When I first started cycling in New York City I was absolutely terrified. I had just moved from the San Francisco Bay Area, California, where biking was more of a leisurely activity and requires less commitment. It took me months to get on the roads here and once I did, I was convinced that city cyclists were insane to consider bike commuting a viable option. The roads are pocked from brutal winters, cabs drive the way three year olds color, and many cyclists––who might as well be wearing blinders and earmuffs––act as though they are alone on the streets.
It was my third ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan that changed me. Nothing extraordinary happened––except I survived. In truth it was a combination of things. First, I realized that riding erased the worry of delayed trains. Second, I could carry a change of clothes (or buy sweet, fashionable cycling gear), so I didn’t have to arrive at the office looking like a banshee or the Swamp Thing. And third, I was developing some kick-ass calf muscles.
After I started riding on a regular basis, I noticed that I had been subtly inducted into a pseudo-secret society. People were amazed when I showed up in Midtown on my bike: “You rode?!” And when I stopped at stoplights pedestrians thanked me on a regular basis. I was passing people on the straightaways; I was balancing on my pedals at lights; I was considering the best footwear for riding. I was hooked. I was a devout city cyclist, with or without a club T-shirt or special handshake.
And then, slowly, I noticed hints of ‘New Guy’ syndrome. I would be riding across town wearing a helmet, looking both ways, using brakes, and stopping at lights. When, from behind me would come a herd of bravado––running every light, blowing past when I slowed for a crossing pedestrian.
I’ll be honest; it’s not just the guys. But guys are still the majority of city riders (though StreetsBlog says the gender gap is decreasing), and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to claim that guys have set the bar out there. It seems to have become the creed of the street to pass, out-pedal and outmaneuver anyone ahead of you, at any cost. Despite the recent well-worded (and much appreciated) rant in the Wall Street Journal, the majority of cyclists treat the streets like a skate park. But let me be clear: I have no interest in taking these kinds of risks; it’s dangerous and irresponsible.
So what is the moral of the story? It’s ok to be afraid of cycling in New York City; in fact, it’s probably imperative. Of course cars are by far the more frightening menace, but other cyclists are a close second. If the number of cautious riders outnumbered the speed-racers and agro riders, it would probably make the roads a more appealing place to cycle. I don’t know about everyone else, but I’d love it if there were more bikes on the road than cars. And if, like this article in The New York Times has us believe, women are more timid about riding, then please ladies, go out and form ranks of careful riders. I’d really appreciate some company at red lights.