Urban Omnibus is pleased to present the second installment in a three-part series, City of Cycling, in partnership with guest editors Alexander Levi and Amanda Schachter. Alex and Amanda, co-principals of SLO Architecture and daily bikers, illuminate the cyclist’s New York — its speed, its networks, and the empathy its congested spaces demand from all of us. –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 look at already-realized bicycling initiatives and those currently making headway, delving 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 video competition, Space Invaders: Diaries of Radical Empathy. –SLO
The idea of a network of bicycle lanes, greenways, and speedways is so new to New York City that the potential for interconnection is just beginning to surface. As bike lanes are laid down and bike share stations multiply, cyclists are taking to the streets with a desire to fill in the gaps. With the help of both technology and self-organized systems of interaction, cyclists are reclaiming space for their immediate communities and across more extensive geographies.
Our transit networks have long been designed to privilege motor vehicles. Local streets serve as feeders to thoroughfares and highways, and bicyclists and walkers are often cut off from neighborhoods and amenities that are physically close. Throughout Queens, a tangle of multiple roadways splits the borough and its parks into disjointed fragments. The Long Island Expressway, Van Wyck Expressway, and Cross Island Parkway cut off the borough’s neighborhoods — or “villages,” as they are locally called — from its plentiful parks, rendering what would otherwise be an easy trip on foot and bicycle incongruously dangerous.
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was designed as an integral part of Interstate Highway 278, with bicycle traffic strictly prohibited. On the day the bridge first opened to traffic in 1964, protesters marched unsuccessfully for cyclist and pedestrian access. Without a shared-use path, Staten Island’s link to the rest of New York City was reduced to a brittle regimen of highway and ferry access. Robert Moses’s excuse for omitting a path on the Verrazano was that he saw little traffic on the shared-use path on the Triborough Bridge. This was not surprising, considering that the bridge pathway, opened in 1936, was designed as an afterthought, where cyclists were forced to carry bikes up and down several flights of stairs before reaching isolated stretches with poorly dimensioned clearances and guardrails.
Today, more and more areas of the city are becoming reachable by bicycle, and incorporating shared-use rights-of-way has become public policy for street grid and waterfront alike. The possibility of connecting the isolated stretches of bike paths currently scattered across the city is motivating people toward collective vision and action for an even larger-scale network. A bike path across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is the final, missing link in a 55-mile-long Harbor Ring that would connect the bike paths of South Brooklyn, Staten Island, New Jersey and Manhattan.
A large-diameter bicycle network circuit such as the Harbor Ring can help thread together areas with otherwise longstanding unilateral connections to the city center. Suddenly the waterfronts of Brooklyn, New York and Hoboken, New Jersey, can begin to feel, in the mind of a resident, like they share one common harbor by virtue of the fact that they connect to the same cycling loop.
The network has the potential to open up and cross-pollinate diverse communities throughout the region. Connected by a single bike path, neighborhood corridors as seemingly remote as Fourth Avenue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and Broadway in Bayonne, New Jersey are brought together in the mind as well as in space. Built into a bicycle network is a democracy of riders who can begin to empathize with each other.
Anyone can have a say in what the network should be, simply by making a habit of riding paths and sharing them on online platforms like Strava and MapMyRide. Through regular use and cumulative person-to-person mapping, it is the riders who figure out whether certain trajectories function, and where the gaps in the network are, calling for their improvement.
Or one might unearth and create a bicycle network from the remains of a decommissioned private highway. Noticing a remnant of the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway in his part of Eastern Queens, Joby Jacob began to advocate for reclamation of the old parkway as shared-use right-of-way. In the process, Jacob and those who joined him discovered that the Motor Parkway had been sold to New York City back in the 1930s with the stipulation (yet to be honored) that it be turned into a greenway. Creating a bicycle network this way strengthens pride of place, by empowering communities to recover, cultivate and enjoy dynamic modes of access and interconnection on their own terms.
In the winter of 2015, thousands of Syrian refugees found a safer way to reach asylum with a bicycle network: by pedaling on two wheels across the final miles of Russia’s northernmost border with Norway. Reaching the Russian-Norwegian frontier for a Syrian refugee means taking the “Arctic Route.” Refugees begin by obtaining a Russian Visa, fly to Moscow, travel by car to Murmansk, then by taxi to Nikel. It is from Nikel that the bicycle-ride begins. While Russian law bars anyone from crossing the frontier on foot, and it is illegal for Norwegians to bring people across the border by motor vehicle, neither legal code says anything about bikes. This loophole led to the spontaneous creation of a bike share network in 2015. Asylum seekers rode bicycles the half-kilometer from Nikel across the border, and then volunteers and entrepreneurs would repatriate the bicycles to Russia, ready to be shared with the next wave of refugee-cyclists. Macedonia saw a similar impromptu cross-border bike share network emerge when asylum-seekers there were refused entry on mass transit.
The cooperation and ingenuity of these ad-hoc networks can make us appreciate the possibilities inherent in our own bike share system. Bike share means that anyone can enjoy the access and health benefits that cycling unlocks; it’s not even necessary to own a bicycle to take part. Black Girls Do Bike, a community of women of color who “show a passion for cycling,” organized a group ride this summer from Bedford Stuyvesant to Red Hook in collaboration with Citi Bike, with the slogan, “No bike? No problem!”
Citi Bike currently logs 60,000 rides per day: as many across the hundreds of stations in the city as there are daily passengers traveling between the two main terminals of the Staten Island Ferry. With over 500 stations dotted along the streets of three of the city’s boroughs, as well as in Jersey City, the Citi Bike network is becoming a fixture in New York City’s repertoire of mass-transit options. But ride counts alone are not enough to help a new mass transit network thrive in the longer term. Citi Bike has launched a Citi Bike Angel program: Citi Bike subscribers can sign up to become an Angel, and receive messages, and rewards, for picking up and dropping off bicycles at locations where bikes are in real-time demand. By making small adjustments to their intended points of departure and arrival, Citi Bike Angels preserve their individual routes while also helping to improve bicycle distribution throughout the system, creating a proactive dynamic of individualized person-to-person participation in the long-term improvement of the mass-transit network.
By mapping and sharing individual ride data, while actively maintaining system distribution, wide-ranging riders reclaim and forge new desire lines of movement and interaction across the city. The open platform of Citi Bike data has spawned a Citi Bike NYC Hackers forum: an online community platform that engineers the generated data to reveal how the network is behaving. A heightened understanding of the city in motion can help satisfy personal transit needs — for example, to engineer real-time notifications when a certain station has available bikes or docks. This kind of hands-on participation is more than just avoiding jams by passively signing onto a car-traffic app. Directly participating in the bicycle system’s optimum function and interconnection, while using virtually no fuel and occupying only a tenth of the space that a car would, each cyclist rebalances the city’s energy and movement equation, and contributes to empathy on the street.
The cyclist can speed between neighborhoods, then get off and walk where there’s a break in the road, alternately resembling a pedestrian or a motor vehicle from one minute to the next. It’s what makes the possibilities of the bike network limitless. Desire lines run unbroken along streets and over light infrastructure, connecting the cyclist to the cityscape. The multilateral trajectories of cycling connect places as much in the mind as out on the road, linking neighborhoods and open spaces, strangers, friends, family, and jobs.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.