Cycling in NYC: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bike
April commemorates my fifth year living in New York City. I have been a regular bike commuter in the city for the last three of those years. If I was given only one word to describe what biking is like in New York City, that word would be terrifying. But I realized earlier today — as I was riding around Manhattan, trying to return a lost wallet in hopes of repayment via some serious #cosmicvibes, and considering ways to write this coherently — that though I am often distressed as a cyclist in NYC because it is more dangerous than I feel it reasonably should be, the very act of living in this city is terrifying and alienating, so maybe it’s unreasonable to expect cycling be expected to be any less so.
Cycling has grown to be one of the most important activities of my daily life, but I grappled for several years with a serious fear of riding in the city. The dangers and fears are innumerable. It would have been nice to have had a coach or cheerleader helping guide the way. But I guess my idea here is that if you are committed to New York, and you have already accepted the terror and alienation, I would strongly advocate conquering your fear of cycling in kind, because there is risk assumed in doing anything, but for me, at the least, nothing has made me feel more in control of my life in New York than biking.
In New York City, one of the most obvious and immediate benefits of cycling is the sense of being an active and empowered participant in the city. My first year in the city was confined, almost exclusively, to subways. Anything more than two transfers or more than half mile from a station was prohibitive. Suffice to say, that leaves much of the city inaccessible. On a bike, a trip to Redhook or Willet’s Point takes half the time and involves none of the misery of late night train service. I recall distinctly seeing a great concert one night — and a free one at that, one of the Hudson Water Front series — and then being rerouted through three hours of service disruptions and thinking that the city giveth and it taketh away. Biking is not without its own tribulations, but there is less mystery and less frequent misery.
Related if slightly tangential, as I grew financially solvent and became engrossed in the culture of the New York City service industry, I graduated from subway exclusivity to the occasional taxi cab. Taxis can be a life saver, but one trip home from work would cost fully ten percent of my nightly wages. Once you’re up and running on a bike in NYC, the costs quickly add up in its favor.
It should be noted that a commitment to cycling is as much a culture and lifestyle commitment as it is a physical commitment — for me that was welcome if not necessary — but if you are looking for an outlet to curb over-imbibing, a bike can provide a good answer. You will have to commit to some long commutes after long shifts, but those have often been as emotionally informative and mind-clearing as anything else I have done or encountered. On nights where you need to go out, the MTA and uber will still be there for you. Protip: learn to leave the bike when you’ve had one too many. As a cyclist, you have less fear of taking otherss lives that makes biking home drunk less morally deplorable than getting behind the wheel of a car, but not any smarter. We have already acknowledged how scary it can be out there sober. I have had a few drunk episodes on two wheels. I am not proud of them and I would not recommend it.
Biking in New York City has grown to be my spiritual middle, a thing that has made me feel empowered when I have otherwise felt small. A thing that has been mentally and emotionally crucial. It has also been the core of my health and fitness — the value of which in the context of general well-being, cannot be overstated. I am not sure if I am unique in my hatred of jogging and gyms, but biking has been a way to incorporate exercise into my daily life in a way that I can tolerate. On my average commute (about four and a half miles each way), I burn about three hundred calories round trip, roughly enough to offset a decent breakfast and feel reasonably physiologically clean. As I grew and conquered my fears as a biker, I have graduated into doing longer rides where I can burn about 500 calories/hour. It does not quite approach the same burn rate as jogging, but it is a great way to incorporate exercise into daily life, all while making the city much more accessible.
Tangible and physiological benefits aside, I have also grown increasingly convinced that cycling is a way, however small, to contribute meaningfully to the world. Fear not, I am not going to sell you any artisanal kale or a “made in RDGWD” tees. I came to this just as skeptical of all of the hip, new-agey mumbo-jumbo as many of you. So, take it from a convert. I spend much of my time feeling, as a hopeless millennial, that my life is meaningless. But I have grown to embrace that the minutiae of my daily life can have, in some small way, actual value. Bicycling in NYC has become the centerpiece of that world view. I have no delusions of grandeur, but I have grown to view cycling as my own cosmic “fuck you” — a way to circumvent the misery of the MTA, to avoid burning fossil fuels, and to stop flushing an appreciable chunk of my income into the taxi abyss. Biking in NYC is a way of voting with my dollars, so to speak, by committing to two wheels in the city, I am, however slightly, making the city and the world a better, more livable place. I am a statistic that can be cited for safer roads, for protected bike lanes, for smarter laws. That has come to be very important to me.
Take it from me here that I am not, so to speak, the wise old fish. My cycling advocacy, whatever you think of it, was nothing if not hard earned. I bought a bike on a whim, with asymptote approaching zero knowhow, from a design blog that I followed because there was a neat looking bike on sale at a reasonable price. I popped countless tires in my first several months on the steed (if you do decide to hop on, do your research in terms of maintenance and owner ship. It will be worth it). I blundered about like a virginal city biker. But, and for reasons that I can’t for the life of me fully remember, I stuck with it. I guess because in spite of my near perfect ignorance, biking in this city made me full whole and human, not just one amongst ten million, nailed to the whims of the MTA. That has grown to have deep meaning for me. If there is anything, in writing this, that I hope for, it’s that whoever this finds its way to can take some sort of solace in that — whatever sort of solace — and that maybe you will dare to do something that is difficult or terrifying. Living in New York is terrifying. Life is most often terrifying. But you are a consciousness with volition and you can fight against it in whatever small little pedantic ways that make you feel empowered against the chaos of the universe.
The next step on my journey is to get on a bike and ride it a great many miles, from New York city down to Richmond, Virginia, and ultimately up and over to the other side of the country with a terminus in Seattle, WA. I would never be doing this thing if I had not bought that stupid single speed bike off of that design blog because it looked cool, and kept at it long enough to have any idea how great that doing that small dumb thing could be. Hopefully, this confluence of small dumb things will somehow amount to something meaningful someday. In the meantime, it will be an adventure.
You have already done the hard part. You are conscious and alive. Especially if you are conscious and alive in this fucking city. That fact alone should empower you to tackle most any obstacle imaginable. Do not be scared by the scary thing. You have already done something much more terrifying and difficult. Carpe that fucking diem.