Tours, Trails & Group Rides

Playing in Traffic

Before the 5 Boro, I’d ridden in two events, both the previous autumn, and both so small that I essentially rode them alone.  A “real” event like the 5 Boro Tour was a first for me.  (Nothing like starting your cycling event life on one with 32,000 other riders!)  The same week, I marked another milestone by doing something I thought I would never do:  I rode in  Manhattan traffic.  A lot. And lived to tell the tale.

On Tuesday after the Boro, Basil needed a small repair, the detais of which I’ll post later.  He was fixed much sooner than I expected, so I collected him, and then took a bus back to the west sde, and then the subway to 28th St., with Basil in tow.  I grabbed an indifferent sandwich at a “gourmet” market next to a favorite sandwich shop (unexpectedly shuttered) while Basil waited patiently.

The paucity of quality ingredients in the sandwich were compensated by the glory of this creation, which made a much more satisfying lunch.

We were behind FIT (the Fashion Institute of Technology), and hadn’t too many blocks to go to reach our destination.  I’d seen a cupholder on a stroller that might work on a Brompton, so I wanted to take Basil to Buy Buy Baby to see if I could find the holder.  It was only blocks away.

I couldn’t stand the thought of having Basil with me and not riding; it felt far more wrong than risking death in Manhattan traffic.

We rode to the store. We failed to find the cupholder.  We left the store.

Then, much as happened on the day of the 5 Boro, I said to myself, “If I go east and then turn left, I must run into the Greenway eventually.”  And that’s what I did; well, I went east, and then left.  I never found the Greenway.

Before I knew it, I was passing UN Plaza, in the mid-Forties.

The blocks just fell away; I was in the high 6os before I’d blinked, it seemed, and then back on familiar turf in the UES. And Basil and I were both still alive!  In the process, though, I learned these things:

  • In New York, it is possible to be doored from the right side, the left side, and the front. Take this seriously.
  • Also, it’s possible to get doored from a traffic lane.  Really. When a New Yorker wants to exit a vehicle, said New Yorker will. No matter where the vehicle is.
  • Motorists believe that bikes should use the ostentatiously painted — red — dedicated bus lanes, even though they (inexplicably) observe the prohibition themselves.
  • When vehicle windows are open, it’s possible to get a driver’s attention with a bike bell.  And garner a smile, too, potentially.
  • Bus drivers may toot their horns, very lightly, with several quick taps in a row, to politely let a cyclist know that the bus will be entering the bus lane behind, and next to, the cyclist.  (I was watching in my mirror, but that was really helpful.)
  • Taking the lane, sensibly and overtly, is often Very Important.
  • Some motorists will come very close to side-swiping a bicyclist, either because they don’t notice, they hate cyclists, or they just don’t care.  There’s actually very little one can do about this, except veer into the space one has kept between the parked cars’ doors and oneself, and hope none of those doors open at the same moment.
  • Average speed of a slow-moving Brompton will well exceed that of any motorist travelling the same route, even if the Brompton rider observes all traffic laws, as she is wont to do.
  • It’s possible that I was the only cyclist in all of Manhattan wearing Hi Vis apparel.  Really.

Taxis, blitzing across many lanes with laser-like focus toward prospective fares, and, in the process, completely un-alert to the possibility of a bicycle in the trajectory, seemed to pose a more serious hazard to cyclists than the occasional impatient civilian motorist.  On the other hand, several taxi drivers went out of their way to indicate that they saw me, and I had a great conversation with another taxi driver while waiting at a light.  He gave me a thumbs up, and said that walking and cycling were the best ways to see the city.

Admittedly, New York was in a great mood during this particular week: cars were being driven with the windows open, to take in all that cool, but definitely spring-like, air, and people were uncharacteristically smiling a lot.  All that aside, though, it was all-too-obvious how a freak moment could send a cyclist crashing into oblivion — whether or not he or she had been vigilant. I was terrified for most of the ride — also thrilled, and completely disbelieving:  Were we really doing this?!

Basil and I hopped the crosstown bus for the second time that day, and then took the subway to 168th, where we decided we hadn’t ridden enough, so we rode over to Amsterdam Avenue and down to about 155th, back again, and tootled around the neighborhood a bit before going “home”.

On Broadway (I think) somewhere around 170th, we saw a cargo bike — with a passenger on board.

Drivers were more easy-going, and generally friendlier, in Washington Heights, but it’s safe to say that vigilance is the skill of the hour.  Riding in Manhattan, especially in Mid-Town, feels like a death-defying act — but it was a completely exhilarating experience, too.  What a week this was:  Two “firsts” for Basil and me:  a huge group ride, and navigating New York City traffic.  Who woulda thunk it??!?

Altogether we rode over seven miles/11.2 km in New York traffic.  (It’s a small island, folks!)  Will I ever need a subway pass again?  We’ll see!

Here’s the route we took:

9th Avenue south to right on 26th

26th to 7th (errand stop)

25th to  left on 1st Avenue, with some noodling around looking for the Greenway.  (I could see the FDR below, but no way to get near it, or anything that I could positively identify as the path)

1st Avenue to a left on 71st, which I had mistaken for the street the M79 (yeah — go figure) takes across Central Park

71st to right on 3rd Avenue

3rd Avenue to 79th, the actual stop of the M79 crosstown bus (d’oh! — although, in fairness, you catch it at 81st on the west side)

Then we took the bus and the subway back to Washington Heights, riding down Amsterdam to around 155th, back up again, and a bit in the neighborhood.

4 replies on “Playing in Traffic”

Excellent words of caution and advice. In my commuting I’m pretty sure there have been moments of escape due to equal parts caution and luck. With caution you increase your odds; experience counts for a lot but there are times – if you’d been 1/2 second earlier or five feet farther – that there wouldn’t be escape from harm. In this venue there isn’t 100%-sure safety – but isn’t that true of anywhere?

It is definitely sobering to realize how both caution and luck interplay while cycling in a city like New York, Harry, and your point about 100%-sure safety not existing is well-taken. Even so, it is so much better to have cycled and lost than never to have cycled at all, to paraphrase Tennyson (aho loved, apparently, but who maynever have seen a bicycle). And, as you note, nothing (and nowhere) is really risk-free!

Comments are closed.