The car came out of nowhere. It was 4:00 p.m. on Halloween, and the traffic near the Holland Tunnel was shimmering in the afternoon haze. I was on my bike, minding my own business in the far lane, when I saw the black Mazda heading straight at me. Crash! That’s it, I thought, my leg will be crushed into a thousand pieces. Fortunately, the car was slung low, so instead of mowing me down, it pushed my bike out from under me. I landed on the hood with a thud.
“You ran the light!” the driver screamed from his window. He didn’t even get out of the car. I was glaring at him through the windshield when I heard a voice from the curb. “No, he didn’t,” came the authoritative baritone. “You hit him. I saw the whole thing.”
Spider-Man climbed off his bike and walked over to peel me off the hood. “Thanks, Spidey,” I told him, as though this were the most normal scene in the world.
“Your crankshaft is shot, man,” said the superhero, dusting off his leotard. “He was going like 25 miles an hour. I’ll be your eyewitness.”
I tried to get the cop nearby to file a report, but he claimed not to have seen a thing. So Spider-Man and I made our way over to the police station, where I filled out the paperwork that would eventually force the driver to replace my bike. I thanked Spidey for his efforts, but he demurred, muttering something about “biker solidarity” and setting off on his bicycle to catch up with the Halloween parade.
Biker solidarity? At the time of the incident, in 2005, I’d been riding my bike through the streets of Manhattan for nearly three decades, and never once had I heard anything remotely suggestive of such a notion.
I can’t remember what sort of masochistic impulse had first impelled me into the saddle，but I can tell you from then I flipped over my handlebars and slammed onto the pavement---more than once. Friends expressed little sympathy for my trauma, admonishing me for my stubborn determination to ride everywhere and scolding me for risking my life. “You’re crazy,” they told me. “Suicidal .”
How times have changed. These days, when I show up at a dinner or a business meeting with helmet in hand, I get a nod of respect for doing something for the planet and easing congestion on the streets.
New York City’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, gets much of the credit. In the four years of her tenure, Khan has increased bike lanes by almost a third—they now run along 670 of the city’s 6,000 miles of roads—and in so doing has elevated my town into the ranks of such enlightened cities as Copenhagen and Portland, Oregon. Three types of bike lanes now worm their way through the Big Apple: the standard five-foot corridor, painted bright green; the buffered lane, which has an additional three feet outside the green zone; and the “protected path,” separated from the road by parked cars. We’re still no Oregon, with its dedicated biker’s section in the driver’s manual, or Washington, with its statewide bike-route network, but ridership here has increased 71 percent since 2006. Some 236,000 bikers ride in this town every day. Bicycling magazine recently ranked New York the eighth-most bike-friendly city in the nation.
But where there are friends there are enemies, and last winter they came out in droves . The “bikelash,” as New York magazine dubbed it, began when a group of aggrieved citizens, with support from former transportation commissioner Iris Weinshall, who had stymied plans to install bike lanes that had been on the books since 1997, filed a lawsuit to force the city to remove a lane along Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. They launched a media campaign, blaming “bike activists” as “pedestrian terrorizers” with an “agenda” to impede drivers’ “rights” and mar their hallowed asphalt. They complained that bike lanes increased congestion by taking away precious road space and that they weren’t used enough to justify their cost.
The suit was thrown out of court, but it did illustrate just how deeply entrenched car culture is in twenty-first-century America. If bike-bashers would roll down their windows long enough to see who’s occupying those paths, they’d find grandmothers, school kids, businessmen and women of all shapes, colors, and ages. Elitists ? It turns out that a good number of people pedal to work because they can’t afford other means of transport.
Other facts are evidently ignored by car drivers: even if cities could build more roads, it wouldn’t alleviate gridlock; studies have shown that more roads breed more cars, which breed more congestion. Bike lanes, often portrayed as a waste of money, actually reduce the cost of maintaining roads, which are damaged mostly by heavy vehicles; they also can calm traffic, which leads to fewer accidents. But the biggest threat to bike-bashers is this: if bike lanes can work in a big city like New York, they can work anywhere. Already, Chicago is following our lead with protected bike lanes. It’s not unlike gay marriage: pass it in New York, and the rest of the country will eventually follow.
Do I sound like one of those two-wheels-good, four-wheels-bad guys? I’m actually not. There are plenty of bikers who sorely test my nerves, cruising along with their ear buds in or chatting on their phones. They’re just as hazardous as those kamikazes who charge down the lanes as though in the final stretch of the Tour de France. And did I mention the deliverymen “flashing” against traffic because it’s the shortest path between two points? Unsafe at any speed.
Bikers won’t like this, but I’m going to say it anyway: for too long, we’ve been able to exist in a sort of world, neither pedestrian nor vehicle, which has meant ignoring the rules and getting away with it. That’s changing, as I learned the other morning when a cop came from behind to ticket me for spinning along an empty sidewalk on Canal Street.
“You didn’t hear the siren?” He asked, swaggering out of his car.
“You were chasing me?” I asked doubtfully.
“It’s against the law to ride on the sidewalk.”
I had to say that I was deeply sorry for it. The admission saved me $75. More important, it prompted a grand experiment that involved my following the rules of the road. You’d be surprised how difficult this is. Sitting at a red light when there’s no traffic entering a crossroad makes you feel incredibly stupid. So it’s probably true that bike-car relations won’t improve without the threat of tickets at the other end. That means fining drivers who disregard bike lanes and, yes, doing the same to us bikers when we flout the rules.
It can be done. In Amsterdam, when a traffic light turns red, the entire lane of hundreds of bikers brakes . You run that light and everyone—bikers, walkers, drivers—rips into you. Cars aren’t kings there, and guess what? Amsterdam still has a pulsing street life and happily crowded shops.
So to those who would whinge that their precious parking spaces are being turned into bike lanes, I say: get used to us. In the future, when gas prices are exorbitant and cities implement congestion charges that render driving a luxury that even fewer of us can afford, you, too, may find yourself pushing the pedals. In the meantime, I propose a truce . Drivers, slow down. Bikers, realize that you’re no longer exempt from the rules. Stop at red lights, stay off the sidewalk, and for god’s sake, put on a helmet. Because let’s face it: it’s not likely a superhero will be standing there the next time someone mows one of us down.