Sunday, 4 November 2012

Whatever the weather, cycling's proved a post-Sandy surprise

Most mornings, as I cycle to work, I smile to myself as it occurs to me that my children and I both start the day by looking at the American flag. But, while the Invisible Visible Children are taking the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of their school day, I’m looking to the flag for a more practical reason. The stars and stripes that fly from the top of the Brooklyn Bridge tell me which way and how strongly the wind is blowing. Since I moved to New York in the summer, it’s been the direction and strength of the wind on the main section of my morning cycle commute – north up the Hudson River Greenway – that’s been the biggest single determinant of how quickly I can make the journey. A following wind can get me there as much as five minutes faster than the prevailing headwind, I estimate.
The Hudson River Greenway: wind challenge

It’s one of countless ways that moving to New York has reminded me of how cycling makes me far more aware than any other way I might travel of nature’s forces. The summer heat is hotter here than in London, where I lived before, and the humidity higher. The rain is less frequent but the cloudbursts more intense. The winter, when it comes, will be more likely to bring very low temperatures and heavy snowfall. But the last week has made me realise that it’s only my constant awareness of the conditions around me that sets me apart from my fellow New Yorkers. Living for the most part on islands on the edge of a bay vulnerable to storm surges, we’re all to some extent going about our business at the pleasure of the elements. And it’s turning out that when nature really pays us back for the presumption of living in such an exposed position bicycles have a rather important role to play.

It was when I saw the mixture of embarrassment and pity on the CEO’s face that I realised I would need to change some of my cycling routines to fit New York’s weather. It was late June, I had just cycled briskly to my office in nearly 40 centigrade heat amid high humidity to encounter a colleague unexpectedly asking me to join his meeting with an important visiting chief executive. I had ridden – as I used to do in London – in my work shirt with the sleeves rolled up. In the greater New York heat, I was dripping with perspiration. My shirt was damp enough that my chest hairs were visible. I did my best to make myself look respectable. But, when I entered the meeting, it was clear I was still looking rather freakish. “Looks like you’ve done a hard day’s work already,” the CEO said. The next day, I started cycling in a T-Shirt and changing on reaching the office.

The heat and humidity, however, are nothing compared with getting caught in a proper New York downpour. Having cycled regularly in rain in London, I thought myself ready to face the worst a temperate-climate city could produce in the way of rain. Then I set out for home one evening in mid-September amid a deluge that would not have disgraced monsoon-season Chennai. A gutter running downhill on Ninth Avenue had turned into a respectable-sized, fast-flowing, deep river. Every surface was slick with water. The mixture of high humidity, torrential rain and darkness left me struggling to see where I was going. My waterproof jacket became so thoroughly soaked that my BlackBerry, tucked inside a pocket, got fatally wet. It was one of the rare occasions when I regretted the folly of my determination to get about by bike.

9th Street, Brooklyn during Sandy:
the Invisible Visible Man is invisible in this picture for a simple reason
- he wasn't riding when it got like this
As a result of that experience, I resigned myself, when I heard that a tropical storm was approaching New York, to weather that would stop me cycling for a few days. On the Saturday evening before superstorm Sandy hit, I took the Invisible Visible Girl by bike to a friend’s house for a Halloween sleepover. By the time I went to pick her up the next morning, the wind was up enough to send leaf debris stinging into our eyes. By late in the afternoon, as I ferried the Invisible Visible Boy on his trailerbike to a playdate with a friend, I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of being out. Every other means of transport gradually came to a halt too. The Monday was a rare day when I dared not cycle anywhere. I monitored the storm’s progress by walking cautiously down to the canal near our apartment. By the evening, I could see water up to the rooves of nearby buildings where we’d walked around earlier in the day.

But the same surge of water I could see in the canal was devastating many areas I couldn’t see. Water was pouring into subway, commuter rail and road tunnels all round the city. It was pouring through the Staten Island ferry terminal in Manhattan and carrying onto the shore the large ship I would see later in the week beached in Staten Island. It was, in other words, knocking out pretty much every means of transport that depends on any complex electrical or electronic control system. It was even shutting down the pipeline that supplied fuel to the city, laying the groundwork for queues hundreds of yards long to appear by gas stations later in the week.

As a result, I found myself in an unusual position among my colleagues later in the week, possessed of the one means of transport that enabled me to consider a lengthy commute into Manhattan. I abandoned an initial attempt to reach the office on Tuesday, discovering in still-powerless lower Manhattan the value of the traffic lights whose numbers in New York City I’ve previously decried. But, skirting round the powerless section via Greenpoint and Queens, I found myself back in the office on Wednesday, able to slip past traffic jams and wheel my bike round downed trees. By Friday, I was volunteering to report from Staten Island, putting my bike on the first ferry after the service resumed. I pedalled my way down to bits of the island where the surge had come up to the ceilings of residents’ ground floors. My main thought was that I was fortunate to live in a part of the city where our main moan was a brief Internet outage and a shortage of bread in the shops. While a man had died in his basement in one street I visited in Staten Island, we had never been in serious danger.

But, as I cycled past queues for fuel so long that different gas stations’ lines met each other in the middle and heard anguished stories of islanders’ four-hour journeys to work, I also felt a new appreciation of my bike. New York largely depends on transport systems so overstretched that every extra journey puts a strain on them. I needed little more than a solid surface under my wheels and made few demands on anyone else as I used it.

I don’t know how long my bravado in the face of bad weather will continue into the coming, probably harsh winter. The weather is already making it feel more comfortable to be inside than out. But the past week has made me appreciate afresh the flipside of a cyclist’s vulnerability to the elements. I might have felt dangerously exposed at points on Sunday – more exposed than someone using other means of transport. Yet that also reflects cycling’s simplicity – the thing that’s allowed me to keep skipping round the city in a week when others have spent hours in traffic jams or waiting for shuttle buses.
The Manhattan Bridge bike lane:
this climb's a Mont Ventoux to a novice

New York’s most pressing problem is that thousands of my fellow New Yorkers remain without heat, light and, in many cases, shelter as the weather gets colder. But some hopeful signs are emerging from the post-Sandy gloom. The most impressive is undoubtedly New Yorkers’ willingness to help each other – the pile of donations I saw in church this evening, ready to go from well-off Brooklyn Heights a couple of miles down the road to inundated Red Hook. But there was also something stirring about watching the inexperienced cyclists on the Manhattan Bridge on Friday. One knew so little about his cruiser bike he was riding with the kickstand down. Others felt the need for a breather only a third of the way across the bridge. All seemed possessed of a sense that their work or some other business was so important that their physical limitations or experience of cycling shouldn’t stand in the way.

As the city rebuilds, one can only hope that at least some of those forced converts experienced at least a little of the satisfaction of experiencing and overcoming the power of nature while cycling. Having seen the vulnerability of the city’s overstretched transport systems to disaster, I harbour at least a hope that some of them might choose to stay on their bikes and keep battling the elements with me.

12 comments:

  1. Great post Invisible! Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts while biking during this history making event.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words, Recumbent. I suppose one of your big advantages is that you get down out of the wind.

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  2. A neat symmetry here: Sandy, made worse by climate change, reveals the joys of cycling, the one form of transport that won't make climate change worse. Thanks.
    @cwhope

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    1. Chris,
      Thank you for your comment. I think Steve A, who commented below, has posted before on the irony that on days of high pollution the Texas authorities ask him not to use his car - but warn him not to engage in outdoor strenuous activity (such as riding a bike). This is a similar situation - although I suppose that's probably a substantial over-simplification of a complex scientific case.
      Invisible.

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    2. I think some years ago the bus and light rail system here in St. Louis had a discounted summer pass you could buy that was only valid when the air quality was especially lousy. It's kind of an odd idea, and reminds me of my mother reminiscing about her time in 1950's Los Angeles: "If it was a bad air day, there was smog, so you couldn't burn yard waste. If it was a good air day, you could burn yard waste, so there would be smog. Pretty much smog either way." Anyway, glad to hear you're ok after the storm! I was on a visit to NYC due to end on the Monday of Sandy, but we fled a day early.

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  3. I am glad to hear that you and yours have fared well.

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  4. When rain is forecast here in North Texas, my iPhone goes into double waterproof plastic bags, along with my wallet.

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    1. You are, Steve A, a model of caution. You probably don't get many of the kind of old-fashioned looks that I got from the woman in our office who oversees supplies of BlackBerries and so on when I told her my 'phone needed replacing...

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    2. Good point, except if I had a BlackBerry, I'd probably drop it in the nearest toilet sans the bags.

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  5. Several folk reported turning up for work on Tuesday and on time, as regular cyclists, and by Thursday there was a report on valet bike parking in Times Square, at least 3 timetabled bike trains from Queens, Brooklyn &c, and the almost unheard of invitation to cycling staff to bring their bikes in to the office through the front lobby and in to the lifts.

    That relief aid was being delivered in part - but just how big a part is not clear, by bike, with a massive bike trailer load of cycle water bottles brought in to ship drinking water out to those with tainted supply networks. A small batallion of bikes with load carrying crates, and pannier bags went aboard the Staten Island Ferry as part of that logistics and civil emergency operation which gave every appearance of being initiated and managed by a small NGO and hordes of volunteers rather than the City Authorities.

    There should have been 10,000 public bikes on the streets before Sandy arrived, and their fate (the docking points and bikes were I believe in storage downtown, and possibly inundated, wrecking the electronics). The bikes might still have some use - operated on an honesty basis even now, as the one detail where a bike scores over trucks and even helicopters, id that even if it suffers total immersion, it requires no drying out and can be put into immediate service even before the waters have fully subsided. Around 100 bikes can be shipped flat packed for just a single truck, and don't demand valuable shipping capacity for fuel supplies displacing urgently needed food and other relief.

    If nothing else the bike driven recovery as to inform cities world-wide on their disaster planning, be it for floods, earthquakes, or other events, and they might as well start the process by using bikes for everyday deliveries, and transport.

    NB Unlike a truck, a typical heavyweight utility bike can carry more than 10 times its own weight in cargo (normally with the user pushing it) Ridden reckon on 3 times, or 5-6 times with a trailer.

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  6. Hi IM,

    Thanks for the nice write-up. Did you see Casey Neistat's film? Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abawK4JRT2w

    Over here in the inland New Jersey 'burbs it was not too bad for most people: a fews days of power outages, curfews, and gas lines.... as long a a tree didn't fall on your house.

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