Sunday, 20 October 2013

A Film Set, a New Route - and the Joy of Rediscovering Urban Cycling

It’s the kind of intervention in one’s journey home that’s never normally welcome. As I rode my way down Grand St in lower Manhattan around 10.30 in the evening, I found a skinny young man wearing a headset blocking my way. No-one was allowed onto the next block, he said, until the film crew had finished this take. It took only a couple of minutes – although the time felt longer, given that I’d rashly for the time of year put on only a t-shirt on my top half.
 
Grand St in Chinatown: city street, film set or cyclocross
track - it can't settle on a single role
But, despite the inconvenience, I felt a little thrill at being stopped on my way home on Friday. That a film crew was filming on a road on my way home was confirmation that I was, once again, the kind of cyclist whose routes lay along grittily interesting urban streets. For more than a year since moving to New York, I’ve done the majority of my Manhattan cycling on the waterfront greenways, riding often at speed but grappling only in little bites with the serious urban cycling of riding on a street with traffic. Following a move in my employer’s office, I now ride across lower Manhattan from the Manhattan Bridge to Hudson St in SoHo, on city streets for nearly all the distance.

The change has reminded me of some of the sheer pleasures of being an urban cyclist. My riding patterns far more closely resemble those I had in London, where I’d ride mostly along the London Cycle Network of routes along quiet back streets. I’m catching once again little vignettes of city life – I notice, for example, how oddly resigned and depressed the faces of the people waiting each morning for the opening of the Prince Street Apple store are. Pushing a hot dog cart to its place in the morning looks like really hard work.

The contrast between midtown and the relatively relaxed cycling environment in lower Manhattan – where there’s motor traffic, but not on the same scale as further uptown - has also highlighted another truth. Cycling in any place where cars dominate the public space can be pretty dispiriting. I’m missing the last mile of my old work route – where I’d battle my way up 54th street from the Hudson River to my office – not at all. If big cities want to encourage cycling, conditions in such forbidding areas need to be addressed.

The USS Intrepid: just one of the Hudson River landmarks
no longer on the Invisible Visible Man's daily route.
Yet these aren't the reactions I'd expected. For months before the move, I’d been telling anyone who’d listen – and a fair few that wouldn’t – how I was dreading the move. I’d grown used to commuting nine miles each way to and from work, including a four-mile sprint up the Hudson River Greenway along the west side of Manhattan. I was particularly concerned about my waistline. Within a few months of undertaking a daily 18-mile round-trip commute, I was noticing the difference when I stood on the bathroom scales in the morning. I’d dropped a good five or six kilos compared with when I moved in August 2012 from London.

There are certainly sad points about no longer having a daily ride by the Hudson. On my last morning on my old route, I was looking wistfully across at the buildings across the Hudson in New Jersey, glittering in the autumn sun. I cast a sentimental glance to my right up at the Empire State Building, which I now see only in the distance. I took a picture of the USS Intrepid as I passed it for the last time as a commuter. I was dreading not only the new route’s reduced riding but also the stresses of the new route I’d planned. To the west of the new office – the angle from which I planned to approach – streets buzz with high traffic volumes, pouring into and spewing out of the Holland Tunnel under the river to New Jersey.
 
The bike route onto the Manhattan Bridge: a quick route
to lower Manhattan streets - and romantically urban to a fault.
But, on my second morning in the new office, it occurred to me that it was worth trying the simplest, straightest route across town to the new site. I sped over the Manhattan Bridge, instead of the Brooklyn Bridge, dropped down into Chinatown and navigated my way across to Prince St. I discovered how the old, muddled-up street plan meant no-one expected to speed across SoHo. More to the point, I arrived with a smile on my face. The route had been chaotic, grimy and a little bit noisy – far more unmistakeably a ride through New York than my former ride on a calm, orderly path up by the Hudson.

I also, I’ll admit, felt a little bit cooler than before. For the last 14 months as I’ve fulminated about this or that aspect of New York’s road culture, I’ve had a sneaking feeling that maybe I wasn’t quite getting it. Nearly two-thirds of my ride to work was car-free and I’d found some of my efforts at on-street riding pretty terrifying. I’d watched on Twitter the discussions between more seasoned New York cyclists of their experience in the lower east side, SoHo, Chelsea and elsewhere in the island’s lower reaches and suspected they were simply cooler, more sophisticated, bolder people than I. Most of them remain, no doubt, cooler and more sophisticated than I – but I have less awe of their willingness to ride on these areas’ streets.

Bike lanes on Allen St at the Rivington St intersection:
a small-time entrepreneur wheeling goods down the bike
lane adds an authentic detail.
It’s certainly not a perfect experience. The journey would be more fun still if more New Yorkers had a better understanding of where the stress in the phrase “bike lanes” is meant to lie. Many seem to hear the term “lanes” and adopt them as the ideal spot to wheel their food truck, haul their suitcase or park their police car. Better protection for many bike lanes would be welcome, as would a reining-in of many vehicles’ speed. I’ve also yet to find an ideal route home. One of those cooler, more experienced cyclists, Joanna Oltman Smith, warned me before the move to avoid Grand St, the most direct route, which extensive sewer works have turned into a cross between a slalom course and a rutted country track. I’ve not yet found a better alternative – and, truth to tell, am enjoying the sense that I might be quietly training for unexpected stardom on the seniors cyclocross circuit.

On the other hand, I now look almost fondly on the elderly Chinese woman I see each morning blocking the Rivington Street bike lane stuffing her bags full of recycling. I marvel at the Beaux Arts magnificence of the Little Singer Building as I cross Broadway. I note how adept the city – like London, my former home – has been at reinventing itself. I see neglected-looking synagogues built for a Jewish community now mainly departed from Chinatown. Factories that once made clothing have been transformed into trendy offices for those of us in the media set. I hear even more of the city's sounds. Next summer, I expect to be still more aware of its smells. I was cycling round New York City on my old route. Now I arrive at the office, a smile on my face, excited at how I've been riding in it.

6 comments:

  1. Mr.Invisible,

    Another great piece, thanks (I'm still working on my listening meditation while cycling...)

    Sometimes I take the Hudson River greenway if there's a tailwind, but even then I find I always miss "being a part of the city fabric."

    Is Bleecker too far out of your way? I usually take that eastbound, and it's not too bad. Chrystie is a nightmare, of course.

    Best,
    Steve

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    1. Steven,

      You're very kind.

      I avoided getting too deeply into the details of my routes, out of deference to my non-NYC readers. But, yes, I've tried Bleecker eastbound and I'm not going to say it's not a very fine street because it clearly is. The issue is that it pitches me out onto the hostile lower reaches of 2nd Avenue, with quite a few blocks of Chrystie St to go before I reach the Manhattan Bridge. Grand St, for all its shortcomings, cuts down my time on Chrystie St, where conditions are, as you rightly note, nightmarish.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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  2. That's NYC for you, I guess: many excellent bike routes, and many missing links. Plenty of room for improvement. Happy riding!

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    1. Steven,

      You are quite right - and that's an interesting theory about the "missing links". Maybe the worst drivers truly are a less evolved group.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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  3. Making cyclists more visible on the streets also requires making them more visible for policy-makers. The UK parliament debated a "Get Britain Cycling" motion with 18 safety recommendations, tabled by an all-party parliamentary group on cycling in September, - that's the way forward. We at the OECD's International Transport Forum will be publishing a research report on "Cycling, Health and Safety" next month with a list of policy recommendations compiled over the past three years by a group of international experts (see here: http://www.internationaltransportforum.org/Pub/forthcoming.html).

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    Replies
    1. Michael,

      It's always nice to hear from the ITF. I chaired a session at the forum in May 2012, just before moving to New York.

      It's true that it's important policy-makers think more about cycling. I think there might be some cynicism, however, among my many British readers about whether the Get Britain Cycling debate is leading to real action on the ground.

      I'll look forward to reading your report when it comes out next month.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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