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BY SCOTT OGLESBY | I’ve been riding bikes in Manhattan for 27 years, so retro that I call myself a “biker,” not a cyclist. Before moving here in the ’80s, I was an avid biker in San Francisco for 15 years. My first ride was in 1956, on a single-speed Schwinn American Flyer. Made of steel, it was indestructible, a far cry from my current lightweight wheels — a road bike, and a mountain bike.
This long history (plus my age) has given me a seasoned take on the bike-friendly changes taking place in the city’s road grid. Not to mention serious street cred: Accidents? You bet, at least a dozen. Injuries? Sure — a broken collarbone (nine pins), two broken wrists, one hand. Brushes with death, lost count. Centuries (100-mile bike rallies) — three, minus senior discount miles. Thefts — five stolen bikes, one pedal set, one front wheel. Written about it all — once: a novel, “Riding High.” Advocacy — member of Transportation Alternatives.
Bikes are still my primary New York City transport, but I also walk and drive here, therefore I empathize with all sides in the ongoing hot debate dubbed the “bike wars.”
The front line in this conflict is the proliferation of bike lanes. For most of my life, a “bike lane” was simply the ever-changing space between cars that I could squeeze through; so it’s been heartening to see the proliferation of “real” bike lanes, some of them “dedicated” (protected by an island or parked cars). Many lanes have specified traffic lights (a lit-up biker icon), just for me and my two-wheeled friends. The hope is that everyone will learn to share the road and accept progress as something more than increased speed.
This new landscape of bike lanes and rules is sure to dampen “outlaw” riding styles. I’ve never been a messenger, but I have ridden like one — wrong way up one-way streets, running red lights, brief stints on sidewalks. I’ve scattered jaywalkers like so many chickens. So, it is true, some riders can be impervious, rude and reckless.
I’ve been bumped and near-missed countless times by bike-delivery people, most of whom have zilch rider-training. And naturally, career messengers see the streets as their workplace, and like cabbies, they see you as just another obstacle to their need for speed. When money’s involved, civility is always the first casualty. Think Ratso Rizzo in “Midnight Cowboy” — “I’m walking here!”
Remember that many bikers are literally riding scared, because most bike lanes are not protected. Many become magnets for cabs and double-parkers, forcing riders to swerve into traffic, a harrowing, sometimes lethal move. At times, riders feel safer sharing a regular lane with cars — perfectly legal when your speed is comparable (and there’s no bike lane).
Unfortunately, aggressive riding is sometimes the best protection from autos and unpredictable pedestrians. In the end, it becomes a question of balance — fear pitted against courtesy.
New York City pedestrians are also known for “taking their lane,” braving large vehicles daily just to cross the street. Erroneously, many see bikes as relatively harmless, or worse, invisible. They seem to think that a collision would be a minor bump. Not true, as many have discovered.
All this contentiousness has led to hardcore “atti-rudes.” Like tabloid bluster from the Murdoch blowhards — one senior clobbered by a messenger gets equal space to the droves of walkers and cyclists mowed down by vehicles. Pushing back from rad sections of the bike community are Eco fanatics. All greened-up, they’ve married biking to public transit, recycling, hybrid-driving, etc. As if living right entitles special privileges on the street.
When bikers meet traffic lights, opinions really polarize, so let’s fine tune it. There’s running red lights, and then there’s running red lights! There’s a huge difference between coasting through a light, and “crashing” one — hitting an intersection at high speed, threading gaps between moving cars and people. Pedestrians habitually cross against lights, so no surprise that bikers feel unfairly targeted when ticketed. Fair enough, but on a bike, don’t expect to be treated like a pedestrian unless your velocity and lethality are similar. Best safety enforcement? Forget the light, ticket reckless behavior.
I confess, occasionally I still ride the wrong way up one-way streets. Only one block at a time, and for a zillion different reasons, but I do it. But, with extreme diligence and at a much slower speed, aware that pedestrians especially, are not expecting me coming from the wrong direction. Ironically, bikers stand a greater chance of being “doored” by exiting passengers when riding the correct direction (my biggest fear).
How do you tell a seasoned New Yorker? They compulsively look both directions when crossing any street.
Helmets are a no-brainer. Imagine sucking a mojito through the straw stuck in your wired-up jaw. Wear the thing! Chances of a fatal accident are much less.
Pet peeves: Dogs, pythons, parrots and other pets are not mobile fashion accessories. Please don’t stuff them in your backpack or bike basket, or wrap them around your neck. It endangers them, yourself and me! Rule of dumb — if they can’t strap on a helmet without help, don’t ride with them. (Applies to children.)
Fools with phones: If you believe that crossing a city street is not the place for phone calls or texting, then you’re most likely over 40. I have saved countless young lives by simply hitting the brakes (sometimes reluctantly). My bumper sticker reads: “I brake for fools.” Bigger fools are the bikers riding with a device in one hand, the other supposedly in control of their bike. These folks have surely never had an accident. Yet!
Others grip the bars with both hands and clamp their phone between their head and shoulder. Wake up, kiddos! Please don’t chat with your mom, check e-mail, tweet or surf, or peruse your stocks while riding. You can replace your device with a smarter model, your dumbo head’s a different story.
I’m reluctant to discuss bells but New York City law requires one on all bikes. Really? In the din of cab horns and jackhammers, who’s gonna hear bells? Especially when most ped ears are clogged with earbuds, Bluetooth and indie rock. An air horn is what bikers need, or maybe one of those South African soccer horns. A vuvuzela mounted on the handlebars! Now that would create some rolling room in the crosswalks.
Last-ditch advisory: Bikers and drivers — slow down; adapt to the new streetscape; always give pedestrians the right of way (optional for phoners and texters).