When I travel, my favorite way to explore the place I’m visiting is by bike. Yes, that opening statement is obvious to the point of absurdity. At a site devoted to cycling, saying you like to tour places by bike is rather like standing before a Catholic congregation and declaring you believe in God. I know, tell us something we don’t already know. Yet I needed to state that up front to help me make the point that when I get out of a car of off a plane, my first order of business is to get my bike ready to go for a ride. Even if the ride is short, my effort too easy to merit a zone, I need that saddle time.
Rolling streets that range from easily remembered to wholly new is a chance to take in the recurring themes of the community. Is the construction wood or brick? Stucco or concrete? Does the wind furl groves of palm trees or deciduous forest? Does the air carry mineral taste of the desert or the sweet vegetation of flood plain?
Even if I know the answer, I have to be out there.
I recently had the opportunity to do some readings on the East Coast. I visited Savile Road in suburban Albany, New York, as well as the Rapha Club in New York City and Outdoor Sports Center in Wilton, Connecticut. During my brief time in New York I managed to go for two rides. One of those rides was the Rapha Club ride that heads north to Piermont and takes in urban terrain, park land and suburban sprawl, all in 60 miles—30 if you don’t bother with the return trip.
The other ride was just me wandering the streets of Manhattan. I rode from Harlem to downtown, and back. This was my first opportunity to ride in Manhattan in 13 years, since just days before September 11, 2001. It seems a better place today than it was then, in many ways more hospitable. Riding on the streets felt more threatening back then. There were also many fewer bikes on the road. Sharrows and bike lanes are something I couldn’t have imagined in 2001, wouldn’t have dared such a dream.
By my rough count more than 25 percent of the bikes I saw being ridden were Citi Bikes. As I walked to dinner after my reading, every bike I saw on the road—this was a Saturday night—was from Citi Bike. I even saw what appeared to be some couples out on dates.
What I didn’t recall from previous trips to the largest of all apples was the degree to which pedestrians ignored oncoming traffic when they crossed against lights. As I rode into one intersection—with the light—a guy strolling across 5th Avenue looked at me and shouted, “You could slow down!”
I knew better than to lock horns with him, so when I said, “You could wait for the light,” it remained beneath my breath.
This would be where I would otherwise write, “What gives?!” but this is New York City. As a nonresident alien in the biggest city in my country, I’ve always taken the attitude that where New York is concerned, no bets are placed. If you want to have an expectation in New York, it’s best to consign it to the odds that if you give someone a chance to steal something, they will. You’re likely to encounter someone you think is rude, as well, but by New York standards, they probably aren’t. And unlike the South, where merely walking in a store will bring throngs of staff to help you, if you want attention in a busy retailer, you’re going to have to make yourself known. It’s a different set of rules. Waiting for a light to change is a weak response to a pressing need, an insistence on formality over expediency, a way to make sure you’re late wherever you go. That’s true by degrees; most true with pedestrians, still true of cyclists, and more true than you think with cars.
And New York is the home to modern contradiction. For every assertion about the woes of modern society—traffic, crime, rudeness, cost—you can find bewildering and unexpected exceptions that prevent any observant person from completely stereotyping a place that is at least the great aunt, if not the mother of all melting pots.
I’ve ridden in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Boston, Chicago, Boulder, Honolulu, Memphis and New Orleans, and that’s not all. New York is the place that stands alone, the outlier that demonstrates the others are more alike than dissimilar. It’s less a different area code than a different country code.
I’m not sure what to make of the experience. I wasn’t scandalized by the alternative approach to traffic laws. It was a nice change not to have pedestrians and drivers yelling, “You’re supposed to stop!” if I rolled a stop sign. In that regard, New York proved to be more laissez faire than any other place I’ve ridden, but because of my woeful lack of local beta, every light, every turn was an opportunity for mayhem. I behaved with the care of someone having dinner with a date’s parents.
That the city has embraced bike sharing, bike lanes, sharrows even as its citizens ignore a significant proportion of traffic laws cast my time on the road in a lurid light. It was a ride that simply couldn’t be predicted, and yet it demonstrated a cooperation that would be easy to underestimate. After all, I didn’t see a single person hit, no fenders bent, no bikes launched over light poles. Based on my observations, everyone seemed to agree that an altercation runs counter to commerce.
I couldn’t place a voice, but as I played back the rides in my head before sleep, a statement echoed off those concrete altars to enterprise.
Figure it out.