The Evolution of Bikes and Bike LanesBy: Jennifer Ganeles, Christopher Pringle, and Naomi W
With spring in full swing and summer fast approaching, there is a buzz of excitement in the air as more and more New Yorkers are finally emerging from their winter hibernation. Just walk outside your stuffy office or classroom and take note of the large increase in people enjoying the outdoors. You might notice more commuters walking to their destinations, more children playing happily in the park, or more joggers whizzing by with water bottles in hand.
New York City is the most populated city in the United States and this will become a lot more evident as the weather becomes nicer. Of course, pedestrians are not the only ones who will flood the streets over the next few months. Cyclists, too, will significantly increase in number as more and more people decide to take their helmets and gear out of storage to take their bicycles for a spin.
In fact, many areas of the city are already bustling with cyclists. On a bright, sunny day in April, we stationed ourselves near a Citi Bike station at the Manhattan entrance of the Brooklyn Bridge and observed as dozens upon dozens of cyclists rode past. Not even five minutes could go by without at least one person picking up or dropping off a bicycle at the very popular bike share station, located on the West side of Centre Street.
This is not to say that cyclists in New York City only come out when the weather is pleasant. Bicycling has become an integral part of life in New York, whether it is warm outside or not. According to the Transportation Alternatives website, over 200,000 New Yorkers are biking our streets every day. In fact, more than 500,000 adult New Yorkers use their bikes at least once a month. And these numbers are only growing as the city’s infrastructure becomes more accommodating to cyclists. Between 2009 and 2010 alone, New York City experienced a 13 percent increase in daily commuter bicycling.
“Everything has changed,” says one cyclist, who had just picked up a Citi Bike at the Brooklyn Bridge. “A lot more people are biking now. It’s a change for the better.”
“Bikes are definitely making a comeback” says another Citi Bike cyclist.
Indeed, bicycles have become increasingly more popular in the city, especially as an alternative to automobile transportation. However, bicycles have not always catered to such a large adult population, especially not in New York City, where cars and pedestrians have essentially dominated public space.
The History of Bicycle Use in NYC
In the summer of 1881, three cyclists rode their bikes into Central Park near 110th Street and were promptly arrested. It was a small act of civil disobedience, but it prompted a question that had not been set forth before– should bicycles be allowed in the city’s vast park?
Of course, this question seems absurd today. Just take a stroll through Central Park and you will see dozens, perhaps hundreds, of cyclists riding their bikes alongside joggers and horse carriages. The park would certainly not be the same without them. We took a stroll in Central Park one Sunday afternoon in March and observed exactly that. In fact, most of the people we saw who were not riding bikes were either cyclists taking a break or tourists about to rent a bicycle.
In 1881, however, the car had not yet been invented and the bicycle was a very new development, used mainly by working class men who needed a form of transportation. To a majority of the population, the bicycle was considered to be extremely unsafe.
“I consider the bicycle to be the most dangerous thing to life ever invented,” said one person who testified against the three bike riders. “The gentlest of horses are afraid of it.” (Weiss, www.bicycling.com)
Ironically, this “dangerous” invention had become a children’s toy approximately 40 years later when a newer, more dangerous invention entered the transportation scene.
By the early 20th century, bikes were no longer as useful and appealing as they once were. At that time, cars had gained a tremendous amount of popularity and had become the most efficient way to commute. In 1910, there were about 64,000 licensed automobiles in New York and though that number has grown substantially over the years, it was enough at that time to almost obliterate bicycle use in the city. As a result, bikes were geared more towards children in an attempt to revitalize the bike industry, and kids bikes were introduced and manufactured well into the 1950s. (Mozer, www.ibike.org)
As long as bikes were meant for children, there was little controversy over its use. However, the environmental movement of the 60s led to a new major bicycle boom that redefined cycling as a counterculture sport. The 1960s was a period when long-held values and norms of behavior seemed to break down. People cycled to make a statement. Whether that statement was about environmental conditions, health, or just about rejecting mainstream culture, cycling was reborn as a subtle act of protest.
The cyclists of the 60s led to the bike messengers of the 80s and 90s. During the early 1990s, bike messengers, who were virtually the only cyclists on the streets of New York City at this time, proudly considered themselves a subculture.
“Messengers are like their own breed,” says one bike messenger interviewed in a YouTube video on mtrench6’s channel. “You have to be able to go out there and be really good.”
To many New Yorkers, this “breed” was characterized as one that was not afraid to take risks. They were, therefore, idolized by young children who saw them as adventurous, or even heroic.
“Messengers are free. They go out and wear exciting clothes and run people over and are just sort of free, wild, and rude,” says science fiction author Neal Stephenson in the same video. “And that makes them heroes in a sense.”
Heroes to some – but dangerous nuisances to others. Even though cyclists nowadays are not what they once were, the countercultural, dangerous, and risk-taking behavior of past cyclists that was once so revered has no doubt contributed to the image of cyclists we have today.
“The police has been cracking down on cyclists, but they should go after all the cars that blatantly go through red lights at Midtown Manhattan because that’s more dangerous,” says one cyclist in Central Park, who believes that cyclists are unfairly blamed for pedestrian injuries. “If you get hit by a car, it’s a lot more serious than if you get hit by a bicycle when you’re crossing the street.”
But for some reason, cyclists today are characterized as dangerous – and even crazy.
“I hate cyclists,” says Justin, a Queens resident and frequent driver. “They’re crazy the way they maneuver into traffic.”
Bike messengers are a dwindling breed, however. Cyclists today are not looking for an adventure, but for a way to commute from place to place.
Because we interviewed cyclists during the weekend, a majority of the people we spoke to in Central Park and Lower Manhattan were not riding their bikes for transportation purposes, but for leisure and exercise. A cyclist from Queens, however, commented that he prefers to commute by bike, rather than car.
“I’d much rather ride my bike to work than drive,” says Arnold, a Queens resident and avid cyclist. “Finding parking is a killer.”
In the last decade, the Department of Transportation has made efforts to increase cycling as a viable mode of transportation by providing a safe network of biking routes throughout New York City. Advocacy groups, such as Transportation Alternatives, have also contributed to the growth of commuter cyclists in the city. And of course, bike sharing programs, such as Citi Bike, have led to an increase in regular bike ridership.
“On the whole, I am overjoyed by the recent resurgence of cycling…which is a bit ironic, because when I got into cycling, it was a countercultural sport. We were making a statement by doing it,” says Hofstra professor, Edward Albert, on a Core77 blog. “Now that it is becoming mainstream and “trendy,” that countercultural element is being lost. Same with the messengers – when they started using bikes as messengers, those guys were also countercultural. Now everyone and their aunt rides a fixie.”
Evolution of Infrastructure
As the bicycle gained more popularity in the United States, naturally there needed to be infrastructure developed. Beginning in the 1890s when cycling went from leisure activity to mode of transportation, cyclists demanded better roads to ride on. As cycling became popular in the nineteenth century, cyclists wanted to ride on roads that were not cobblestone, but paved and easy for bikes to move over. In 1896, America’s first bike way was established in Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, NY. This push for new infrastructure has lasted until today, even though we have come a far way from cobblestone streets. The new, paved roads for cyclists led to a smooth transition for automobile dominant roads.
Since the automobile’s rise in the twentieth century, cyclists have had a hard time achieving equality on the road. They have had to settle for one of four options: Class I bike lanes, Class II bike lanes, Class III bike lanes, or none at all. Class I bike lanes are lanes that are physically separated from the vehicular paths and the pedestrian paths. Class II lanes are placed between the parking lane and the traffic lane and are only marked by paint and signs. Class III lanes are shared bike and vehicle lanes that are only marked by signs. In New York, there are mostly Class II and III bike lanes. In the past ten years or so, there has been more implementation of Greenways and better infrastructure for cyclists, although not up to the level that many would want. “[New York City streets are compatible] compared to five to ten years ago when there were barely any bike lanes,” said frequent cyclist in New York City and Bronx resident, Truth. “Now we have miles and miles of Greenways that make bike riding so much safer.”
Although it is safer now than before, given the 73% decrease in cycling risk from 2000 to 2011 as reported by http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/2011-nyc-cycling-risk-indicator.pdf, it is still not safe. Many cyclists still feel unsafe on the road with motorists. “Cycling can be a challenge because drivers don’t respect bike lanes,” said Truth. Even in places where there are lanes, motorists often park and stop in the lanes. “Some delivery trucks park on the bike lanes which can make cycling dangerous.”
To add to the infrastructure, some rail stations provide free bicycle racks. Additionally, cyclists are allowed to bring their bicycles into a subway car. In many neighborhoods, there have been NYC cycle stands installed. In the past ten years, there have been laws and policies put in place to help to aid the new cycling infrastructure. An example of this is in Prospect Park and Central Park that ban or restrict motor vehicles all weekend and during specific hours during the week. This helps to promote cycling and the use of the long stretches of lanes in the parks. “It’s really great that we don’t have to compete with cars in the park,” said Queens resident and cyclist, Adam, who was riding in Central Park. “It’s like a break from the hell on the streets.”
Aside from the improved bike infrastructure, factors such as health, the environment, access, and cost, are also encouraging bike ridership.
Factors that Contributed to the Evolution of Cycling
In addition to being a transportation vehicle, the bike is also becoming a mainstream way to stay in shape. There are many health benefits that are attracting riders to biking.
According to a study conducted by the UKK Institute and four other universities, there is a positive correlation between habitual cycling and the reduction of cancer mortalities, heart disease, obesity, and improvement in respiratory health. In addition, the State Government of Victoria states that cycling can improve muscle strength and flexibility, joint mobility, posture, coordination, and bone strength. At the same time, cycling can also help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.
At the Brooklyn Bridge, we asked cyclists how the health benefits of cycling contributed to their decision to cycle.
39-year-old Mary Simons says the reason she cycles is for “fitness and fun” and in addition to it being a good workout for her legs, she is finding that she’s breathing better as well.
“[Biking] is good for you. It feels good” claims 28 year old Eric Davis. Describing personal improvements in his health, he motions towards his stomach and laughs. “It get’s really bad during the winter though because it’s rainy and cold so you don’t cycle as much.”
Aiding in the health movement, NYC implemented the Citi Bike sharing system was in hopes of curbing or at least slow down the obesity rate. According to nyc.gov and Citi bike, an estimated 547 million calories in total have been burned using the share system. This is unsurprising since, whether they were riding as tourists, recreationalists, or fitness bikers, many people we approached were riding Citi Bikes. To date, there have been over 7 million trips and over 14 million miles traveled on Citi Bikes. For comparison, that’s over 995,000 Big Macs or 3.9 million cans of Coke. Citi Bike likes to use these figures in advertisements to attract more people to bikes.
With a staggering 6,526 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions released in the United States in 2012, it’s no wonder people are starting to look to bikes as a new mode of transportation. Only second to electricity, transportation is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, making up for 28 percent of our gas emissions, according the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Our current transportation commissioner, who was appointed by Michael Bloomberg in 2007, Janette Sadik-Kahn, works by the motto “reduce the trucks, increase the bikes, and plant more trees.”
Mayor Bloomberg says that greenhouse gas emissions have dropped by 19 percent since 2005 in NYC; this is almost two-thirds of the original goal of 30 percent by 2030 set by PlaNYC. PlaNYC was released in 2007 to prepare for population growth, strengthen the economy, and fight climate change.
Though not all of the cyclists we encountered on the Brooklyn Bridge noted that the environmental benefits was a deciding factor in their decision to travel by bike, they all seemed to agree it was definitely a great bonus.
Eric Davis also says, in addition to the health benefits that come with cycling, the environmental benefits also played a significant role in his decision. “Cycling is the entire package” He says.
“Though I mostly bike for pleasure” 21-year-old Kevin Lee says “I did think about the environment a little bit when making the decision.”
“The environment was a bit of an afterthought for me” says 26-year-old Denise Johnson. “It wasn’t the reason so much that I started biking but it was definitely a plus for sure.
“Although, I think cycling is becoming more popular now probably because of environmental factors, I would say” she adds.
Access and Cost
Rising gas prices and lower maintenance costs of a bicycle are also factors in cycling’s increasing appeal. Regular gas is getting as high as $4.69 per gallon in locations at the Bronx and Manhattan. With taxes, repairs, interest, and insurance also adding to a car’s price tag, biking is significantly cheaper in comparison.
According to automobile club AAA, the average cost of owning and operating a car $9,000 per year. In contrast, not only is the initial purchase price of a bike significantly cheaper (as cheap as $100-200), the 2-3 tune-ups and part replacements you need within a year will never been more than a couple hundred dollars.
There’s also no age restrictions for riding a bike, and you don’t need a license or take a test to use one. This combined with the low cost of owning a bike makes it ideal for youth.
Public Opinion and Political Opinion
Despite its growing popularity, cycling has received a lot of support and a lot of criticism. In a CBS and New York Times study on the support of bike lanes, the results showed this split in sentiment towards bicycle lanes. “Do you think bicycle lanes are a good idea?” was the question posed to 1,026 people. While 64.9% of the sample group were in favor, 28.4% felt that bicycle lanes are a bad idea. As pointed out by the article “Public Perception of Cycling” from transalt.org, cycling in New York is closely associated with danger since 15-20 New Yorkers are killed and thousands injured each year due to cycling. These figures showing the “dangers of cycling in New York,” although different in more recent years, give ammunition to those in opposition to bike lanes and the promotion of cycling. To add to this, the promotion of cycling as a transportation option is not enough in the forefront, says the author of “Public Perception of Cycling.” People often do not think of the possible benefits of cycling rather than another motorcar on the road. “The sporting aspects of cycling… get far more coverage than cycling’s value of transportation, ecology, and economy.”
There are many people who disagree with the naysayers, however. “Cycling is great and should be promoted. It’s good for the environment and for your health,” said Long Island resident, Ron, who walks in Central Park. Regardless of the opposition and the anti-cyclist sentiments in the city among some, many cyclists are still motivated to ride. “Yes,” said Truth, a Bronx resident when asked if he could see himself cycling for a long time in New York City. “Cycling is a lifestyle.”
In the past decade, the politics of cycling in New York have picked up. With the actions of the former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, cyclists have received the support of the city. When Bloomberg entered into office, his transportation commissioner (who was a remnant of the Giuliani administration), Iris Weinshall saw the increase of cycle lanes. This increase, however, saw unsatisfactory execution. In 2007, when Janette Sadik-Khan became the new transportation commissioner, this changed. It was within this time that the shared bike system in New York came into effect, proving to be a good decision. Sadik-Khan’s office established new bike lanes and fixed old ones, as well as got laws enacted to support the use of bicycles in the city. The Bloomberg administration gave hope to cyclists in New York City; hope for a new era that would hopefully continue. “Yes, there is room for improvement,” said Truth. “[But] thanks to Michael Bloomberg for taking initiative and making bike riding a fun experience for me and others who enjoy cycling.” Truth gave his hope, a hope shared by many cyclists, “Hopefully, the new administration will continue to improve on the cycling experience.”
Cycling in New York City is on the rise in popularity and will continue to rise in the years to come. The public as well as those in high positions are beginning to see this and take note of the many benefits of cycling. Whether it be for health, the environment, or the lowering of bills associated with cars, cycling is getting its overdue acknowledgement. Though there is still a lack respect for cyclists and cycling, that will come in time with the increase of bikes on the roads and the implementation of newer, safer infrastructure. Bikes and bike lanes have evolved tremendously and they will only continue to evolve as the years continue on. We haven’t seen the end of the evolution of bikes and bike lanes – this is only the beginning.