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

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.

Even smaller cities are cycling. Flint, Mich., whose automobile industry has largely shut down, is now hoping to become a cultural and health center, and the city is encouraging bike commuting. Tulsa has a free riverfront share program with 75 bikes, said Mayor Kathy Taylor. Louisville convened a bike summit in 2005 and created the vision for the Louisville Loop of bike trails around the city, Mayor Jerry E. Abramson said.

The measures have yet to create another Beijing or Copenhagen, where about a third of commuters pedal to work, or even Paris, where a new bicycle-share program involves 20,000 bikes.

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has been cautious about larger endeavors, such as a Paris-style share program, though he visited that city to consider one.

"I don't think it'd work easily in New York City," he told reporters recently. "We have some bicycle lanes, but it is such a culture of cars."

Manhattan is a flat, compact grid of mostly one-way streets, with ever-present views of city skyline and occasional sightings of water or parks -- in many ways, ideal for cycling. In fact, just over 100 years ago, bicyclists -- or "Scorchers," as they were called because of their speed -- were everywhere.

But cycling declined with the rise of the automobile. Bike paths on bridges were closed. Cars took the streets. By the 1970s, bicyclists began to protest by painting their own bike lanes or riding illegally over the Queensboro Bridge.

Then, in 1979, Mayor Ed Koch visited China and found inspiration in its bicycles. "I said to myself, 'Gee, I should bring some of that to New York,' " he said.

Koch created several bike lanes, but soon found that they were not being used and removed them. "It was premature," he said.

These days, the number of bike lanes is expanding, but commuting problems still exist. Jockeying for space with cars, trucks, taxis and buses on streets without divided lanes can be difficult, cyclists say.

The streets themselves are warped from cold and heat and underground water, steam, phone and subway lines. Some intersections ripple with asphalt hills and valleys.

Bike theft is a concern, and retailers say the only major lock manufacturer to offer a guarantee in the city is Kryptonite, maker of the New York Fahgettaboudit U-lock.

It's still not fashionable to arrive at the office sweaty and disheveled -- even though Manhattan-based Vogue magazine recently called bicycles "the hottest accessory" and said that "two wheels and a wicker basket become the perfect complement to the smart urban girl's spring style."

The worst news is that most everyone who regularly rides a bike in the city has a crash story. Often it's from "dooring," when a car door is opened into a cyclist's path.

In 2006, multiple New York agencies contributed to an analysis of bicycle fatalities and serious injuries in the city over the previous 10 years and found an average of 23 deaths each year.

Yet extreme cyclists still hold alley cat races, whizzing through crowded streets in a kind of obstacle course. And workaday cyclists are willing to risk the perils for a more mundane kind of thrill: the wind in their hair, the joy of self-propelled locomotion, the speed, the price, the efficiency, the freedom of the bike.

"I think we really underestimate the appetite of people who spend their daily commutes crammed on a bus or on the subway or stuck in traffic in a car," said Wiley Norvell, of Transportation Alternatives. "It's the only non-depressing commute out there."

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