Grand Prize Winner: Rachel Stein The Bicycle Superhighway
Runner-Up: Marcos Dinnerstein How Jerry Seinfeld Stole My Bike
The Bicycle Superhighway
Having finally gotten settled back in after the holidays, I wanted to drop you an email about a regular bike commuter's experience during the transit strike late last year. This is the text I was going to email to Mayor Bloomberg, but it ended up being too long to send over the website (I sent him an abbreviated version). As I wrote it I found the words flowing so easily that I thought you might want to hear it too.
I was one of the very few New Yorkers whose lives were almost totally uninterrupted by the strike. This is because I ride my bicycle to work every day barring extreme precipitation — even in the winter. I ride to the store, to the bank, and to the bar at night. I ride wherever, whenever I can.
As an avid cyclist and bicycle advocate/activist, I was thrilled to see so many bicycles on the road during the strike. It was a wonderful vision of what the city could be like if city government ENCOURAGED bicycling rather than discouraging it through lack of infrastructure, inadequate enforcement of motor vehicle traffic laws, and a fundamental misunderstanding of how a bicycle is different from both a pedestrian and a car. Though I complained about all the slow bikes in the left lane on the Williamsburg Bridge, which I affectionately dubbed the "Bicycle Superhighway", and I arrived home hoarse from yelling "On your left! Excuse me! Left! Thank you!" over and over, I was actually smiling to myself, thinking of how happy it would make me to have to deal with these annoyances every day. It just makes me happy to see people on bicycles, to hear the whir of tires, and to see the smiles on people's faces as they grow to realize that you CAN bike New York City, even when it's colder than you might like.
I only had two problems during the strike. One was the knot of people standing around at the base and blocking the Manhattan side of the Williamsburg Bridge. That was dangerous and unnecessary. I told a coworker about it and his answer was, "Well, the bikes on the bridge should slow down anyway!" Herein lies one of the primary differences in the treatment of cars and bicycles in New York City. If a group of people were standing on a highway at the bottom of a hill, the public response would be, "What are those crazy people doing standing on a highway?" Yet when people stand at the bottom of a bridge on a bike path (which admittedly is shared with pedestrians, but they know we are there), then the bicycles are expected to concede. This is not to say that bikes should not slow down at times to ensure pedestrian safety, but it is important to remember this: a bicycle is a bicycle. It is not a person walking down the street, slow and steady, able to stop on a dime, which, if it were to bump into something, would cause no damage. It is not a car, large and cumbersome, with its loud horn and unmistakable roar, able to accelerate quickly and easily, and which no one can miss when it zooms down the street. It is a bicycle, quick but not motorized, slim and stealth, quiet by choice and by nature, banned from the sidewalk but hated on the street, with only two skinny tires and a steel bar separating its rider from the rough New York pavement. It suffers the indignity of being treated as a motor vehicle under the law despite its advantages in terms of efficiency, noise and cleanliness and despite its glaring physical differences. It shoulders all the responsibilities of a car yet enjoys none of the privileges.
The other problem during the strike was the heavy, HEAVY car traffic on the way home from work after SOV's were once again allowed in Manhattan. The morning commute was blissfully peaceful, quiet, and car exhaust-free. Chinatown is usually fairly calm in the early morning on my route from Williamsburg to Lower Manhattan — I've grown to know and love the twisty streets and avoid the pitfalls that come from riding in a heavily truck-congested neighborhood with a large population of elderly (dubiously parked delivery trucks, unexpected doors, people with poor hearing who nonetheless step out into traffic unawares, potholes that could swallow a 700c wheel whole). However, this morning there was a special tranquility that came not only from the lack of cars but also from the knowledge that, for once, sustainable forms of transportation were normal. No one looked at me like I was insane the way they had earlier in December when I rolled to work in 15 degree cold on black ice. No one yelled, "Hey, Crazy Girl! Need a lift?" Instead they simply smiled and nodded at me, another New Yorker doing what she had to do in the face of a difficult situation.
The commute home was totally different: a nightmare of traffic snarls, angry and exhausted motorist, car horns and carbon monoxide. Not only was it difficult to get past the cars, many of which were pressed up against the curb like thieves against a wall, but I was also nearly hit several times by furious drivers who pulled out in front of me without looking or who veered to the right into the shoulder. I'm not sure if they were simply angry at being stuck in traffic and not paying attention, or if they were actively resentful of me as I flew past them on my way home, delayed for only a moment by the mess that would keep them tied up for hours. The SOV restrictions showed me a New York I wish I could live in every day — a New York where people are not encouraged to drive a full-size vehicle into an already congested city with only one person in it. Usually we also have a fantastic public transportation system to rely on, too. Nearly empty cars simply have no place on city streets. The City should take pains to encourage carpooling, walking and bicycling every day, not only when there is a problem. If that means actively discouraging SOV's in Manhattan, then so be it.
My commute is always the best part of my day, but during the strike I felt especially lucky to have bicycling in my life. I am also lucky in that my office allows me to bring my bicycle into the building every day. I work for Housing Preservation and Development for the City of New York, and I am permitted to park my bike essentially wherever I can find free space on my floor. It typically leans against the wall in a currently unused office. In fact, in warmer months my office building has a large number of bicycle commuters who I believe are drawn not only by the fun and exercise of bicycling but also by the ease of bike parking and the security of being allowed to bring their bikes into their offices with them. I don't know if I would have become the regular bike commuter I am if it weren't for this — I am deeply attached to my bike and new bikes are not cheap. I wouldn't want to park outside, especially in the winter darkness or in bad weather. However, I know that many people, including friends of mine, don't have this privilege, and for them that lack of security is one more argument against taking up this healthy, non-polluting habit.
The transit strike, so inconvenient and annoying for many New Yorkers, was for me a taste of what the city could be like if its citizens were encouraged to find creative alternatives to motor vehicles. I don't want to discourage public transport, and I am happy to have the subways and buses for times when I cannot, for whatever reason, ride my bicycle. But more than the lack of public transportation, the strike also placed restrictions on cars that forced people to rethink their commutes. I am sure that many people who would otherwise drive or take a cab in the city instead walked or biked either because cars were restricted or unavailable, or simply because they realized they could. I hope that many New Yorkers realized during the strike that they can walk and bike in the city all year round. Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but I think I've seen an increase in the number of cyclists on my commute. Sometimes when I fly down the Williamsburg Bridge, if I squint my eyes a little and use my imagination I can almost see the Bicycle Superhighway in all its glory. It's enough to make a girl yell joyfully, "On your left! Excuse me! Left! Thank you!"
- Rachel Stein
How Jerry Seinfeld Stole My Bike
I had just started working in an upscale office building on 57 Street. When I first started biking to work from 43rd Street I locked my bike in the loading dock of the building on a bike rack that I am told was provided by Jerry Seinfeld. He bikes to work too! That first day I locked the bike to the rack, nodded to the guys in the messenger center and went to work. At the end of the day I came back down and the bike was gone. This was too weird, I thought, there are people in here all day so no one could have taken it without being seen. I asked the folks in the messenger center if they knew what had happened to my bike and they were very apologetic. "Oh man, we didn't know it was your bike. We thought it was some messenger who had locked his junky bike right there in Jerry Seinfeld's spot so we welded the lock off the bike and put the bike in the basement." Well in pretty short order I had my bike back with a promise that the building would buy me a new lock. The kicker was a day or two later when I was unlocking the bike while a helmetted, sunglass wearing Jerry Seinfeld was also getting his bike ready to leave. I "innocently" start a conversation with this fellow biker, "Hi, you know this building is pretty strict about only tenants locking their bikes here. They actually welded the lock off mine because they didn't recognize me as someone who works here". Jerry — "Oh yeah, wow that's something" or something equally non-committal so he wouldn't encourage further conversation. I resisted the urge to tell him not to park in JERRY SEINFELD's spot since I was already making the poor guy nervous. Over time I expect I will continue a monosyllabic relation with Jerry — an occassional "Hey", "Hi" or on really chatty days, "How's-it-goin".
- Marcos Dinnerstein