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
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
There are certainly sad points about no longer having a daily ride by the
my last morning on my old route, I was looking wistfully across at the
buildings in New Jersey, glittering in the autumn sun on the river's far bank. I
cast a sentimental glance to my right up at the , 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 cross-river Holland Tunnel. Empire State
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 , my former home – has been at
reinventing itself. I see neglected-looking synagogues built for a Jewish community
now mainly departed from London 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.