Transportation Stories: Notes On Being A NYC Bike Commuter

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Cycling. Photo courtesy of Ginny.

It was about a year and a half ago that I moved from my car-obsessed hometown of Long Island to Brooklyn, a NYC borough where the main modes of transportation are train, bus and bike. In fact, along with mustaches bikes are a symbol of Brooklyn, which isn’t inaccurate as you’ll find tons of bike shops and cyclists — along with mustaches — in the borough. I didn’t know much about what I wanted for my new living experience then, aside for that I wanted cheap rent, a room that fit a bed (hey, in NYC this isn’t always the case) and a bike.

Despite bicycles being so aligned with Brooklyn culture, there are still a ton of Broolynites and New Yorkers who are afraid to ride their bikes — if they even own one — in the busy city. I was too, at first.

My First Brooklyn Ride

I remember my first time riding in Brooklyn. I’d just started dating a guy who lived in Williamsburg — not my awesome boyfriend now, but one who apparently didn’t care if I got smushed like a cockroach, as you’ll see in a moment. He thought it would be cute if we rode bikes together to dinner (At least that’s what he said. He was probably trying to sound cute to distract me from the fact he didn’t have a car and couldn’t afford a cab).

I also thought it sounded cute, so I went with the plan. The problem was, the bike he had for me didn’t have an adjustable seat, and was way too big for me. I told him I felt nervous because I wouldn’t be able to touch the ground when I needed to stop — not to mention I needed him to hoist me up onto the seat to get on — but he told me it would be fine. Okay, he was the expert.

Well, it was not fine, and at the first stopping point I lost control, thankfully slamming my body into a parked car rather than eating pavement, the bike skidding like a skipped stone across the road as a car behind me came screeching to a halt with a deafening honk. Basically, combined with the “Friday the Thirteenth”-style scream that uncontrollably came out of my mouth, it was probably my most attractive date moment (not). But, at least I was alive.

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The artsy and bike-friendly Bushwick. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

My REAL First Brooklyn Ride

Then I moved to Brooklyn myself, bringing with me my bike from 6th grade. Okay, so it was a little small. It would do.

For my first foray into commuter biking in NYC — I don’t count the mortifying date experience, as I’m still trying to forget it — I would be pedaling to meet friends for dinner in the adjacent neighborhood of Williamsburg. It was a short ride — maybe 1.5 miles — but I would need to ride down Broadway. Like most Broadway Avenues of the world, it’s hectic: aerial trains roaring overhead shooting debris in all forms off the tracks, the Liberty Mutual men dressed as copper statues shouting deals, male locals whistling and hooting at passerby women, fruit, jewelry and bootleg DVD sellers pushing their wares on you, the depressed chugging bottles on street corners, enough sirens and ambulances to make you think the world was ending, and myriad blaring car alarms to prove that Bushwick is not somewhere to leave your valuables unattended.

As I walked out onto Broadway — not yet on the bike, but becoming more acquainted with it by taking it on a stroll — my senses were immediately assaulted with the horns, flashing flights and the overpowering odor of rotting fish. Maybe one more block walking…

One block turned into two, which turned into three, which turned into four, until a local finally shouted at me, “Hey, aren’t you supposed to ride your bike, not walk it?”

Ummm…rude. But, he was right.

Feeling shamed, I got on, unsteadily at first, waiting until the avenue was clear. With every bus that nearly brushed up against my arm, every pedestrian that absentmindedly timed their street crossing so that I nearly killed them, every illegal right on red, and every car door that nearly opened and smacked me in the face, a strange thing happened. I grew braver.

Sure, I was shaking in my Keds and almost kissed the ground when I finally made it to the restaurant; however, I felt accomplished. I was now officially a commuter biker. Well, not really. You probably had to ride a bike more than once for that title. But, I really felt like I could do anything.

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Photo courtesy of Elvert Barnes.

The Danger Of Too Much Confidence

Over time I grew more and more confident with my biking — until I got too confident. One night, riding home like a speed demon at 3am with no bike lights and no helmet, I sped like hell to beat a yellow light — and got hit by a taxi. It was easily one of the most terrifying moments of my life (especially as I don’t have health insurance!). I remember bracing myself for the impact, ready for the worst, but opening my eyes and being …completely fine. Sure, there were some scrapes, but what shook me the most was the taxi drivers kindness. It’s not common in NYC to get hit by someone who won’t immediately start screaming at you; however, the driver got out to see if I was okay, clearly waiting for me to extort him for money. I didn’t. I was just happy I hadn’t hit my head and was in one piece.

I waited a few months before biking again, nervous to get back on. Until I finally faced the fact that the reason I had been hit was 100% my own stupidity. No helmet, no bike lights, running lights and no bright clothes at night is a recipe for disaster, no matter where you’re biking. I mean, There was hardly anybody on the road and I managed to get hit by the one that was. So, I decided instead of giving up urban biking, something that I truly love, I would bike smarter.

NYC Biking: What You Need To Know

There is a lot to think about that most people may not think about that goes into being a bike commuter. Along with the helmet you’ve got to make sure you’ve got front and back bike lights for riding at night — I also love these Flashing LED rings — fun, fashionable and practical for the NYC bike commuter.

Then there’s the outfit. You not only need something that’s cute but won’t show any of your naughty bits while you’re straddling your seat, but something bright if you’ll be biking at night. I’ve found these neon safety vests that are a great alternative if you want to wear something dark but want to make sure you’re visible at night.

I remember recently meeting a friend at a market on my bike, showing up in my tiny summer dress.

“How did you ride a bike in that thing?!” she gasped.

Penny In Yo Pants from Johanna Holtan on Vimeo.
My trick had always been to sit on the ends of my dress, basically making the hem into a cotton diaper. Recently, though, LifeHacker came up with an even better solution using just a penny and a rubber band. You can see how it’s done by watching the video above.

Of course, there’s also the sweat. While everyone else shows up to the party looking cool, calm and collected, you look like a wet rat, your helmet pressing your sweaty strands against your glistening mascara-run skin. I don’t have any great tips for this. I usually bring a “sweat towel” and a change of shirt in my purse — which I wear on my back by looping my arms through the straps like a pack.

And most importantly, the bike lock. The first thing I do when parking my bike is make sure all lights and bags are taken off, or they will without a doubt get stolen. Moreover, I use a simple lock and self-coiling cable because it’s easy to carry and I can loop my helmet through once I’m parked to also lock that up, relieving the need to carry it around. I’ll be honest, though, in a place like NYC your best bet is probably a Kryptonite Kryptolok Bicycle U-Lock . This is what my boyfriend uses and he’s a gear freak, only using products of the highest quality.

Oh, and before purchasing a bike make sure you’ll be able to carry it up the stairs if you have a walk up apartment, like me. While I’ve since upgraded from my 6th grade bike to a Schwinn, it is much heavier to carry up the stairs, but not impossible as long as I go slow (or have my boyfriend do it!). Alternatively, keeping the bike outside with a tarp over it if you have a backyard can keep your bike from rusting and save you the back pain.

Are you an NYC bike commuter? What has your experience been like? Any advice? Please share in the comments below.

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2 Comments

  1. I’m considering joining the ranks of NYC bicyclists and I also live in Brooklyn. I’m curious about your overall experience since writing this piece. Have you continued biking? If so, what have you learned and can you offer any tips that might have occurred to you after this post? Thanks!

    Love the blog!

    1. @Clint: I have continued biking! I still feel like it connects me more to the city. I feel this way both at home and when traveling. I would highly highly highly recommend a helmet. Also, if you’re going out drinking either do CitiBike to get there then get home another way or take your own bike, lock it up and go back for it the next morning. Just make sure to write down exactly where it is 😉

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