Yesterday I continued putting my garden to bed, planting whimsical giant alliums that are straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, transplanting some lavender, and spreading compost throughout the beds. When the sun was too far gone to see anything properly, and the chill was finally starting to set in after a sublime autumn day, I got on my bike and began to ride home.
I enjoyed a lovely journey down the Southwest Corridor, a narrow snake of train tracks and paths for bikers and pedestrians alike. It is operated by the DCR, and travels from the green wonderland of Jamaica Plain’s Arboretum to Back Bay Station downtown. It is oft-used by commuters, and as soon as I hit the pavement toward Forest Hills I joined a twinkling of evening riders. Be it an official critical mass or one that’s merely happenstance, it is lovely to ride in a pack, admiring the reflective tape and bits of personality that distinguish one cyclist from another.
After some hemming and hawing I decided to take the bus home from Forest Hills Station. It had been a fairly long day, and I figured that I deserved a break. I bought a copy of the Times and waited for the #32 while reading Michael Kimmelman’s Pleasures of Life in the Slow Lane, a lovely ode and pastoral to urban biking. While I am not overly familiar with the streets of New York, his descriptions and praises resounded with my own experiences of pedaling through the neighborhoods, riverways and parks of places like Boston and Milwaukee.
I started out along the Hudson, then headed east at 40th Street, past that nowhere stretch of depots that muscles its way toward the chaos of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The waterfront is bucolic and almost Zen-like without a million other bikes around, but I’ve also come to love those gruff, empty, brooding blocks on the far West Side, which I almost never bother to walk. River gives way to industry then density, silence to the din of Midtown — a classic New York transition, an urban glory best absorbed, I have come to realize, from a bike.
Kimmelman references Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, architects who have written about the very palpable difference between seeing a city on foot and seeing it from a car, with its trappings of seatbelts, metal and glass, its enslavement to traffic flow and roads. Though they never wrote of the view from behind handlebars, Kimmelman writes that “the point stands. On a bike time bends. Space expands and contracts.” The visceral action of bicycling – not too slow to make commuting without a car moot, and not too fast to miss the scents of fried chicken and clothes in dryers, bare branches writing cursive against the sky, the breath-catching suddenness of trains – endlessly exhilarates.
This article also crunches some numbers in the car/bike/public transit divide. The author travels “at a pace of more than nine miles an hour. City buses average roughly 8 miles an hour, taxis, 9, during midday at this time of year.” (Note that private cars are not included, given that this is New York City that we’re talking about, here.) Factor in the inconvenience, growing costs, and discomfort that too often are hallmarks of public transit, plus the absurdity of taxi fares, and bikes grow more and more attractive as the reasonable alternative to, you know, any other way of transporting oneself.
While it captures and advocates for the poetry and satisfaction of cycling, it seems that the real impetus for this article lay in the especially contentious relationship that bikers are finding themselves in with many non-bikers. According to the Department of Transportation’s website, “New York City aims to double bicycle commuting over 2007 levels by 2012 and triple it by 2017.” This amazing push has led to the creation of more bike lanes, which certain New Yorkers have responded to by suing the city, accusing the DOT of “misleading residents, cherry-picking statistics on safety improvements and collaborating with bicycle activists to quash community opposition.” There is still a lot of work to be done before American cities will achieve what Kimmelman refers to as a healthy “civic diversity,” when there will be enough bikers on the road to ensure what transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan calls an “architecture of safety.”
On the DOT website it says that “In New York City 10% of auto trips are under one-half mile, 22% are under 1 mile and 56% are under 3 miles – distances readily served by bicycle. Subways can be crowded, buses may run late. Free yourself and get there by bike.” Wait, free yourself? How often is it that you hear those words coming out of ANYTHING having to do with the DOT? Or, for that matter, any branch of government? Free myself? Why yes, I think I will.
Note: after fifteen minutes of a semi-guilt-ridden wait, the #32 finally came. I put my bike on the (very handy) bike rack and began the arduous task of crowding onto the bus. (There is no shame when getting onto a bus at Forest Hills Station. To say that people climb over each other is almost an understatement.) When we were properly filed in we finally, slowly, embarked upon Hyde Park Ave. Barely a mile had been traversed before the bus stopped, and remained stopped, and after listening to some passengers arguing with each other about the civility of one over the respect of the other, it was made known by another that the bus had in fact been HIT. Slowly, we got off, and with not a little zeal and glee I reclaimed my bike and zoomed home on my own. If I were Tolkien this is where I would transcribe a fanciful yet poignant song about cycling. As I’m not, however, I will just go ahead and say that oh, wow, oh wow oh wow, I sure do love riding a bike.
Image thanks to I Love Penny Farthings.