The greener, but not easier, commute

The ride from Greenwich Village to Morningside Heights requires sudden detours, fast reflexes, and a few close calls

I swapped my MetroCard for a Citi Bike pass on my commute from Greenwich Village to Columbia University this morning, nearly getting bulldozed by an SUV and pancaked by a thrown-open taxi door in the process.

Though bike-related fatalities have decreased in New York in recent years, bike advocates say the city hasn’t done enough to address daily frustrations including blocked lanes, manic drivers, unclear traffic signals and equal access to Citi Bikes.

I didn’t make it far before coming across something that gives bicycle owners a daily anxiety — a half-stolen bike. Bike theft is on the rise in the city, and even the most hefty locks have trouble deterring thieves with clips.

I saw some empty Citi Bike stations, leaving hopefuls scrambling to track down wheels at a nearby station. In June, Citi Bike introduced the Bike Angels program to help alleviate this allocation issue — listen to one Angel’s story here. Lesson 1: Always give yourself a little extra time. Thankfully, the station near my house had four bikes left in the dock.

After inserting my credit card, I was surprised to find that Citi Bike charges $12 for a one-day pass, and users must pay using a credit card. A recent study found that bike share programs disproportionately serve high-income neighborhoods because credit card payment plans restrict access in poorer communities.

Citi Bike used a text-messaging system to alert me that my ride would be limited to 30 minutes, lest I incur late fees. Considering that Google Maps estimated my commute would last 35 minutes, this text didn’t bode well for my wallet.

Some of the more difficult legs of my commute were on 8th Avenue, where large vans and trucks often stalled on the right side to make deliveries, blocking large portions of the road. Above, at 21st Street, I had to maneuver around a black van camped out across two lanes.

Gridlock! New Yorkers took risks at yellow lights, plowing through intersections even if their window to advance safely was limited. These two cars blocked the better half of 26th Street for pedestrians and northbound traffic alike. On my bike, I was able to quickly zip through. I enjoyed one blissful, car-free block before running into more traffic.

At 28th Street, gridlock was again on full display. To make up for lost time after the green light had turned red with little traffic advancement, a Mercedes attempted an illegal right turn. The car crept into the crosswalk, almost mowing me down as I waited for the green light. A chorus of people shouted, and one man came to my defense. “Come on, man! She’s on a CITI BIKE!”

At this point, I began to question Google’s decision to send me down 8th Avenue. The bike lane was intermittently closed to accommodate construction, so it wasn’t smooth. I decided to take a chance and turn west onto 39th Street, where Google Maps told me I could find a bike lane.

On 39th Street, I was met with more bike lane construction. Considering that DOT has 28 active bike projects, the odds weren’t in my favor. And when I made it to 9th Avenue, I discovered the lane was strictly southbound. I turned back disappointed, ready to tough it out on 8th Avenue.

I found my first functioning bike lane at 42nd Street, merged in and immediately felt safer — and faster! I had already been on the road for a half hour — cue late fees — and wasn’t even halfway to my destination. Google uses a baseline assumption that cyclists move at 10 mph, a speed I didn’t touch before peddling along this lane.

And just like that, my glorious stretch of unhindered street access was over after three blocks.

A few blocks later, I made it to Columbus Circle, a roundabout that poses a challenge for cyclists. The 8th Avenue bike lane, which is on the left side of the street, ends abruptly in a mixing zone, a dangerous street layout I covered here. Cyclists are left scrambling to make their way across three lanes of car traffic to where another bike lane picks up on the right of the circle. I ended up dismounting and walking this portion of my commute.

After surviving the chaos of Columbus Circle, I emerged onto a quiet stretch on Central Park West. Compared to my skittish trapeze on 8th Avenue, this was a cake walk — I never had to stop for traffic, and had a bike lane to myself.

What did I learn? Biking is greener and healthier than driving. However, it’s not for everyone. Bikers must be alert, agile and possess a clear understanding of traffic rules and safe routes.

For now, I’ll stick with my MetroCard.