In the face of the impending L train shutdown there has been a flurry of alternate transportation ideas thrown around — I’m personally a fan of the pontoon bridge idea, but I don’t think anybody at City Hall is seriously considering it.
This past Thursday, I decided to take a crack at an alternate idea that isn’t getting a lot of air play — riding a bike.
I’ve lived in the Bushwick area for about a decade now and while I often think about doing it, I have never once ridden a bike in New York City. I don’t even own one.
Last week, I heard about BikeTrain Rally and Ride, a grassroots program organized by Transportation Alternative to raise awareness of cycling as a viable method of commute for the L train shutdown and beyond.
We all say we’re into eco-friendly everything; this rally was my chance to put my money where my mouth is. I decided to do it, hoping to learn whether biking to work is actually a viable alternative for a Bushwick or Ridgewood commuter who has never done it before.
The Ride Begins
I borrowed a bike from a friend — a badass-looking matte black road bike — and planned my route. Thursday was the inaugural BikeTrain Rally and Ride, with the “rally” part beginning at 8:15 and the “ride” beginning at 8:45.
Google Maps told me that it would take 18 minutes to bike the 3.3 miles from my apartment to the meeting point, The West Brooklyn in Williamsburg. It’s near the spot where both bike and vehicular traffic start funneling to the Williamsburg Bridge; it’s also the location of a CitiBike station.
My guess was that BikeTrain would mostly draw everyday cyclists and few new riders. With that in mind, I decided to skip the 30 minutes of back-patting that the “rally” was likely to be. “Biking is so good for you! It’s good for the environment! Look at my quads!” I know these things, and I wasn’t in a rush to listen to people say them for half an hour. I left my apartment at 8:20 a.m., figuring I’d arrive just in time.
This portion of the ride was uneventful. The first third or so was quiet residential streets, so that was a nice way to ease into things. I eventually merged onto Metropolitan Avenue, which I was dreading — Metropolitan has what you could call a “bike lane,” (bear with me, these were all new things for me) a semi-lane where bikers are expected to stay, but also where cars are allowed. Luckily, for the most part, vehicles gave us as much room as they could. I say “us” literally, as I had found a regular rider — he had saddle bags — who looked like he knew what he was doing, so I started shadowing him.
When Metropolitan splits at Newtown Creek, with Metropolitan heading northwest along the L train route and Grand Street heading southwest, I was directed along Grand. This is where things started to get a little hairy. While Grand has a proper bike lane, it’s also where I started to encounter bike-lane parkers: box trucks out on deliveries to local businesses. I came across a good handful of these, five or six on the stretch of Grand I biked. When I couldn’t fit between the illegally parked truck and the legally parked cars, I’d edge my way into traffic to pass in the vehicle lane. Luckily, as on Metropolitan, drivers on Grand seemed somewhat attuned to my difficulties and generally let me in with no issue.
I pulled up to The West at 8:40, but nobody was there. Nobody on bikes, at least — a few news crews were still packing up to head to the next story. City Council Members Antonio Reynoso and Stephen Levin, both of North Brooklyn, were attending the rally, hence the media attention.
The rally became the “ride-ahead-of-schedule” and I was left in the lurch, a first-time city cyclist with no idea where I was going.
The Bridge Lead Up
No matter, I had a super-powered computer in my bag — I took out my phone and pulled up directions from The West to the intersection of Delancey and Clinton streets in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. This is the official end of the Williamsburg Bridge and also the BikeTrain Rally and Ride’s second stop, where they would “gather” with “Manhattan riders” and, presumably, rally some more.
I was surprised to find out — though in retrospect it makes perfect sense — that The West was just one block north of Borinquen Place, a primary thoroughfare for leg- and gas-powered vehicles alike heading for the Williamsburg Bridge.
I hopped back on the bike, turned right on Borinquen, and about 1000 feet later encountered my worst obstacle yet — not one but two huge 18-wheeler dump trunks, so big that they were parked in the bike lane and in half of a vehicle lane. I happened to have found myself in a little clutch of 5 or 6 other cyclists and, together, we made a space for ourselves in the traffic — increasingly heavy as we neared the bridge — and safely passed the trucks.
The rest of the riders pulled ahead while I hung back to try to steady myself a bit. By the time I realized that I had yet to pass two more giant-ass trucks, I was on my own. The cars weren’t budging, nobody slowing to give a lone cyclist a space, and for the first time on my ride, I was legitimately scared.
At the last second, still with no cars offering a gap, and me far too frightened to try to fit between the steel walls of the trucks and a stream of speeding cars, I swerved right toward the curb. I found myself riding on the sidewalk, slowly crawling behind a woman walking with her young daughter. Frankly, a welcome respite.
Riding a bike on the sidewalk is, technically, illegal. It’s the sort of thing you hear stories about: faced with an obstacle illegally blocking a bike lane, a cyclist jumps the curb and follows the sidewalk for safe passage. Then, surprise, there’s a cop, who proceeds to stop the cyclist and give them a ticket, ignoring the illegally parked obstacle that forced them there in the first place.
So who was to blame for me risking the quasi-stability of my bank account in exchange for not being hit by cars? I’m going to have to say Joel Schwartz. Schwartz is the developer who owns 125 Borinquen Place, a plot abutting the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, where he is currently building a seven-story residential building. There are no other construction projects large enough to warrant such a number of huge trucks.
This is honestly something that cyclists probably have to deal with on a daily basis on this tight, turning, high-speed stretch of bridge approach. It’s extremely dangerous and, frankly, unacceptable. There’s no reason why there weren’t NYPD officers on scene working on getting the trucks moved or, failing that, construction personnel on hand to help direct traffic (all four trucks were completely unattended).
These trucks were the last of my serious obstacles, fortunately — after passing them, the bike lane was once again free, open, and well-marked, with easy to follow signs urging me forward to the Williamsburg Bridge.
Before I knew it, I was at Continental Army Plaza, staring up the long incline of the bridge. “Here goes nothing,” I said to myself, rode up the small ramp from bike lane to bridge, and started to pump.
The incline was steeper than I anticipated, and it was a matter of seconds before my legs were aching and my breath coming in ragged gasps. With some focus I was able to fall into a little pattern which eased the effort, but it was still tough going. And then, in victory, I reached the top… of what was essentially the bridge version of a staircase landing. All that hard work and I still had a huge amount of incline to conquer. I fell back into the groove, put my head down, and pedaled.
And then I finally did crest the high point of the bridge. One pump was a tiny bit easier than the last, the next easier still, and then I was coasting, building up speed with no effort as I sailed down the far side of the bridge. Though the temperature would reach the mid-70s that day, at this hour it was still only about 45 degrees, and the cold air rushed past my face. I looked up at all of Manhattan spread out before me. It was a glorious sight — the pain of the incline evaporated in the face of that panorama, and I felt incredible.
After a long, glorious coast down the Manhattan side of the bridge, I caught up with the BikeTrain. They were clustered together on the sidewalk median on Delancey where the bridge bike lane and foot paths let out, and the Clinton Street crosswalk traverses both four-lane sections of the street; it was honestly a horrible spot to gather with a bunch of bike riders.
As I suspected, the group was almost exclusively daily riders, kitted up with all sorts of fancy gear. I hung around for about 5 minutes — long enough to watch Council Member Reynoso say his goodbyes and head back over the bridge on his bike, witness Council Member Levin show up late because he took the subway, and to hear enough “Bikes are great!” banalities to last me quite a while.
I got back on my bike, crossed the north portion of Delancey at Clinton, turned onto Rivington, and rode west to 3rd Avenue. I turned right here, rode north to 17th Street, made a left, and pedaled west along 17th Street to 8th Avenue, where my day job is located.
This last three-mile stretch was, honestly, the most uneventful of the whole ride. Aside from a garbage truck on 17th that forced me off the street as he avoided roadwork — my tire caught on the curb edge and I only narrowly avoided eating concrete — I had no issues. I can’t say the bike lanes were well maintained, but the were wide, easy to see, and more or less respected by drivers.
The Take Away
I took this ride to see if, as BikeTrain and other cycling advocates claim, it is feasible for a newcomer to city cycling to use it for their daily commute. With my first 16 miles under my belt there and back, I can say that cycling to work definitely is viable for first timers.
Yes, there were some hairy moments, like the massive construction trucks in Williamsburg and the garbage truck on 17th Street. Not every street you need has a bike lane, and some have half-assed “bike lanes.” And the lanes themselves are as riddled with potholes and bumps as the vehicular lanes are.
Yet despite all this, riding a bike through three boroughs was surprisingly pain-free. I had built it up as some sort of chaotic, death-defying feat — and to be sure, NYC’s 23 cyclist-per-year death rate is far higher than it should be — but being out there and actually doing it for the first time, I felt very comfortable. At ease, even.
There were times when I found myself in a little accidental group of cyclists travelling together for a short time, and it gave me a sense of transient kinship. Whenever stopped at a light, I had the strange, undeniable urge to announce to other riders, “This is my first time!” I was met universally with friendliness and support.
Even physically, I was surprised with the ease of the ride. When I got to work, my thighs were a little weak and fatigued, but I wasn’t sore or achy. In fact, I felt more energized at work that morning than I do when I come in on the L train. I actually felt good.
I do forsee difficulties to a cycling-only commute as a method to avoid the L train shutdown. Primarily, it’s the weather. The L is going down for a full calendar year — that means a rainy spring, the brutal heat and unpredictable thunderstorms of a summer, a hurricane season, and a winter’s-worth of biting cold, snowstorms, and slush puddles. I know that serious riders can be found out and about in just about every weather, but I’m not sure braving such elements is going to be a winning strategy for somebody biking to work.
While biking may be a viable alternative for much of the L train shutdown, there will certainly be times when bikers have to struggle through whatever hack-job of a plan the city slaps together.
Regardless, I’m going to head out to buy a bike just as soon as I’m able, and I’d recommend you do the same.
Cover photo by Zac Ong