Bicycle Commuting in Brooklyn Is Not Smart
Riding a bicycle to work in Brooklyn is the dumbest thing I do every day. And I do a lot of dumb things every day.
"NYC Cyclist Deaths Rose 25% In The Last Fiscal Year." That's a headline I read this past summer. That was 20 bicyclists killed on the streets of my city. It averages out to 1.67 deaths every month. This statistic plays in my head every morning when I commute the 8.1 miles to work, and in the evening when I return home.
And yet I still do it. I have two young kids, a busy schedule, and basically no time to exercise. Plus, I'm an adrenaline junky. I've been biking in Brooklyn and Manhattan for 20 years—long before bike lanes created a false sense of safety, and before CitiBikes made casual bikers of everyone. I hate casual bikers. And when I'm on a bike, I typically hate everyone. I am that biker.
Every day, when the temperature rises above 45 degrees, I push my green frankenstein Raleigh R-300 through the door of my building, and I become both a target and a weapon. Before the end of my ride to work—propelled by the power of my own legs and the momentum that carries me through stop signs, red lights and up and down hills—I will bask in the hatred of many people: A lycra-wearing, carbon-frame biker guy will spit on me (for real), a hipster dude with bloodshot eyes called me a fuckface, then sped up until he got close enough to call me a fuckface again.
I can take the abuse, for I am a bicycle commuter, and abuse is our thing. New York City streets—objectively terrible for all manner of movement, but especially McLarens and bikers—abuse my Raleigh. And everyone else abuses me. Why? Because I don’t follow any normal rules. I’m either slower or faster than everyone else: pedestrians, drivers, cops, construction workers, shopkeepers, delivery drivers, motorcyclists, mopedalists (the worst humans ever), crossing guards, kids jumping down off school buses, garbage trucks, Fresh Direct trucks, skateboarders. An infinite army of walkers staring at iPhones.
Also, all bicyclists are slaves to momentum. There is nothing a biker hates more than slowing down; he will do anything to keep from downshifting. And that's what makes us such assholes. Bicyclists are opportunists, and the biggest opportunity that we can take advantage of is momentum, in much the same way that an airplane pilot is beholden to lift. Without it, we perish.
This morning it is quite pleasant. Perfect biking weather in Brooklyn: light winds that hit neither the nose nor the tail, low humidity, just a little warm at 78 degrees. My route winds south through Williamsburg, up one long gradual hill into Fort Greene, then across the killzone of Atlantic Ave and through Prospect Park—a bucolic interlude—before I drop down the other side of the hill to the waterfront of Sunset Park.
I wear a helmet—usually. I hate bike lanes, and prefer to find a flow with car traffic, which flows according to a logic I understand. Most bikers are oblivious, darts without feathers, casually disastrous.
I start on North 12th Street, next to McCarren Park on the congested streets of North Brooklyn. There is a 189-room hotel called the William Vale under construction on my neighboring block, so I parse a narrow gap between maneuvering cement trucks and wandering laborers. It is a bracing maneuver right off the bat, right when I have a little forward momentum. I ignore a red light and turn left onto Wythe Avenue.
THere's a bike lane here, a painted band of asphalt whose purpose is just ill-defined enough to lull a casual biker into thinking he’s safe if he stays inside it. In reality, the lane belongs to any dickweed FreshDirect driver or Pokemon Go player who chooses to drift into it, and it should be regarded with skepticism.
In most situations, bike lanes will not protect bicyclists.
Switching to my tallest gear (I have a full Shimano magazine on the rear hub, but tune it to use only three gears; NYC is a three-gear town), and plunge down the first gentle hill, gathering speed. I pass through three stop signs and a stale yellow light. I slow at each one, but never stop. Here’s a little game I play: feet leave the ground at my apartment, then return when I stop at work. Never touch the ground.
I choose to turn south one street before the barriered bike lanes begin. Cars can be fun riding partners. They follow one another, generally use turn signals, stop at most lights, and you can predict their moves by watching the front tires for signals—little micro-movements that telegraph the turns.
If I see someone texting and driving, I pound on the car.
I know. It's a dick move. But the climbing traffic fatality rates in the United States are directly connected to texting and driving, and the victims are increasingly pedestrians and bikers. So fuck them. They need a wakeup call.
My bicycle is purpose-built for NYC streets. It’s not an off-the-shelf “commuter bike,” with little pods to grasp your iPhone or your newspaper or your laptop case. It doesn't have saddlebags. It is stripped down to the essentials: a 20-pound aluminum frame, three functioning gears, one gear shift, two hand brakes and thick Continental kevlar tires on 700-cm aluminum rims. The frame is oversized, 25-inches and green, so that I’m perched a little higher off the ground. I like to see and been seen. I like to think it gives me a bit of a hedge against getting accidentally crushed by a cube truck full of bok choy.
An illustration of why people hate NYC bicyclists
I give you four words that will seize the innards of any knowing pedestrian who’s ever walked the city on a sunny Saturday: the Brooklyn Bridge Pedestrian Walkway. Bicyclists will quite literally kill a child if that child wanders into a biker's downhill lane on the Brooklyn Bridge. Bicyclists Because they represent the worst character traits of humans: they are sanctimonious, rageful, dangerous, oblivious, arrogant, entitled.
In order to get through the day without kicking every other biker off their saddles and smashing the windshield of every car, I carry two philosophies in my mind as I ride to work:
Forgive them, for they know not what they do. They are all are texting—Every. Single. Person. The truckers to the priests to the cops and nuns and mothers and felons. Each one of them. They are really just sort of operating their vehicles. Mostly they’re tell people they’re on their way to see that they’re on their way to see them. Or they’re reading tweets, or saying something witty and novel about Donald Trump, or queuing up a song on Spotify, or, more than likely, battling with a stubborn autocorrection. Hey, I’ve been there. I have to fight actively against the impulse to relinquish my control of a moving vehicle just so I can listen to the Pogues and not the goddamn Police.
But it's difficult to forgive drivers fidgeting with their phones. Every one of them is a potential threat, and the physics of a collision are unfairly balanced against me—in a head-to-head with just about any other vehicle, I lose catastrophically. That's part of why I'm such an asshole on a bicycle.
These drivers would kill a biker out of spite
It's a vicious circle: bikers are pricks, and so drivers hate them. Drivers are dangerous, and so bikers are pricks. But not all drivers (or bikers) are equally bad. Here are the ones that are either most bloodthirsty or most oblivious.
- The Cube Truck. The cube truck is truly the lifeblood of New York City. More than 2 million metric tons of goods—everything you ever touch every day—are carted on the cube truck every on NYC’s streets. The cargo sustains the City, the drivers want me dead. They cut me off, squeeze the bike lane to establish primacy. If I react with anything other than complete acquiescence, they will try to kill me by crushing me under their tires. FreshDirect, you are my fate.
- The green taxis. I had to call the Taxi & Limousine Commission to clarify exactly what purpose these things serve. The answer isn’t all that interesting (they can pick up street hails and take calls; big deal). I’m colorblind, which means that I have trouble telling the difference between the classic yellow cab and the new green taxis by looking at them. However, the situational awareness of the drivers of these cars is so poorly calibrated I'm amazed they're able to walk to the car in the morning. They bob and weave drunkenly between curbs, barrel through intersections, stop without reason, turn without purpose and randomly select blinkers. Somewhere between oblivion and hell is the green taxi. Make it disappear.
- CitiBike Riders. God bless you, I love you all. You grab bikes and joyfully pedal your squeaking, ugly blue bike things. You don't wear a helmet, but you're using headphones. You don't look where you're going, you're usually texting something inane. All you have going for you is that diamond-hard belief that you’re Doing Good. But here’s the thing: you’re just way too casual about what you’re doing. CitiBikers, take heed: You are projectiles, and you are in danger. Keep doing good, but do it better.
My goal is to ride with peace and love for my fellow man. One mile at a time, if I'm not squished under the tire of an MTA bus, I'll get there.
Video produced and edited by Cait Knoll.