This past August we packed our bags, left the cat in charge of our New York City apartment, and headed upstate for our annual end-of-summer vacation. Naturally, I brought a bike with me, and early each morning I’d set out for a solitary ride before undertaking a rigorous regimen of swimming and barbecuing with the family. Surrounded by protected state land in all directions, I had my choice of rolling roads, steady climbs, or gravel detours, all with little-to-no motor vehicle traffic.
So would you believe me if I told you I spent the whole time pining for the gently undulating Central Park loop and roiling scrum of midtown Manhattan? Well, you shouldn’t, because I’d be lying. I relished my respite from the hectic streets, and there’s nothing more decadent to a city-dweller than clomping out your front door, clipping in, and pedaling right into a majestic landscape without having to hack your way through miles of urban and suburban sprawl first.
I did find myself eventually missing city cycling, and I’m happy to be back in town. The irony of the Great Outdoors is that the sheer scale can be pretty overwhelming when it comes to everyday sub-epic cycling, and if you’re not planning to load up your bike with camping gear and disappear for days on end, your route choices can still be somewhat limited. In the city, however, every single intersection presents you with multiple options. Moreover, these options increase exponentially the further you get from home, which means that if you’ve only got an hour or two to ride, the possibilities are effectively infinite.
Every city is different, but each has its own beauty, and when you’re on your bike you’ll reconnect with that beauty and remember just why it is you live there. At its best, to ride a bicycle in a city is to immerse yourself in a vibrant and diverse human habitat—it’s like being a SCUBA diver in a coral reef (albeit one where the apex predators are cars and not sharks, but still). Where I live I can ride to quiet roads and even mountain bike trails from my home, and yet there are still days when I’ll point my bike straight into the heart of the city instead, just for the hell of it. For every frustrating encounter with a motorist there are a thousand life-affirming moments. Here you’ll see places where history was made, and you’ll see history in the making. You’ll share the roads, parks, and bike lanes with every conceivable type of cyclist, from the Strava-addled roadie to the Puerto Rican Schwinn Club to whatever the hell this is. Crossing the East River at twilight will elevate your soul every bit as much as gliding along a mountain road flanked by a babbling brook. And if the sight of a rideout doesn’t give you a secret thrill then you may be dead inside.
But there is a dark side to all this possibility. While deciding to go right, left, or straight in a city may unlock three wildly disparate and yet equally transcendent scenarios, all it takes is a driver opening their door into your path for you to transcend the physical plane altogether in an instant. In the last decade most self-respecting American cities have installed cycling infrastructure and encouraged people to ride bikes. This 21st century shift in thinking corresponded with an urban cycling boom as a new generation adopted the bicycle as a means of transport and self-expression. Nationwide, bike trips doubled between 2001 and 2009. Urbanists declared victory as car ownership began to decline, and millennials eschewed the suburbs for the city. The future, it seemed, was all walkable downtowns and bike lanes from sea to shining sea.
The news today is more sobering. In many ways our cities have been transformed, and innovations such as bike share and e-scooters continue to revolutionize urban transport. But instead of reveling in the successes we’re mourning the cost; as ridership increases in our cities, so does the death toll. And the abject senselessness of these deaths coupled with our lack of audacity when it comes to curtailing driving could conspire to undermine cycling’s forward momentum, for the simple reason that anybody contemplating the purchase of a bicycle might read about the latest tragedy in their town and understandably come to the conclusion that it’s just not worth it.
I love few things more than riding in the city—for transport and for pleasure, though sometimes it’s hard to separate the two—and I want more and more people all over the country to keep making the same discovery. I also believe that, while every cycling death is an occasion to both mourn and to demand change, they should not be enough to dissuade anybody from getting on a bike. But there is no more personal relationship than the one between ourselves and our own mortality. Telling someone they should just get over it and ride anyway is the very pinnacle of presumptuousness. It is, however, perfectly reasonable to be angry at our leaders for dealing in half-measures, and for caving to the NIMBYs, and for not doing more to create environments in which cycling is simply a no-brainer for anyone even remotely inclined to throw a leg over a bike.
In the city you can be any kind of cyclist you want. I’ve ridden in mine as a bike messenger, bike racer, commuter, father schlepping his kids, and middle-aged schlub in no particular hurry. Bike lanes and other improvements have facilitated this transition, but more than that, it’s a love of both cycling and the city that have kept me riding despite the specter of death. I’d keep riding even if all the bike lanes disappeared tomorrow. But cycling in this or any city should not be the exclusive domain of the death-defying. Remove that specter and this will be a country transformed.