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It can be a vicious cycle in New York

Taxi doors, clueless pedestrians and angry police are in your path. But relax already, the ride is getting easier and a lot more popular.

May 07, 2008|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The undulating asphalt gave way to a sea of potholes and the bicycle shuddered with each curve and dip. Ahead, the Brooklyn Bridge rose in a long incline toward the camera-ready skyline of Manhattan.

But the cinematic quality of the city was lost on an approaching bicyclist, who saw only a tight grid of streets with thin slices of available roadway -- spaces that momentarily widen, then narrow, in the anarchy of Manhattan traffic.

Only a decade ago, the few bicyclists who tried to wedge into traffic were seen as interlopers, scorned by city drivers and pedestrians alike -- "granola eaters from a fringe movement," said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a leading bicycle advocacy group.

But with rising oil prices and heightened concern about carbon emissions, riding a bicycle no longer seems quite so silly. The number of bicyclists has grown by 75% during the last seven years, according to the city's count.

Soon an ambitious city plan will make it possible for riders to traverse Manhattan via dedicated bike lanes and circumnavigate the island along the waterfront. Sheltered bicycle parking and thousands of new public bike racks are already in place.

"It's a new paradigm for biking in New York -- a feet-first approach," said Janette Sadik-Khan, the transportation commissioner who has overseen a $1-million safety campaign that included handing out 10,000 bicycle helmets.

"The bike is not a hobby," said Sadik-Khan, 47, who cycles to work. "It's an important part of the transportation network."

Middle-aged bicycle commuters like Amy Cohen and Gary Eckstein are now more plentiful on the streets than daredevil bike messengers, once the dominant image of New York cyclists.

Every morning, Cohen, 42, and her husband, Eckstein, 45, walk their children, Tamar, 9, and Samuel, 7, to school in Park Slope, Brooklyn, before commuting by bicycle to Lower Manhattan -- a 35-minute ride to work for each of them. As they pedal up the Brooklyn side of the bridge, their wheels rhythmically measure out the wooden beams of the pathway -- thump, thump, thump -- producing a beat overlaid with the occasional sound of a bike bell -- driiiing. Tourists who have inadvertently strolled into the bicycle lane leap back. On the upward slope of the bridge, their legs ache from the strenuous ascent. Reaching the iconic towering arches, there's no longer a need to pedal. Descending now, faster and faster, the breeze grabs their hair and clothes.

Eckstein was once "doored" -- hit by an oblivious passenger exiting a taxi. Cab drivers still drive aggressively around bicyclists. But among other motorists, the couple have noticed a growing bicycle awareness. Partly, that's a function of mass: There are simply more bicycles on the street today than when they began pedaling to work 15 years ago.

"The city feels much safer than when we started," Cohen said. "It even feels safe in the dark."

Still, Manhattan's jam-packed streets often resemble a battleground between bike messengers, car commuters, delivery boys, jaywalkers, limousine chauffeurs and taxi drivers. A few years ago, New York Post columnist Steve Dunleavy described a "civil war" on the streets, referring to bicyclists as "pedal punks" and "kamikaze bike bullies."

"How many times has some mobile moron on a bike, as I opened the [taxi] door after paying the fare, crashed into that door trying to illegally squeeze through?" Dunleavy wrote. "It happens, and the rider protests in profanity and yells, 'Man, you could have killed me!' Pity I failed."

In response, a writer at streetsblog.org depicted Dunleavy in unflattering terms, pointing out that motorists kill more cyclists than cyclists kill pedestrians.

Last year, 271 people were killed in New York City traffic -- including 23 bicyclists and 136 pedestrians -- the vast majority by motorists. However, about once a year a pedestrian is killed in a collision with a bicyclist.

Police here largely ignore jaywalkers, cyclists going against traffic and taxi drivers bounding across lanes to pick up customers. And anarchy begets anarchy. Cyclists -- fearing for their lives -- ride on the sidewalk, and pedestrians -- to avoid the cyclists -- step into traffic.

Jessica Lappin, a councilwoman from the Upper East Side, hears the horror stories almost daily.

Seniors in her neighborhood feel "terrorized" by delivery people who barrel down the sidewalks on two wheels, causing elderly residents to duck and dive. "While I understand that the cyclists fear for their lives in the streets," she said, "the answer can't be whizzing by on the sidewalk at 20 mph and running into pedestrians."

Lappin added that she supported bicycling in general and -- if it was safer -- would probably bicycle herself.

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