N.Y. Hopes to Ensure Smooth Pedaling for Bike Commuters

Mark Weiss snaps photos from a bike commuter's view, like this one on 1st Avenue near 21st Street in Manhattan, with a camera mounted on a bar on the seat of his bicycle. He bites a button on a cable release to shoot pictures.
Mark Weiss snaps photos from a bike commuter's view, like this one on 1st Avenue near 21st Street in Manhattan, with a camera mounted on a bar on the seat of his bicycle. He bites a button on a cable release to shoot pictures. (By Mark Weiss)
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By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2008

NEW YORK -- The view from the lens of photographer Mark Weiss's camera is of a treacherous world of cab drivers weaving into bike lanes, of double-parked delivery vehicles, of car doors opening suddenly, of pedestrians wandering blindly and of narrow passageways between trucks. It is the world of the Manhattan bicycle commuter, which Weiss captures on a camera affixed to a bar on his single-gear bike.

City officials, hoping to make commutes like his less treacherous, have created a seven-block experiment of a bike lane on Ninth Avenue. Here, concrete dividers and a row of parked cars shield a bike lane from the street and its traffic. Low mini-traffic lights show when cyclists have the right of way. Bike commuters, messengers and delivery people peel down perfectly smooth paths.

"It would be nice if that were everywhere," said Weiss, 45.

The city is planning to create another protected lane on Eighth Avenue, part of an effort to encourage cycling in New York, where bike use has increased by 75 percent since 2000, to about 130,000 commuters a day. The city hopes to double current bicycle use by 2015 and to triple it by 2020.

"We've run out of room for driving in the city. We have to make it easier for people to get around by bikes," said Janette Sadik-Khan, the city's transportation commissioner, who herself bikes to work.

She is installing covered bike racks that resemble bus shelters, distributing thousands of free helmets, and expanding a small network of bike lanes to 400 miles by next summer (out of 6,000 miles of city streets).

But extending the Ninth Avenue bike lane -- an award-winning $500,000 experiment that required detailed coordination with businesses, emergency services and sanitation workers -- could be the best incentive.

"It has the potential to really increase ridership, because most people need protection from traffic before they will ride bikes," said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a bicycle advocacy group. "More has happened to improve bicycling and move bicycling in the right direction in the city in the past year than virtually all previous years."

With gasoline prices nearing $4 a gallon, obesity rates rising and gridlock tightening, New York is one of many cities planning to promote the bicycle and move the perception of cyclists from Lycra-clad thrill-seekers to responsible citizens.

In Washington, SmartBike DC, a self-service public bike rental program, will begin offering about 120 shared bicycles early next month. For a $40 annual fee, customers can check out bikes from racks and then return them to any of the company's other racks.

In Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley wants 5 percent of all short trips to be made by bicycle. He has fostered a vast network of bike lanes, created a station with valet parking, showers and indoor racks, and has established penalties of as much as $500 for motorists who endanger cyclists.

In Portland, Ore., bikes are so ubiquitous and cycling culture so strong that "you can't run for office in this town without being able to talk about what you intend to do for bikes," said Roger Geller, the city's bicycle coordinator.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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