Wheels are in motion

Monica Glare rides a surge in cyclist confidence in New York City on its growing network of bike lanes.

The decision to bring my bike with me when I relocated to New York City a year ago was more out of sentimentality than a belief that I'd be pedalling much. In fact, on previous visits I thought it was madness to cycle these streets, congested with cabs and cars, trucks and buses and pedestrians. A year on, I never imagined I'd have the chutzpah to cycle so much. But it's not me that's changed - New York is becoming a city that loves to cycle.

In the past six years, the number of cyclists in New York City has doubled. In the past four years, the number of people commuting to work by bike has increased by 45 per cent. And much is being done to accommodate them.

While walking down First Avenue near 64th Street - where bikes were once chained to parking metres, street signs and trees - I notice a proliferation of bike racks (four in one block). They're popping up all over the city; by late next year, 5000 racks will be installed in a program called CityRacks, which aims to encourage cycling for "commuting, short trips and errands".

In the past three years the Department of Transportation has built 320 kilometres of bike lanes across the city's five boroughs, taking the total to 1000 kilometres of bike paths, lanes and routes.

On 8th and 9th avenues and Broadway, the department has added North America's first protected on-street bike lanes, designed so the bike lanes are physically separated from motorised traffic. In fact, in recognition of the progress made to improve conditions for cyclists, the League of American Bicyclists designates New York as a "bike-friendly community" with the potential to become a great cycling city.

The New York City bike network is now a labyrinth of off-street bike lanes (dedicated paths), on-street bicycle lanes (painted green) and on-street bicycle routes (cycle with the traffic). They offer a rewarding and practical way to see New York, aided by the city's flat terrain and the grid system of streets that makes for easy navigating.

A good bike route for sightseeing is along the length of Broadway. Travel south, taking in Times Square (slow going but fun), to Madison Square Park and the Flatiron Building (line up for a Shack Shake burger) and on to Union Square, with its Greenmarket on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays (if you didn't have that burger, try Dogmatic just around the corner on East 17th Street for gourmet hotdogs).

From here, cycle on to Washington Square Park in the heart of Greenwich Village to see the Washington Memorial Arch and fountain, then along Bleecker Street through West Village and SoHo (make a small detour to Joe cafe at 141 Waverly Place for coffee and pastry).

It's possible to combine cycling and art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has free bike parking in the underground car park (enter on the south side of the building) and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has street bike racks at its 53rd and 54th Street entrances. Nine new bike racks described "as functional art works" were installed around the city last year, designed by David Byrne, a local artist and cycling enthusiast.

Central Park's 341 hectares of lawns, woodlands and lakes is too large to cover easily on foot but ideal for a bike. Just follow the 10-kilometre internal loop road and stop along the way for detours to see the Great Lawn, the Reservoir, Harlem Meer and the Mall; no cycling is allowed on pedestrian paths so you'll need to walk your bike to these sites.

An outstanding route for any level of fitness is the Hudson River cycleway. Separate from West Side Highway, it stretches almost 20 kilometres from near the Bronx to Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan. There is also a bike path along the East River of Manhattan but it is not as well developed.

For those venturing further, all of the lower Manhattan bridges - Williamsburg, Manhattan, Brooklyn - have designated bike lanes, allowing easy access to the outer boroughs.

Brooklyn has a profusion of on-road green-striped bike lanes, making it easy to explore the leafy and slow-paced adjoining neighbourhoods of Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Park Slope, Greenpoint, Prospect Heights and Williamsburg.

North Williamsburg is a mix of old and new; there are still areas of factories, garages and ethnic grocery shops, while other parts have been gentrified, especially around Bedford Avenue and Berry, North 5th and 6th streets. The area is popular with young Brooklynites, artists, young families and bohemians with its converted factories, vintage shops, galleries, cafes and bars. The on-street bike lanes - well used by locals - are ideal for touring the neighbourhood.

South Williamsburg is home to a large community of Hasidic Jews. Cycling the quiet streets here is a great way to experience this unique part of the city: pass men in long black coats and fur hats with curly side-burns, women in their modest attire and scores of children.

There has been some opposition to this bike route from religious leaders who object to the lanes and the "scantily clad cyclists". So when the Department of Transport removed a 14-block stretch of bike lane on Bedford Avenue on the grounds of "ongoing bike network adjustments", cyclists repainted the lines. These were removed again, sparking protest rides along the avenue. An underwear-clad ride scheduled in December was called off when the temperature dropped to minus 7 degrees.

Transportation Alternatives, a bicycling advocacy group, urges cyclists to continue to use Bedford Avenue as a bike thoroughfare, with or without painted lanes. It has launched a campaign called "Waving Wednesdays" that aims to improve safety and the morale of cyclists for whom Bedford Avenue is the main access to the Williamsburg Bridge, while improving community sentiment towards cyclists offering a friendly wave.

For a longer ride - not on the cycling map - the 60-kilometre loop to the Palisades Interstate Park (a 20-kilometre strip of parkland on the western side of the Hudson River) has great views en route from the George Washington Bridge.

Despite the apparent mayhem on the streets of New York, a bike - together with a cycling map and a spirit of adventure - is a good way to experience street life as locals do.

FAST FACTS

Cycling there

- Metro Bikes has seven locations across New York City, including 1311 Lexington Avenue and East 88th Street, and East 14th Street, Union Square. Trek 5000 bikes with SPD or regular toe-clip pedals can be hired for $100 for 24 hours; these need to be pre-ordered via email. See metrobicycles.com.

- Rent a Trek sport-comfort hybrid bike for $US9 ($9.92) an hour, $US45 a day or $US55 for 24 hours at Bike Heaven, at 348 East 62nd Street (between 1st and 2nd avenues), see mybikeheaven.com. Opens after 9.30am on weekends so if you like an early start you'll need a 24-hour rental.

- Bike Rental Central Park, 348 West 57th Street (off 9th Avenue), see bikerentalcentralpark.com.

- Hub Station rents mountain bikes, hybrids and cruisers (not racing bikes). Open daily, 10am-8pm, at 73 Morton Street, at Hudson, West Village, phone +1 212 965 9334.

- Central Park bike rentals is located inside the park at Loeb Boathouse parking lot, from March to October, phone +1 212 517 2233.

For New York City cycling maps and information, see nyc.gov/html/dot/html/bicyclists/bikemaps.shtml. All cycling maps are available for download, including map inserts with additional information on Lower Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, Staten Island and the NYC bridges. The maps include a comprehensive list of bike shops and rentals and details about bikes on the subway, trains, ferries and buses, bike laws, signs and markings. The maps are free at bike shops and at NYC's Official Visitor Information Centre at 810 7th Avenue, between West 52nd and 53rd, +1 212 484 1222.

- Cycling safety Wearing a helmet is a legal requirement for children aged 13 or younger but is advised for all cyclists. When cycling on the road, beware of car doors opening, sewer grates, potholes and uneven surfaces on some roads.

- Bicycle theft is a problem in the city so if you intend to leave your bike unattended, rent a decent lock. Lock the frame and rear wheel of the bicycle to a bike rack. If the front wheel is quick release, a separate D-lock is needed.

Fuelling up

Shake Shack, south-east corner of Madison Square Park near Madison Avenue and East 23rd Street.

Dogmatic, 26 East 17th Street, Union Square.

Egg, 135 North 5th Street, Brooklyn, +1 718 302 5151.

Diner, 85 Broadway, Brooklyn, +1 718 486 3077.

Marlow & Sons, 81 Broadway (at Berry Street), Brooklyn, +1 718 384 1441.

Franny's, 295 Flatbush Avenue (between Prospect Place and St Marks Avenue), Brooklyn, +1 718 230 0221. For pizza and luscious ice-cream.

Frankies Spuntino, 457 Court Street, (between 4th Place and Luquer Street) Brooklyn, +1 718 403 0033.

Two routes not to miss

Broadway to Bleecker Street bike route. Starting at Columbus Circle, head south on Broadway through Times Square (you'll need to walk for a few blocks through Times Square). Note that Broadway and 7th Avenue meet here; Broadway is left.

Continue down Broadway to Madison Square Park and on to Union Square. From Union Square, cycle along 15th Street one block to 5th Avenue, turn left and go south until you hit Washington Square Park. Take Waverly Place heading west and at 7th Avenue continue across to Christopher Street. Turn right at Greenwich and continue along a few blocks. Turn right at West 12th Street and right at Bleecker Street to take you through the heart of West Village and SoHo.

Palisades Parkway ride. From Central Park, leave the northern exit and head up Morningside Drive and St Nicholas Avenue towards the George Washington Bridge. Take the cycleway on the south side of the bridge. Once off the bridge, turn left and head down River Road; at the bottom of the hill, enter Palisades Parkway and cycle north, exiting the park at Henry Hudson Drive and return south on Palisade Boulevard/Sylvan Avenue (signposted as Highway 9W) to George Washington Bridge.

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