always at capacity, at least in midtown (another example of “Build it and they will come”). Twenty dollars a month for a safe place to park a bike seems like a bargain—it costs ten times that to garage a car in the city. And I enjoy coasting onto the smooth floor of the Hippodrome, past the arm lowered to keep cars from leaving without paying.
Bike parking is vertical: you heft your front tire over a hook high on the wall and line up both tires along the groove of a rod that extends below it. It is not without its surprises. The other day after work, I went to get my bike and found a huge heavy chain on it, like something that belonged to Marley’s Ghost. I went to the office to see what was up. I still had time to get where I was going, so I wasn’t unduly upset. “Someone has put a big heavy chain on my bike,” I told the attendant. He came to take a look and then went back and checked the computer. Apparently, the monthly fee had not yet been charged to my credit card. He took care of that, and put a little blue sticker on my bike, so the inspectors would not incarcerate it again. Now I know what happens if a cyclist tries to park for free in the Hippodrome. It’s the bike equivalent of having a boot put on your car.
Meanwhile, back in the car, cruising for a parking spot last Sunday evening, I set my watch to amuse myself by seeing exactly how long it would take: twenty minutes, including a few minutes spent in a spot that I thought was a bonanza until a study of the signs revealed that it was in a No Standing Monday-Friday zone. Finally, at the far end of my range, in the last spot before the river, I got lucky. While I was getting my stuff out of the trunk, a car pulled up and the driver asked if I was going out. I smiled and shook my head no. He gave me a thumbs-up to acknowledge my triumph in finding a spot that would be good for the next nine days. In the morning, I rode my bike back to the car to get a jar of mayonnaise and some Kalamata olives out of the trunk (I had cleaned out the refrigerator in Rockaway) and passed a tow truck removing a car from the No Standing zone.