Why Peter Rides

Here’s the latest installment — and first-ever February edition — of Streetsblog’s Why I Ride series.

bike commuter doctor
Photo copyright Dmitry Gudkov

Peter, 33, is a surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital. A lifelong New York area native, he only started bike commuting in May of last year. He lives on 1st Avenue and was encouraged by the expansion of the bike lane there. “Honestly, it was seeing that bike lane every day that made me want to try cycling.” Peter bought an inexpensive hybrid bike and initially just rode around for fun, exploring the city. He quickly realized it would be a useful commuting option (he normally took the bus and walked).

His commute is not very long, maybe a mile or two, but involves multiple destinations. “My day starts at Lenox Hill Hospital to round on my inpatients, then I bike down Park Ave over to my office in Midtown to see office patients. I sometimes go to another office in Washington Heights. I usually ride to 72nd Street and catch the train uptown. When it gets warmer, I’ll probably try biking the whole way.” A couple of rides in wet conditions made him realize the benefit of fenders; he also added a rack and pannier bags to carry his clothes. He said (with a hint of embarrassment) that his next purchase might be a kickstand. “I know it’s kind of frowned upon, but it would just be so convenient.”

Peter’s new cycling experience correlated with another big change: In September, he sold his car. “I lived in Dallas for a year and that was another story, but in New York, owning a car was just a huge luxury. It was costing me around $1,000 a month, I was always worried about parking, and I wasn’t getting much in return – except maybe a softball game or two at Jones Beach.” He has kept up his daily cycle commute even through the recent cold snap. “I wanted to see how long I could keep doing it. I’m too busy to take vacations but I take advantage of my< snowboarding gear to stay warm in the freezing winds. Goggles and snowboarding gloves are amazing! And during the summer, I just biked in scrubs.” He doesn’t yet know many other cyclists in the city and some friends have voiced doubts over the safety of riding in New York. He says his advice to someone thinking about bike commuting is: “Just try it. It’s really not as dangerous as you think.”

  • Eric McClure

    I love the fact that he first tried riding a bike in the city thanks to the proximity of a nice protected bike lane.  More of those, please — with the added benefit of further irritating Denis Hamill.

  • “Honestly, it was seeing that bike lane every day that made me want to try cycling.”

  • The Voice ;-)

    If you build it, they will come.

  • Anonymous

    You know what I frown upon? Snobs who think less of someone who puts useful accessories on his/her bike.

  • Yy43

    Cool story.  It must be nice living within walking and biking distance to work. It sure beats being stuck in traffic for an hour every morning which is the experience most of us have to endure.

  • Danny G

    @08ed2cf3a15dc4f2fd194a1311ee0fed:disqus His convenient lifestyle isn’t as out of reach as you might think. Do you think you’ll be living in the same place commuting to the same job for the rest of your life? We all know we can’t pick up and start a brand new life on a moment’s notice, but if you plan for it, the next time you have an opportunity to change where you work or where you live, keep Peter’s story in mind.

  • Guest

    No shame in a good kickstand! I have one and it’s very useful when I’m loading up my bike. Plus, people in all of the mature cycling cities in Europe use them on their big, clunky bikes.  Don’t give in to peer pressure – ride with what you like and what you need to keep riding!

  • Voter

    And even though most people don’t live this close to their jobs, they do tend to live this close to their regular super market or dry cleaners.  Start small, go big!

  • It amazes me that “commuter” bicycles like the one pictured (I think it is, I’m no expert) don’t come with kick stands. My mom-in-law bought a similar bike and the first thing we did after seeing it was ride to a shop and have them attach a kick stand, which had to go at the back wheel because there was no provision made for attaching a normal one. After all that, she doesn’t ride it anyway. Illustrating once again that equipment is just a distraction from what matters – actually riding the bike.

    Good for Peter for making the change!

  • Anon

    The protected part of the First Ave bike lane is great and I wish it would extend all the way north.  But being protected doesn’t mean there are not vehicle bike interactions and crashes.  I was riding in the lane, where it’s protected, and at a corner a cab squeezed over to stop to let out a passenger.  The cab shifted abruptly from the car lane to occupy half of the bike line area where it is not protected near the intersection and just for good measure, the passenger flung open the door right into me even before the cab came to a complete stop.  I had anticipated the cab’s move and had already moved as close to the curb as possible and begun to slow, but the door still sent me down.  The passenger jumped out and yelled at me that I shouldn’t be riding a bike in the City.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I probably got a non-displaced fracture in one of the bones of my right hand.  I rode away at the time, but since I have limited my riding.  I am finding that the more bike infra-structure that is placed, the less I ride because drivers have become even more aggressive (perhaps jealous) when they us moving forward and they are stuck in traffic.

  • Joe R.

    @41707093f2e53e14900c97923a5fac82:disqus Your experience nicely illustrates why the protected lanes are no panacea. They do nothing at junctions. And the merges for left turning vehicles kind of defeat their purpose. The worst aspect of the protected lanes is the way they leave you little room to go around obstacles, as you unfortunately discovered. I think when all is said and done the city will realize the only way to ensure cyclist safety and keep everyone else happy will be grade separation. Manhattan is just too congested for cyclists, pedestrians, and motor vehicles to coexist while at the same time allowing each mode to operate optimally. By putting bike lanes above the streets, it will also eliminate the common complaint from motorists about the bike lanes taking up street space. Of course, I still favor taking street space from motorists in Manhattan, but for the purpose of widening the sidewalks rather than for bike lanes.

    BTW, I love to ride but I would never ride in Manhattan unless they installed grade-separated bike lanes. As things stand now, it’s just too crowded and stressful. Things could be made much better for cyclists and pedestrians by greatly reducing the volume of motor vehicles, but the city thus far has shown zero interest in doing that. End result is everyone fights for small scraps of space.

    And yes, I’ve little doubt a lot of the anger directed at cyclists by motorists is when they see someone on a $100 bike outpacing them in their expensive motor vehicle. My only answer to that is to tell them they’re idiots for driving in a place like Manhattan where you can often walk faster than you can drive.

  • Clarke

    Grade separation would never happen. What can be done is work on existing lanes. Lanes ending with no warning (and turning into deadly sharrows) is a major fear factor for cyclists. That, and NO CROSSTOWN LANES. I’ve been working in Midtown the past few months and getting uptown is easy via East River (to 37th St), but getting from the East Side is treacherous. Dodging parked cars (both ones that drivers have left on the side of the street and the ones that are running and have drivers in them, but are not moving because of congestion) is seriously risky.

    Dropping one side of parking every five or ten blocks through the core of the city’s business district (and using jersey barriers to prevent “clever” homicidal motorists) would be advantageous to the city, rather than the current effort to paint worse-than-nothing sharrows on a few random blocks (and having lanes on others, but marking it as a “bike route”) and calling it a day.

  • Joe R.

    @9d09155ec93b2956f9a187fc183dc5b7:disqus Don’t count the idea of grade separation out. London is seriously considering the idea. I think it would be a natural in NYC. Regardless of how “protected” an on street bike lane is, you still have zero protection at junctions. You also have a gazillion traffic signals which either severely reduce average speeds if obeyed, or cause yet more complaints from drivers if not obeyed.

    The only way to make protected lanes work reasonably well would be to basically dead end the cross streets on the side which has the bike lane. This eliminates any conflicts from turning cars or cross traffic. It also eliminates traffic signals in the bike lane (pedestrians can easily cross the bike lane without the need for walk signals). Essentially, such a bike lane would be functionally identical to a grade-separated lane, but without the expense, provided of course pedestrians didn’t view it as a sidewalk extension (another problem with the protected lanes). At busy major cross streets which couldn’t be dead-ended, you would have to elevate the lane to get across the intersection, but a few hundred feet of grade separation every ten or fifteen blocks is much cheaper than 100% grade separation.

    In the outer boroughs we can actually do grade-separation very inexpensively by hanging bike lanes off existing grade-separated highways, railways, or els. Like I said, don’t count the idea out. For many reasons, cycling will never become a major way to get around in a city the size of New York unless we can greatly speed up medium or long trips by building the equivalent of cycling expressways. We need to take a cue here from what was done with autos, as much as many here (me included) dislike autocentric thinking. Autos never would have become popular without expressways. That’s why we need the same thing for bicycles if we ever hope to get the mode share above a few percent.

  • moocow

    Joe, I wish you would make your rally cry something else besides the separated lanes idea.  People complain about the cost of paint on the street, raising cyclists up? at every intersection? 
    The intersection and protected lane issue could certainly be helped with enforcement (yeah right, not going to happen).  But also with removing the mixing zones.  Have cars make a 90 degree turn, it slows them down, faces them towards the pedestrians who are crossing the street. 
    The mixing zones, I feel, take away most benefits of protected lanes, but they can easily be fixed.

  • jrab

    @twowheel:disqus I applaud @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus ‘s laser focus on separated lanes. It’s my opinion that if you want to be a successful blog commenter, you should stick with one idea and keep repeating it in multiple contexts.

    As for the mixing zones, they work great if the drivers move all the way to the left, next to the curb, leaving no room for bicycles. Since most people behind the wheel have no idea how to drive, however, their implementation is flawed.

    As an aside, why do local mass media outlets insist on assuming operating prowess for drivers, no matter how unlikely or disproved by evidence, and assigning incompetence to cyclists?

  • moocow

    I said separated but meant “grade” separated. 
    I often agree with what JoeR has to say, I just was wishing that laser focus could be used on something cheaper, or in my opinion, useful.

  • moocow

    Jrab, I can’t answer your question of MSM and operating prowess, it’s a great question. 

  • Joe R.

    @twowheel:disqus The multiple problems facing transportation these days (all modes, not just bicycles) are exactly because of society’s refusal to spend what really needs to be spent. In fact, the same can be said of all types of infrastructure, not just transportation infrastructure. Sure, I’m fully aware that grade separated lanes would cost many multiples of what on-street lanes do. Still, in the context of total transportation spending, we’re not talking much money. I’m estimating NYC might need roughly 400 miles of grade separated lanes if you want most places in the city to be within a mile of such a lane. That’s a 2 mile by 2 mile grid pattern, more or less. If we estimate $1 million per mile, then we’re looking at $400 million. Heck, let’s even call it $1 billion for the sake of argument. Now it’s pretty obvious we’re not building out 400 miles of lanes in a year, even if there was full support for such a project. Most likely, the lanes would be built out over a ten year period, so now were looking at $100 million a year for ten years. To put this in perspective, we’re talking ~0.1% of the city’s budget. If the feds kick in 80%, as they did for much of the other cycling infrastructure, the expenditure is a rounding error.

    I continually espouse grade separation because nothing else reliably works to prevent conflicts, collisions, deaths, and injuries. Also, NYC is very congested. Without grade separation, at best you can engineer a compromise where some or all of the modes operate highly suboptimally. To me bike travel isn’t terribly useful if a cyclist is faced with a choice of blowing red lights (when they can), or stopping and averaging 5 or 6 mph, not much over a fast walk. That’s not even getting into the real hazards cyclists face which can’t really be solved without getting motor vehicles out of the picture. So the real question is what does the $1 billion buy you? For one, it buys you average speeds rivaling the subway (if you’re a fast cyclist), or perhaps 10 to 12 mph if you’re not. That time savings in aggregate has considerable value. Next it buys you safety as well as a perception of safety. That in turn will certainly encourage more people to ride. And it will also save lots of money in terms of lost productivity of injured/dead cyclists, costs of hospitals/emergency vehicles, and more people who save the health care system money by becoming fitter. In short, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the long run the lanes paid for themselves many times over.

    The kind of short-sighted thinking exhibited by today’s leaders is why things have gotten so bad. Nobody is interested in anything if the results won’t be seen until after the next election. Had that type of thinking prevailed 100 years ago, the subways never would have been built, nor would many other infrastructure projects would paid for themselves many times over. We need to stop thinking small and cheap. In the long run it costs us more money. Every bike lane certainly doesn’t need to be grade-separated. Quiet streets need no bike lanes at all. We should however have every place within a mile or so of a grade-separated lane so cyclists can do most of their trips in perfect safety, and at a high percentage of their cruising speed. Cars have had expressways for decades. Why shouldn’t bikes have something similar?

  • Joe R.

    I should also note that if we had the political will to reduce motor traffic volumes by 90% or more, which in turn would mean we could get rid of probably 95% of the signalized intersections, then the need for grade separation pretty much vanishes. Of course, every reader of this blog knows greatly reducing motor vehicle volumes is a political nonstarter, at least for the time being.

  • Anonymous

    Peter, don’t be embarrassed to get a kickstand for your commuter bike. It’s a must for any bike used for everyday transportation. I did exactly what you did, added fenders, a rack and a kickstand to convert an old mountain bike into a city bike. Now it actually useful, not just fun. http://ladyfleur.wordpress.com/2011/08/29/gear-talk-kickstand-reviews/

  • Joe R.

    Yeah, I second ladyfleur about the kickstand. I had one on my Raleigh. I only took it off because I really wasn’t using the bike for anything except recreational riding.


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