Cycling in NYC is not for the faint-hearted, but things will only get better, writes Stephen Lacey.
If there is any doubt the Big Apple is in the grip of pedal power, consider this: one day last week, more than 41,000 trips were taken with the new cycle-share program, Citi Bike. The program works in a similar way to others around the world. For a $95 annual membership you can rent a bike for 45 minutes without an additional charge. There are about 330 bike-share stations and 6000 bikes at locations throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn.
However, for the program to really succeed, the locals might have to change their attitude to bicycles as an integrated transport solution. When I was last in New York, about a fortnight before the Citi Bike program was rolled out, I hired a bicycle and found the experience terrifying.
Whenever I ventured on to one of the many cycleways that criss-cross the island of Manhattan, I had to constantly swerve around hordes of pedestrians, joggers and prams. It didn't take long to discover that New Yorkers haven't really grasped the concept of cycleways yet.
"Isn't it illegal to run, or push your stroller along a dedicated cycleway?" I asked a policeman.
He shrugged his shoulders. "I have no idea."
In fact, the pedestrians are the real hazard for cyclists in New York City, even if you steer clear of the cycleways and use the road instead. Many a time I'd be belting along Fifth Avenue at 40km/h, only to have somebody step straight out in front of me. It's little wonder one of the city's cycle magazines advertises a horn that blasts a 140-decibel warning.
And yet the human obstacle course hasn't stopped more than 200,000 New Yorkers commuting by bike every day, and there's a noticeable increase of tourists taking to the streets on two wheels.
"With the new cycleways and bike share, cycling is becoming a lot more accessible," says Lara Lebeiko of Soho's Bicycle Habitat, Manhattan's largest bike store.
Jacob Fleishman of Ride Brooklyn agrees. "We're seeing more and more people coming into the store to buy a bike for commuting to work," he says. "We're more cycle-centric in Brooklyn because of the shortcomings of the subway system. In emerging areas such as Red Hook there are no train lines, so everyone uses their bikes."
We pedal over to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the hipster capital of the world, where everyone seems to be riding from an organic farmers' market to a vintage clothing store on original 1970s and '80s 10-speed steel-framed bikes.
"The old Raleighs and Peugeots have suddenly become chic," Fleishman says.
Even the hotel we were staying at, the NU in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, provides its guests with retro-style Brooklyn Cruisers to explore the neighbourhood.
Those used to the vibrant cafe culture associated with cycling in Sydney and Melbourne will be disappointed in New York. We didn't see any road riders meeting in groovy espresso shops in Manhattan or Brooklyn for an apres-ride caffeine fix.
To really experience New York cycling fever, you have to be in the city during the annual TD Five Boro ride in May. The event, in its 36th year, attracts 32,000 cyclists from around the world who pedal their way from lower Manhattan, up through the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, and over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Staten Island, a distance of 64 kilometres.
I signed up for the TD Five Boro and got to ride New York's most famous streets without having to dodge pedestrians and mad taxi drivers (the roads are closed). I hired a new Trek from the folks at Bike and Roll.
A word of caution. Helmets are not mandatory in New York but, after spending a day or two in this crazy city, you'll be happy to have the extra protection.
The writer travelled courtesy of United Airlines and Bike New York.
United Airlines flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles and on to New York. 13 17 77, united.com.
The NU Hotel, 85 Smith Street, Brooklyn. Rooms from $200 a night. nuhotelbrooklyn.com.
Bike and Roll stations are at several locations around the city. Guided tours are available. From about $10 an hour to $140 a week.
TOP RIDES IN NYC
THE MANHATTAN WATERFRONT GREENWAY
A 54-kilometre shared bike and pedestrian path that runs along the shoreline, circumnavigating the island of Manhattan.
THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE
One of those touristy things you just have to do, but be careful. You'll be sharing the pathway with hundreds of pedestrians. The painted cycle lane is largely irrelevant.
Probably the safest place to ride in Manhattan. The loop is 9.8 kilometres and takes in most of the park's iconic scenery.