Sunday, 4 May 2014

Brooklyn, a bridge, Manhattan - and the voice every morning in my head

Huh. Morning came around soon. Put bike into road. Swing leg over. Left shoulder? Nothing. Pull out. Brake again. Look right. Goodness that SUV’s coming fast. Swish. Swish. Swish. All gone? Start pedalling. Start pedalling, turn left, into the bike lane. Here we go.

Yeah, I like this first bit on Smith St. Head down. Bit of a slope. Get moving as fast as I can. 16mph. 17mph. Feels like skipping sometimes, pushing down hard each stroke of the pedals.

Here we go. Yup. Here we go.
Oh. Big Toyota SUV poking out from the sidestreet. Wheels? Not moving. Check over shoulder. Signal. Pull out round him. Stern look. What do I think that’s achieving? Driver probably hates me. Maybe just shakes his head.

Traffic backed up to lights. Slip down the bike lane. Car doors? Wheels moving? Doors? Wheels moving? Which way’s this guy gonna turn at these lights? Pull left round him. Stop.

Kind of like what they’ve done with Carroll St subway station. Simple. Modern. Red hand for pedestrians still flashing, flashing. Just red. So look up at lights, look up at lights, green. Go!

Move legs fast, pedal, swing right before the cars catch up. Oops. Car poking into bike lane. Brake. Look over shoulder, pull round it.

There’s the school. I wonder what Alexander’s doing in his class. What’s it like to play out in that little playground?

But yikes. Car turning right in front of me. Brake, signal left to go round turning car. Carroll Gardens festival of dangerous and negligent driving this morning. Funny how they never send me the memo about that. Scary.

But now it’s clear. Pump, pump, pump, pump legs. Slip onto the big chainring. Left shoulder? Clear. Left round that pothole. Car at the sidestreet, creeping forward slowly. Firm finger pointed at him. Eye contact. Ooh – fierce glare, driver. But you stopped, didn’t you?
Spot the gap. Head for it.

Here we go again, though. Huge truck, narrow gap letting me through to the lights. Look up at the driver. Seen me? Seen me? Good. Thumbs up. So off again. Yeah, Mr limo driver, I do need to pull out round this delivery truck. I do and that’s why I’m pulling into the middle of the lane. No, I’m sure you don’t like it.

Oh there’s that guy.

“Hi, Robert. Nice one they’ve laid on for us today.”

“I think it’s something to do with the Pulaski Skyway’s being closed.”

“Yeah, have a nice ride.”
Atlantic Avenue in sight. Jails, courts, chaos.
So now Atlantic Avenue.

Yes, Mr Driver: I know you want to turn right. But I’m to your right and I’m going straight on. So hold on a moment. What was that swishing sound? Oh, that cyclist thought that gap was big enough to pass on my right? How many bikes are there at this light now? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight…

Green. Pedal fast, check left shoulder, guy’s not turning through me. How’s bike lane in this busy bit? Oh, guy’s signalling right into car parking. Brake. Check shoulder, signal, move left. Up to next lot of lights. Stop.

Funny seeing the Corrections Department buses. You never see the guys inside. Funny thinking how downtown Brooklyn’s got a jail. Do they look out at me from the windows? High-rise jail. Funny.

Lights green. OK. Tricky bit by where they’re doing this building work. Glad they’ve moved the barriers. Didn’t like it when they had that big bulge out into the traffic. Now this corner. What are these minibuses always stopping in the right lane here? There’s that voice, the automated voice, “The walk sign to cross Smith St is aaawn.” Broad New York accent. Always funny. Read once about the guy whose voice it is. Lives in Staten Island.

Green again.


Why do drivers have that look of injured innocence when they finally give way and agree not to crush you? It wasn’t a big favour to wave me through, madam. Legal and moral obligation.
Smith St at Fulton: a not like from the voice in my head.
Fulton St lights now. Don’t like this crossing. Pedestrians, cars, pedestrians, buses, angry people. Why is everyone so angry all the time? Oh, other bikes. Hi.

“The bridge is coming. Focus on that.”

Green again. Sir, I’m sure your life is not full of people you can defy. But I wish you’d express your sense of powerlessness another way. Your wandering slowly across my path is just frustrating when I have the light.

Cut through bus stop. Could all that grease make me skid? Into bike lane. Lights by that funny tunnel-underpass thing. Red. Stop.

Oh, please, other cyclists. Do not buzz that pedestrian. Please do not.

“Tut, tut.”

Ha, serious condemnation from a British person that, “tut, tut” – if anyone could hear me.

But no-one can and now lights are green. Mr Driver, I am not going to be able to fly over that car in the bike lane so I am sticking my arm out left until I see noticeable braking from you. Slowing down? Good, I’m pulling left and let’s go.

Green light by the college. Everybody’s flying towards Tillary St, fast. Oh, close pass. Better get over to the left somewhere. Signal left, check over shoulder in left-turn lane. Get to front of traffic at Tillary St. Lights red? Stop.

There’s the bridge. I can see the bridge. The bridge is coming; the bridge is coming.

Policewoman over there directing traffic. How does it feel standing there with all the speeding cars, all the people crossing, all the cyclists trying to get to the Brooklyn Bridge or the Manhattan Bridge? Hey, lookie here, Ms Policewoman – look at these cars trying to run down these pedestrians. Interested? Didn’t think so.
The bridge is in sight, people. The bridge is in sight.
OK. Green light again and pedal fast. No, Mr turning-across-my-path, you have to yield to me, you have to yield to me, OK. I’ll swerve round you. Fast, fast, fast across this intersection. Cars lined up. Always feeling like they’re just waiting for the chance to run me over.

Now Jay St bike lane again but how are we organising ourselves this morning, fellow cyclists? OK, OK. Let’s do two abreast this bit. Spurt of speed. Pull to front of pack, now upset everyone behind by stopping for these lights.

Never mind. The bridge is coming. Lights green, go. Tricky bit here. Cut across the bridge off-ramp to the  bike lane. How fast is that truck coming down the ramp? Probably OK. In the bike lane, ride down the side of the cars, get to the kerb cut for the bridge bike lane, swing onto the sidewalk, across under the bridge and it’s there: Manhattan Bridge bike path.
Manhattan Bridge on-ramp: excitement builds.
Best bit of the ride this, best bit of the ride. Love the spiral on-ramp for a start.

Guy on fixie ahead. Never understand why people ride fixed over the bridge. Pedal, pedal, pedal. Catch up with him. Look into the Brooklyn-bound lane, clear, and bye Mr Fixed Wheel Loser, bye. Get some gears.

Up the slope, up the slope. Subway train climbing the slope too. Scan the passengers. None to wave at. Shoot me when I no longer feel like racing subway trains. Or maybe shoot me when I no longer feel like racing subway trains but check first if I’ve changed my mind with advancing age.

Clunky hybrid rider: feel like I'll pass her, chance that I'll fail.
Bye, Mr Citibike rider. Bye, Ms Pootling Along on a Cutesie Pink Bike.

Oh, hi, fixed-wheel rider overtaking me. Yeah, well, I’ve got kind of a heavy bike. Oh, there’s the long-bike commuting-with-kids guy. Kind-of hurts when he overtakes me with his kid sitting on the back. This wind catches my big frame. That’s the problem.

But who cares now? Climbing out over the river. Barge down below. What do they carry? Look out towards the Williamsburg Bridge. Always remember now that bushfire day. City covered in smoke, could barely see the Williamsburg Bridge. Met Doug Gordon that morning. He stopped to take a picture. Can see it OK this morning. Odd-looking bridge.
Funny-looking bridge, days you can see it.
Now look for the Empire State Building. There it is. Sun on one side, shade on the other. Middle of midtown, looking fantastic.

Best bit of the ride, this, best bit of the ride.

Past halfway now. Getting faster. 20 on the bike computer. Bye, Mr Citibike rider, bye, Ms Clunky Hybrid. Hello, Chinatown. Not much of a cooking smell today. 22.5mph. Let’s go right over that manhole cover. Love that clanking sound. Now slow for the final curves. Final awkward downhill turn. Brake for the lights in Chinatown. Stop. But whish, whish, whish. Other riders running the lights. Oh my goodness that car is going to hit that guy. No, just missed.

Empire State Building: in Midtown, in the sun.
But now green and off, right.

Feels faster now, after the bridge.

Chinatown Dragon Fighters’ – always like that fire station name. Not sure it makes sense. But like it.

Allen St bike lane left. Oops, cut across that pedestrian slightly. Feel bad about that. Speed up – but delivery man pushing cart in bike lane. Swing round him.

Speed up. Grand St. Fast down bike lane but red light at Delancey.
Crossing Delancey: but not like in the movies.

Crossing Delancey – wasn’t that a film? Yes, it was a film. Not sure what it was about. Tough street to cross, though. Tough. Probably not a film about cyclist safety, though.

But now green, speed up and off up bike lane and then Rivington, left, fast along Rivington until, oh, that old woman’s sorting her recycling in the bike lane again. Round her, then see old synagogue. Places change. Where did that synagogue’s people go? Four-way stop, hard to see, crane neck, nothing to see, then ambulettes in the bike lane. Not even sure what ambulettes are, but they’re always blocking the bike lane here. Stop at lights. Chrystie-Forsyth Park. Robert Moses built the park, yes Robert Moses built this park the year he built lots of parks. He wouldn’t like that I can ride a bike
Allen and Rivington: left and crosstown.
across it but here I go, here I go dodging the pedestrians, here I go across Chrystie St and here I swerve round the forklift truck working in the bike lane and up to Bowery, right, then up to Prince St left, stop at the lights at Mercer St and look around.

Little Italy. Not really Italian any more of course. No Robert de Niros shouting at their wives about the steak’s being overdone. Nice, though. Like this area but don’t like its drivers. Don’t veer into the bike lane, driver, don’t come too close because the bike lane’s closed here and I need to pull left; don’t walk in front of me, pedestrians. Ah, sorry. Light’s changed. On you go.

Final push now. Lafayette, Broadway, crosstown. Feel like I’m making progress. Posh shops. Taxis stopping suddenly, manholes in the bike lane, gratings, feels like cyclocross some days, stand up on the pedals, hands on the brake levers and ready to steer fast round trouble.

But now at 6th avenue, swing round the taxis blocking the bike lane, Charlton St now, zip up the block. Signal left. No, Mr Taxi, you don’t just drive at me like that. Stop at the lights. Left onto Varick, downtown a block, then wait at lights again.
Vandam and Varick, SoHo. Nearly there. Nearly there.
Someone from the office.

“Hi, Randi.”

Doesn't hear me.

Then right, down Vandam, pull over to the right and stop, get off, take off the bike computer. Bike onto the sidewalk, walk to the bike entrance, security pass and in. How many other bikes today?

Lock up the bike, grab the panniers, stride out the door.

Eight bikes today? That’s some – but not many.

Never understand it.

Best bit of the day, my bike ride. Best bit of the day.

The post is an edited and abridged transcript of the things the author says to himself and other people during a typical, 40-minute cycle commute from Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, over the Manhattan Bridge to SoHo, Manhattan.


  1. Awesome post that really shows the actual experience of a cyclist in New York in general, and these streets in particular (the Smith through Allen portion of your commute overlaps with my way to school and work, though im coming from Sunset Park). I dont sense as much anger from drivers, but maybe its because I dont really care how theyre reacting as long as I can slot myself in when I stick my arm out.

    Actually, I think drivers do tend to be a bit more upset with me on 5th Ave (Brooklyn) than on Smith/Jay, I think because of the speed differential. On Jay, im often going as fast as cars (rather, theyre going as slow as me), on 5th much less often. Plus, theres even more double parked cars on 5th, at least through Park Slope.

    Allen and Pike are really great, and the only time on my commute that I can actually relax a bit. Ive heard some grumbling about center-running cyclepaths from somebody in the Netherlands (, but I think theyre alright as long as drivers arent allowed to make left turns across them. The turning issue is the biggest problem with the Ocean Parkway path.

    1. BBnet3000,

      Thanks for your kind words.

      The Allen and Pike St lanes (and the Manhattan Bridge) are the only places I can really relax too. You're right that 5th Avenue in Park Slope is more stressful than those. One point I didn't mention in the post is that I look out for traffic turning across my path when I'm going through intersections on the Allen St lane. Cars aren't meant to turn across - but occasionally they do. The issue is far more serious on both the Ocean Parkway and Eastern Parkway paths, both of which can be pretty dangerous.

      As for drivers' anger, maybe I'm projecting. But quite a lot seem pretty upset to me.

      All the best,


  2. Great read, particularly given my daily commute overlaps the Smith St to Allen St portion of your ride. I love your reference to the NYPD officer at Tillary and Jay, who always seems completely indifferent to all of the danger/lawlessness playing out in front of him/her. And yes, subway train racing is the ultimate form of fitness training.

    I just hope that I wasn't one of the reckless cyclists at Atlantic, Jay or Chinatown!

    1. Anonymous,

      The Allen St bike lanes exist for the City of New York to show that they love us (or that Janette Sadik Khan loved us) in return for the taxes we pay them. The NYPD officers at Jay St/Tillary St exist to show us that the NYPD cares only about traffic flow, rather than traffic safety.

      As for the red-light running, I'm a realist. I realise that there are sometimes circumstances where cyclists feel the need to run red lights to get away from traffic. I very, very occasionally do it myself, at night, to escape the two-abreast lanes of 50mph cars bearing down on me on Court St. But I think it's a good discipline to get used to using one's brakes to give way to other people (a point I made here: So I hope you're not causing pedestrians unnecessary stress.

      All the best,


    2. I consider myself a jaywalker on a bike. I'll absolutely always slow down to walking pace or slower (or stop) at a red light, let anyone who has the right of way (either car or pedestrian) cross first, and then crawl through when it's clear. I will gladly accept a ticket if I get one for doing that, but I'm certain I'm not endangering/inconveniencing/scaring anyone in doing so, so my conscience is clear!

    3. My criticism, Anonymous, was for people who I thought were inconveniencing people, so I guess it can't have been you.

      The reasons I'm mostly law-abiding about lights are complex. One is that I think there's a fundamental interest in promoting greater adherence to the rules. As cyclists, we need more motorists to follow the rules about speed and so on. I seek to be part of promoting a less chaotic, more law-abiding atmosphere on the roads.

      The other points are that I think the judgements about when to go through a light are pretty complex. I got knocked off in London by another rider running a light (when I had right of way). He complained that he hadn't seen me. Naturally, if he hadn't run the light he wouldn't have needed to see me. I worry in particular about my own judgement at the end of the Manhattan Bridge. It's very tempting to go fast and let one's momentum carry one down onto the roads at the Manhattan end. But it's hard to see vehicles coming (fast) down the slope and I've seen some close calls.

      Finally, in New York City, I worry both about the insurance and legal aspects of it if I were hit after running a light. No matter how culpable the speeding, inattentive motorist had been, I fear my having run a light would become the way the driver would get off or I'd end up not getting the insurance payout.

      But remember: I'm an overcautious dweeb and I'm sure you're not causing any real trouble.

      All the best,


  3. I just can't resist... Here is my version of the inner monologue of an avid car driver.

    Hi, I am a member of the 1% of the population who are avid car drivers. I live in Groningen, The Netherlands, where car driving is very much a minority behavior. But I don't care because I'm an avid car driver.

    It is about 5 km to work, and I drive a car. This is how it happened this morning.

    As I got up and left the building where I live, I said "hello" to two of my co-workers who were taking their bikes out of the building's secure bike room through its direct access door to the street. It will take them about 15 minutes to cycle the 5 km to work.

    It takes me a lot longer, but I don't care. I'm an avid car driver.

    It takes me about 10 minutes to walk from where I live to the nearest car parking garage. It costs 65 euros a month for car parking, but I don't care. I'm an avid car driver.

    This is Groningen, so to drive a car from one sector of the city to another it is first necessary to drive out to the surrounding ring road, drive around to the sector containing my workplace and then drive back in again. Total drive time from the car parking garage near where I live to the car parking garage near where I work is 25 minutes. But I don't care because I'm an avid car driver.

    Renting a car parking spot near where I work is a bit more expensive than where I live. This one costs me 75 euros a month. But I don't care because I'm an avid car driver.

    It then takes me another 10 minutes to walk from the car parking garage to work. But I don't care because I'm an avid car driver.

    I said "hello again" to the same co-workers from my building who cycled to work. It took them 15 minutes to cycle to work vs. 45 minutes for my drive and walk to and from the car parking garages. But I don't care because I'm an avid car driver.


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