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
tell me which way and how
strongly the wind is blowing. Since I moved to Brooklyn Bridge 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
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
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 over the next few days, 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.
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
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. Manhattan
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.