Graphic by Manuel Miranda Practice (MMP)
Graphic by Manuel Miranda Practice (MMP)

We’re pleased to partner with Alexander Levi and Amanda Schachter, the principals of SLO Architecture, to present City of Cycling, a three-part series exploring the complex ecosystem of transportation in New York. The series illuminates the cyclist’s New York — its speed, its networks, and the empathy its congested spaces demand from all of us. Amanda and Alex are daily bikers whose experiences have deeply informed their vision of a city that better accommodates multiple forms of mobility. City of Cycling will be published over the next several months, and will conclude with the presentation of the winning entries in a video competition, Space Invaders: Diaries of Radical Empathy.–UO

City of Cycling looks at the current state of New York City cycling and how pedal-pushing can redefine urban space. In the last ten years, NYC bike ridership has grown exponentially, thanks to the success of bike-share programs, the ongoing expansion of a five-borough network of protected bike-lanes, and an increasing desire to find more environmentally sound solutions to everyday getting around. Cycling is becoming a critical form of local travel, reshaping the city’s transportation infrastructures. At the same time, the reality of 50,000 daily cyclists running up against the pre-existing automobile-centered network is spurring conflict among users. As urban space evolves, diverse city-dwellers might feel either included or marginalized by alternate modes of movement.

The three installments of City of Cycling will look at already-realized bicycling initiatives and those currently making headway, then delve into long-term aspirations and experimental proposals in development by city agencies, advocacy groups and private citizens. We hope you will join us in understanding and imagining the future of moving in the city by sharing your vision through the competition.–SLO

Definitely the speediest way to get around New York City is by bicycle.

David Trimble, Founder, Red Hook Criterium

For the half-million adult New Yorkers who ride a bike at least once a month, cycling means beating out cars, buses and trains in traffic, weaving a human-powered network, the reach of which has already doubled since the first contemporary Department of Transportation and Parks Department bike lanes were striped on pavement in 2006.

Born and bred in Harlem, Nelson Vails worked as a bike messenger in Manhattan in the pre-bike-lane 1970s, and went on to become the first African American to win a medal in Individual Pursuit at the 1984 Summer Olympic Games. He considers these teeming streets his proving ground. “Riding the streets of New York as a messenger built my confidence through awareness. Just awareness alone, my keen sense of surroundings, while in traffic.” The imperative to deliver sensitized Vails to the potential for speed hidden in the streetscape — from the instantaneous invasion of infinitesimal spaces between cars to the teetering standstill of the track-stand while waiting for the light.

Bill Cunningham, New York Times fashion photographer, captured the style of the street from his bicycle. | Film Still via First Thought Films
Bill Cunningham, New York Times fashion photographer, captured the style of the street from his bicycle. | Film Still via First Thought Films

Traversing the thoroughfares of our city, the cyclist becomes both vector and spectator, threading together thoughts, sights, stories, and neighborhoods. Contemplating the blur of asphalt and sky that slips around the spinning wheel, the biker can also stop at a street corner and make friends with a stranger.

New York Times street style photographer Bill Cunningham was a longtime fixture on his bicycle, riding all over town to capture fashion the moment he saw it. This summer, Julio de Leon, a doorman who commutes by bicycle between Manhattan and his Rockland County home, jumped off his bike to save someone from jumping off the George Washington Bridge. A bystander was passively capturing the scene with a smartphone until de Leon got him to call 911.

David Trimble, creator of the Red Hook Criterium — a nighttime road-race looping the industrial waterfront streets of Brooklyn — sees the bicycle as the ultimate instrument of engagement. For Trimble, the spectacle of the urban Criterium is the epitome of cycling as participation, tapping into the interactive energy of city space. Anyone is free to enter the qualifying heats, as long as he or she is brave enough to race a brake-free track bike along an elbowing course at full-contact speed before the cheering crowds.

Red Hook Criterium finish line; the track-bike city race ends to cheering crowds in view of the Statue of Liberty. | Photo via Tornanti
Red Hook Criterium finish line; the track-bike city race ends to cheering crowds in view of the Statue of Liberty. | Photo via Tornanti

Most local riders don’t quite have the stomach for high-speed “space invasion” or violent pile-ups. But the promise of speed can nevertheless suggest far-reaching programs for more engaging, inclusive, and responsive transit infrastructure. The NYC greenway and bike lane systems initiated by Mayor Bloomberg’s Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, and continuing under Mayor de Blasio, are bringing a spectrum of city cycling within reach.

For many, cycling in the city means intermittent trips: Running errands with a handlebar basket, shuttling children by long-tail bike, getting to the train to commute to work, or going for a spin along the waterfront. But what about the bicycle as a long-range instrument rivaling a car or regional train, speedy enough to bring you from an out-of-town doorstep to the heart of downtown in less than 45 minutes?

In the populous, post-industrial Ruhr Valley of Germany, an initiative to build a hundred-kilometer bicycle speedway linking ten towns along the region’s former railway lines proposes bike infrastructure modeled on the automobile expressway. Running parallel to the Autobahn, the Radschnellweg (RS1), to be completed within two years, is a bike-only road system with passing lanes, minimal exits and crossings, wintertime road-clearance, dedicated lighting, and designated areas for rest, repair, and battery recharge. Cyclists who want a leisurely ride can instead take the nearby Ruhrtalweg, a bucolic shared-use path that follows the riverfront. An advantage of the RS1, cited by Dortmund Mayor Ullrich Sierau, is that the bikeway allows residents to go on living in their established home neighborhoods, with the flexibility to accept and reach new faraway jobs without need of a car or a disruptive move to a new home.

Add to this the freedom of self-propelled long-range motion outdoors, reduced emissions, eased traffic on the Autobahn, and the ability to export unused domestic oil to improve the economy, and the seemingly small decision to “go ride a bike” begins to reveal how, with very little, one can reshape space and society.

Central to the success of the RS1 is the mainstreaming of the electric bicycle, known as the e-bike, which brings faraway destinations closer by augmenting human power. New York law currently leaves the e-bike — equipped with battery and motor to assist regular pedaling propulsion — in unclassifiable legal limbo, as neither bike nor motorbike. Motorized vehicles, and by current interpretation all e-bikes, are prohibited from bike lanes and shared-use paths. Many e-bikes are nonetheless seen speeding along bike lanes, popular among delivery people riding back and forth all day to meet deadlines.

While they remain in legal limbo, e-bikes are often seen on New York City’s bike lanes and street, and provide an easy way for cyclists to get a boost over long days out on the road. | Photo by SLO Architecture
While they remain in legal limbo, e-bikes are often seen on New York City’s bike lanes and street, and provide an easy way for cyclists to get a boost over long days out on the road. | Photo by SLO Architecture

Updating and clarifying the legal status of the e-bike to recast it as a legitimate, human-powered, long-haul vehicle would help propel the creation of high-speed bike-only infrastructure that could complement our slower shared-use paths. Such vehicles could share space with conventional bicycles moving at comparable speeds, while leisure cyclists and walkers could travel along local bands. The challenge is to find space for bicycle superhighways within our crowded context.

In a recent pre-State of the State Address to the Long Island Association, Governor Andrew Cuomo shared his grand infrastructural vision for New York. While a subsequent press release would state that $67 million was being earmarked for bicycle, pedestrian, and shared-use enhancements, including the future Tappan Zee Bridge walkway, Cuomo didn’t even mention bikes during his address. Instead, he praised Robert Moses for the courage to realize multiple large-scale visionary infrastructural projects.

One of Cuomo’s signature proposals is to add a third railway track along the busiest line of the Long Island Railroad, maximizing existing rights-of-way. The LIRR Expansion Project presents a perfect opportunity to provide for parallel long distance bike infrastructure: twenty bike-commuting miles to easily rival train and car, with the boost of an e-bike.

It’s odd for the Governor to praise Moses’s visionary midcentury work when advocating for infrastructure to address the 21st century challenges of emissions reduction and state-of-the-art transportation alternatives to the motor vehicle. Among the lessons we’ve learned from the Moses era is the fact that new automobile expressways don’t necessarily ease flow or increase speed. Instead, the increased traffic of predominant single-passenger cars — and the cumbersome urban infrastructure required to move, park, and repair all these vehicles — makes for more congestion and less interconnection across fragmented neighborhood space.

For Moses and the traffic engineers of his day, throughput, or the number of vehicles per minute, signaled the success of a roadway. On this metric, Queens Boulevard, widened into a surface freeway in 1941, was considered the pinnacle of traffic engineering for those headed out to Long Island. But it quickly gave rise to conflict with local residents needing to get across it, becoming known as the notorious “Boulevard of Death.”

The de Blasio administration is attempting to slow down our frenetic streets by pursuing Vision Zero within New York’s driving culture. First conceived in Sweden, Vision Zero aims to reduce traffic fatalities to zero by restricting vehicular throughput at mixing zones and by altering traffic-signal cycles to allow pedestrians and cyclists optimum time at crossings. Slower overall speed of vehicles can help avert and lessen the gravity of collisions, thereby saving lives.

Ultimately, slowing down urban vehicular flow to a crawl may convince some drivers to leave their cars behind, and go faster, instead — by bike.

SLO Architecture (Alexander Levi and Amanda Schachter) links urban and architectural design with artistic production and social action to unearth latent networks and transform them. SLO’s recent projects envision connections forged along urban waterways and abandoned infrastructure long-fragmented by rights-of-way, industry, and contamination. Among other awards, Schachter and Levi are 2014 Urban Urge Award Winners, 2013 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellows, and two-time recipients of the James Marston Fitch Foundation’s Blinder Award.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


City of Cycling

A look at how pedal-pushing can redefine urban space. Guest-edited by SLO Architecture.

In This Series