Bike Commuting Is a Barometer of Normalcy in New York City
Columnist Eben Weiss explains why the bike path becomes more congested—or empty—depending on the Big Apple’s changing conditions
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Back in June, New York City achieved the distinction of Worst Air Quality In The World, thanks to second-hand smoke from Canadian wildfires. The next day, I commuted by bicycle. Clearly, I was one of the very few people who failed to heed the official warnings about restricting activity outdoor: the city was eerily quiet, the bike lanes were nearly empty, and the few pedestrians about were wearing masks. Apparently my commute that day was the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes or something, but it’s been at least 30 years since I quit, so I was comfortable with the trade-off.
Generally, whenever something calamitous happens in New York City, one of two things happens: nobody rides bikes, or absolutely everybody rides bikes. Blizzards, heat waves, floods, and of course air quality alerts are examples of the former, and transit strikes, blackouts, and post-flood train outages are examples of the latter. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in October 2012, obviously nobody rode bikes–well, except this guy. But in the days immediately after, bike traffic on the East River bridges more than doubled. When the going gets tough, the tough get riding—unless the going gets too tough, at which point we all just hunker down.
Obviously our relationship with the bicycle is ruled by pragmatism: when there’s no train service we grab a bike, but when there’s three feet of snow on the ground we don’t. Yet at the same time, the bicycle can also be a barometer for our collective state of mind. In March of 2020, when the media was abuzz with something called the Coronavirus, but our officials were still telling us not to panic, there was a dramatic surge in bicycle commuting, since suddenly people were more afraid of dying from a disease than they were of dying from a driver. The resulting bike boom continued both locally and around the world, partly because people were still scared, but also because everything was closed and they were bored out of their minds. If you were a longtime rider, you found all your usual routes were suddenly full of new cyclists; it was like when that underground band you’ve been following for years starts selling out shows.
Calamity aside, on a much more mundane level, people in New York can be fickle when it comes to riding bikes. If you’re a regular commuter in New York City, you don’t need official bike counts to tell you ridership goes way down when it’s raining, or it’s snowing, or it’s very hot, or it’s very cold. The sorts of people who complain about bike lanes on the Internet will often use this as ammunition, and while it’s a bit of a cheap shot, it does put advocates in a bit of a tricky position. They rightly mock the notion that bike infrastructure is “ableist” or “elitist” or the exclusive domain of “white bros”—but as soon as it starts snowing they proudly break out the #VikingBiking hashtag, which is ironic, because it doesn’t really get much more “white bro” than the Vikings. Growing bicycling as transportation depends more than anything on its accessibility, but there’s no getting around the uncomfortable fact that if you’re going to do it all year round you’re gonna have to toughen up.
As someone who believes that bicycling should be enjoyable above all else, I’d never suggest to anybody that they should put themselves through undue suffering in service to some sort of ideal. On-the-bike anguish is for Rapha models, not for people riding to work. As an inveterate cyclist I may be willing to suck on wildfire smoke so I can ride my bike, but we’ve all got our own personal cutoff points, and if it’s pouring out I always reserve the right to just hop on the subway. At the same time, as someone who’s been riding for many years, it’s hard not to see all these ups and downs and this-time-it’s-gonna-be-different bike boom stories and resent the fact that for many people, bicycling does seem to be more of a contingency plan than it is a default. Sometimes I question whether that’s a solid enough foundation to build policy.
There’s always been a “Field of Dreams” reasoning behind advocacy and bike infrastructure, and to an extent it’s been borne out in New York City in that ridership has grown along with the bike lane network. But there’s one thing that riding a bicycle will never be, and it’s the one thing that commuters want their trip to be more than anything else: predictable. They want to be able to count on their departure time and their arrival time, wear what they want, and be comfortable. But no matter how buffed and burnished the bike network gets here will always be hot days, and cold days, and snowy days, and icy patches, and headwinds, and flat tires. Even if you have an electric assist, there will be days you’ll wake up, look out the window, and reconcile yourself to the fact you’ve got to do battle with the elements. Or you can just take the subway—whatever works for you.
Everyone thinks everyone else is a little crazy. There are some people who think riding under an air quality alert is crazy, while there are others who think it’s crazy to get on a bike at all. For bicycling to truly become normal a majority of people have to be ready to do it consistently across the spectrum of conditions and circumstances. In a city like New York, with its wild weather swings, varied geography, and sheer size, this may never happen. And maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe instead of pushing some idea of what bicycling could be if only we build X, we need to learn to love it for what it is. Maybe we need to come to terms with being abnormal.