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Where have all the normal bicycles gone?

BY MICHELE HERMAN | It’s been just over 30 years since the publication of The Bicycle Blueprint, the award-winning book-length master plan for New York City published by Transportation Alternatives, for which I served as principal author.

This should be a happy milestone time for us city cyclists. Many of the most ambitious goals of the “Bloop,” as its mastermind, the energy-policy analyst Charles Komanoff, affectionately calls it, are now part of the city’s fabric: car-free parks, bike racks, the Hudson River bike path, dedicated bike lanes on bridges. As for me, after 40 years of using my bike as my principal mode of transportation, I’ve had my scrapes but I’m strong and intact and my old Raleigh is still getting me almost everywhere I need to go.

So why do I feel so dispirited, particularly after that frenzy of bike buying during the pandemic? Because when I look around me on the street these days, I’m often the only person riding my own bike. It’s true there are plenty of blue Citi Bikers in the bike lanes, which is theoretically a wonderful thing. But many of them treat Citi Biking as a casual social activity, often wobbling along two abreast or in clumps with little awareness of others. Not long ago, while pedaling from the Village to the Upper West Side, I actually struck up a conversation with the only other person on a road bike, as if I’d run into a friend from the old country.

The city has increased the number of electric Citi Bikes on the streets. (Photo by Jonathan Kuhn)

What gives? In 2020, e-scooters and e-bikes were legalized in New York City. In a remarkably swift takeover, the bike lanes have become Autobahns for an assortment of speeding vehicles, often ones that have not been legalized, often going the wrong way. Some definitions are in order. E-bikes have pedals and either a motor assist (Citi Bike e-bikes, with a new fleet of 4,000 being rolled out, top speed of 20 mph) or a throttle (delivery e-bikes, top speed of 25 mph). Meanwhile, mopeds (no pedals, up to 28 mph) and motor scooters (much bigger and better appointed, up to 60 mph) both require a driver’s license and registration and are not allowed in the bike lanes. Motorcycles — defined, in part, by the location of the engine and gas tank between the rider’s knees — require a special license and are also not allowed in the bike lanes.

All these disparate conveyances going every which way, some stealthy and others an assault to multiple senses, throw off the reflexes of the rest of us. Among the worst offenders are motor scooters, which may not be quite as monstrous in girth and power and noise as motorcycles, but are very close. Illegality notwithstanding, they zoom against traffic, blinding oncoming riders. Of course all that illegal speed gets you nowhere unless you also run the lights.

Transportation Alternatives, whose newsletter used to be called City Cyclist, has gone all in on e-micromobility. It treats personal e-vehicles as heroes for removing gas-powered cars, the real villains, from city streets. I’m not fully buying TA’s arguments. First, the studies it cites come from Europe, with its entirely different street conditions and ways of life. Second, when I compare the climate-controlled, fortress-like automobiles that line the city streets with open-to-the-elements e-vehicles, I have a hard time believing that significant numbers of drivers are ditching their SUVs to take up e-biking.

Tech collides with safety: An e-bike delivery person rides while holding his cell phone in his hand. (Photo by Jonathan Kuhn)

TA also argues against licensing for e-bike delivery workers on the grounds that it would discriminate against these largely minority, low-wage workers, which may be true. But that ignores the root of the problem: the demand side of this grotesque new economy, in which New Yorkers expect nearly instant delivery on their doorstep of whatever they have a hankering for.

I think something very different is afoot: large numbers of bicyclists are switching from bikes to e-vehicles, and the anarchy in the bike lanes is scaring away the rest. I’m as intrepid and seasoned as they come, and I haven’t been scared away yet. But this year for the first time — four decades after I moved from hilly Connecticut, with its winding, shoulderless roads, and fell in love with city cycling — I have found myself questioning my sanity.

I happily rode in the bad old days of the ’80s, when there were few bike racks and no bike lanes. In fact, I miss riding with the traffic. There’s no denying the vast dangers gas-powered cars pose to humans and the environment, but cars are big and clumsy; drivers have only a limited and predictable repertoire of stupid maneuvers.

The TA Bicycle Blueprint created in the early 1990s did not predict that the city’s future bike lanes would be commandeered by capitalism. Today, the bike lanes are flooded by delivery persons riding e-bikes and working for app-based delivery companies, along with others riding Citi Bikes and an ever-dwindling number of people on private bicycles. (Photo by Jonathan Kuhn)

When I pull out the 160-page Blueprint now, I feel proud of how well we planned for and steered the decades of planning that followed. And yet it makes me want to weep because of the one giant change we couldn’t predict: the rapidly escalating enmeshment of humans and tech. We couldn’t predict pedestrians, drivers and even bicyclists consulting their phones while in motion. We couldn’t predict apps, which led to Citi Bike docks and food-delivery services and Ubers double-parked in the bike lanes. We couldn’t predict Mayor de Blasio’s legalization of e-bikes.

I don’t deny the allure and advantages of e-bikes in certain situations. I have one Brooklyn-based friend who loves them because after an evening in Manhattan she can zip home quickly over the bridge. I have another friend with a joint ailment who has happily traded in her pedal bike for an e-bike. But I think of e-bikes the way I think of smartphone-addicted people downloading apps to help them break the addiction: using more tech to solve problems created by tech, when there’s already a perfectly workable mechanical option.

A short scene in the Richard Linklater movie “Boyhood” has long stuck with me. The boy shyly asks his father whether magic really exists. My answer would have been, yes: bicycles. Not as fanciful as elves, maybe, which is what the boy really wishes for, but just as unlikely and delightful: You’re sitting, balancing easily on a pair of skinny wheels, and propelling yourself via the simplest possible system of cranks and chain and muscles.

A bike doesn’t make noise or pollute, doesn’t need charging, requires no mining of rare metals, poses no fire risk, can easily haul a week’s groceries, and is light enough to carry when necessary. Cycling doesn’t require unusual strength or stamina, it burns substantial calories, builds muscle and leaves the rider a bit exhilarated and rosy-cheeked upon arrival. As long as the bike’s frame doesn’t get bent, you can easily replace every part on it and keep it going for decades, for very little cost. Particularly on the compact and largely flat streets of Manhattan Island, it remains as viable as ever.

Congestion pricing is almost upon us. If it works as planned, it may create revolutionary opportunities to rethink the way the streets are divvied up, and to whom. In this new world, may the bike lanes be returned to the bicyclists.

14 Comments

  1. MSA MSA April 4, 2024

    Subway and bus used to unify New Yorkers – of all backgrounds – since most people used public transportation. And with that, New Yorkers supported the need for bus and subway.

    Bloomberg’s push for bicycling and developing the bike infrastructure changed the equation.

    Transportation – which impacts everyone – is now one more area of stratification and conflict.

    Bicycling chiefly benefits the young healthy wealthy demographic – while the rest of us trudge on bus and subway.

    Truly unbelievable that the bicycle lobby has gotten the City to implement policies that harm and indeed sabotage bus transit – like “Open Streets” and permanent street closures that divert buses and/or cause spillover traffic. (PR spin example: The borough bike “events” message about “no cars” but conveniently ignore that also means no buses in many areas)

    Truly unbelievable that City DOT proactively focuses policy on expanding bicycling. (City DOT spends its PR resources on Twitter/X to encourage bicycling – but no messaging to use MTA bus or subway)

    Manhattan used to be a wonderful place for pedestrians – but the surge in bicycling (pedal and ebike) has ruined that as bicyclists routinely go through red lights, the wrong way and endanger pedestrians. Citi Bikers are the worst and, in addition, will not hesitate to curse any pedestrian who dares to object.

    • Humble Cyclist Humble Cyclist April 4, 2024

      You’re ignoring (rather apparently deliberately) what actually divides and endangers New Yorkers: the ridiculous amount of space that has been hijacked to accommodate cars.
      Think Open Streets sabotaged bus traffic? Wait till you see what car traffic does.
      Don’t like cyclists running red lights? What if I told you how much more dangerous it is (and not much less common!) when cars do it?
      One of the joys of cycling is that one need not be young or even particularly healthy to do it (and it also makes its adherents healthier). And of course being wealthy is an actual impediment, because biking is so cheap.

  2. Ron Wisniski Ron Wisniski April 4, 2024

    Transportation Alternatives is now a malevolent cult staffed by craven fanatics bankrolled by hedge fund millionaires whose sole purpose is to advocate for their parasitic ride/share and delivery/app clients.
    And that’s about all the good I can say about them.

  3. Isabella Isabella April 2, 2024

    E-vehicles that are unregulated, as they are in this city, are very dangerous! And now I’m afraid the DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez with the Mayor’s blessing has also authorized E-Cargo Van-Bikes to carry and deliver wares around the city. They too will be in the bike lanes and sidewalks and they are very long and as heavy as 1,000 pounds! They also will be unlicensed and the drivers without any training or testing to see that they can ride these big heavy mini-vans. From the frying pan into the fire.
    At a public hearing in September, the public was overwhelmingly against these e-vans. But sadly in this city it’s called, “Follow the Money.” Transportation Alternatives is no longer pure as it once was. It has been taken over by multimillion-dollar hedge-fund Masters of the Universe who are shilling for Lyft-owned Citi Bikes, the food delivery apps and the car-share companies, and it’s this lobby that’s directing the actions of the DOT! They are anti-car — that is, anti-private car. They want only Ubers and Lyfts and bikes! They have monetized our public streets and sidewalks and taken them from the majority of New Yorkers.
    So we can no longer control our safety, our streets or our sidewalks. There have been thousands of injuries and several deaths from pedestrians being crashed into by e-bikes. The city does not care! Some of us have been fighting for safety now for years! Everyone knows someone who’s been injured!
    I too once rode a Bianchi in the city streets without bike lanes and did so safely. I loved it for all the same reasons the writer did. Now I wouldn’t ride my bike in this city if you paid me. I do not want to become another casualty of this city’s incredible dereliction of duty and end up partially paralyzed or with a traumatic brain injury. Mayor Adams and Mr. Rodriguez have much to account for to the majority of the voters in NY, who will not look kindly when the next election comes around!
    Please, folks — pick up your own food! And stop this hellscape from becoming even worse than it is.

  4. JacDog JacDog April 2, 2024

    Much of downside to what has occurred can be attributed to the “Sophist in Chief” Komanoff. In order to encourage more — quantity not quality — cyclists, TA prevailed upon then-Mayor Bloomberg to withhold enforcement by the NYPD on rogue cyclists. This accomplished the undermining of the NYPD, creation of a public safety crisis, the sidestepping of a responsible bike culture, which is key to all the successful bike programs in Europe, and Yes, encouraging the employees of the digital empire to ride here. Bloomberg was desirous of attracting the tech industry, increasing the tax roles and inflating real estate values. Mission accomplished, with a reckless disregard for public safety.
    All this accomplished without the interference of an environmental impact study. Boogaloo Charlie knows best. Screw public safety. All the deaths by cyclist, accidents and injuries are so much collateral damage to Komanoff and
    his elitest ilk. And it was all calculated to bring about congestion. Congestion
    to promote a congestion tax. Being fought. and Placemaking X The privatization of public space, Brainchild of Fred Kent, cohort of Boogaloo Charlie since the ’80s. “Le Grand Charlie” not De Gaulle did an aboutface on his opposition to nuclear energy in the face of global warming. Let’s see if Komanoff does a mea culpa in the face of reality.

    Komanoff WRONG ON NUCLEAR ENERGY WRONG ON VISION ZERO et al.

    • Isabella Isabella April 2, 2024

      You got that right, JacDog. The public be damned! There’s money to be made. There will be an exodus very soon. Already New Yorkers are leaving-watch the real estate prices drop.
      The goose that laid the golden egg.

      • David R. Marcus David R. Marcus April 3, 2024

        The public be damned, says TA and their political enablers. Who cares that the vast majority of the pedestrian public is fearful and mortified to cross our city streets; not only fearful of serious injury but the abusive insults hurled by bikers when you ask them to slow down and be careful. It is absolutely outrageous that the vast majority of the NYC public is subject to this abuse by the 1% minority of bike riding commuters and delivery persons who ignore the very vision of the original bike-riding advocates and feel any accountability is a hardship.

      • Humble Cyclist Humble Cyclist April 4, 2024

        Real estate prices dropping would be a literal godsend to the enormous numbers of New Yorkers who pay rent. That’s how you can tell it will never happen.

  5. Biker Biker April 2, 2024

    Legions of our (seemingly semi-striking) police could be deployed to stand at intersections and 1) redirect wrong-way bikers, 2) insist motorized vehicles move out of bike lanes, 3) stop bikes at lights and stop signs, 4) ticket speeders, 5) ticket cars and trucks parked in bike lanes, 6) stop parking in bike lanes.

    Thank you, Michele Herman, for your article. I’ve been riding a regular bike for years, but now feel endangered as never before. That’s true when I’m a pedestrian, too, and driving here is trickier than ever. I’m scared I’ll hit or be hit by one of those grim-faced, determined delivery men doing whatever they have to do to make time.

  6. Stephen DiLauro Stephen DiLauro April 2, 2024

    Paris made ebikes and escooters illegal. NYC should do the same. This simple solution is the best. What’s more important than the safety of the general population?

    • Jan Jan April 2, 2024

      ebikes are ubiquitous in Paris. Paris banned rental e-scooters.

  7. Harriet Hirshorn Harriet Hirshorn April 2, 2024

    Thank you for a thorough and considered article. I appreciate your delineation of the problem and that it is up to the reader to imagine potential solutions. The delivery situation, especially food, is as you point out, nothing we could have imagined. And in terms of scale it is pretty specific to NYC. In Paris, France, for example, this situation has not developed the way it has here in NYC.

  8. redbike redbike April 1, 2024

    Thanks for your thoughtful and comprehensive essay.

    I – too – own my own bike. I continue to store it in my apartment. And the next few days’ likely weather explain why I mostly rely on Citi Bikes. I assume you – too – live in a NYC apartment. I assume you – too – have cleaned your own Raleigh after a foul-weather ride. That’s why I mostly rely on Citi Bikes. (Leave bike cleaning to others.) For preference (and my Citi Bike usage record reflects this), since electric-assist Citi Bikes became available, I’ve used them – total – less than half a dozen times.

    I really appreciate your paragraph delineating different flavors of motorized 2-wheeled … conveyances. (Good choice of a word.) I know it flies in the face of what NY State’s Legislature has authorized, but for me: If it has a motor, it’s a motorcycle. End of story.

    You mention your collaboration with Charlie Komanoff, who could bring what I lack to this discussion: numbers and data.

    Before everything I’ve mentioned – culminating in Numbers and Data – alienate everyone, here’s a suggestion: If you didn’t watch its original broadcast, catch up with John Oliver’s ‘Last Week Tonight’ from Sunday, March 31, 2024. In his inimitable style, Oliver skewers the unmitigated blight of Delivery Apps – a trifecta blight to shared public space, to restaurants and to the deliveristas.

    Broken-record-time: NY State’s Legislature could – at a minimum – remedy the deliverista problem they created: revise / amend NY State’s labor law to define the status of deliveristas as ’employees’, not ‘independent contractors’.

  9. John Campo John Campo April 1, 2024

    The big lie is that Citi Bikes and delivery bikes turn off at 20 mph, when they can do up to 40 and 50 mph. You will never know that fact unless you are doing 30 mph, as I do as a professional bike racer, and have all types of e-vehicles pass you.

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