Saturday, December 11, 2010

Keep Riding in the Coldest Weather? No Sweat!

Winter Wardrobe: High visibility wind proof jacket, wind-proof glasses, helmet cover, thin and thick versions of skullcap, gloves.

Winter has descended upon Gotham with an early cold snap.  It's been icy here for the last week - temperatures have been stuck in the 30s - and it's only December.  As a result, many an otherwise rugged New York bike commuter is likely packing his/her bike off to Manhattan Mini Storage, resigned to a long winter of subway confinement and dreaded darkness, culminating in a bad case of sloth and the blahs.

Wait!  Don't give up so fast!  Surviving winter cold and keeping on the bike is easy.  Honest.  Imagine riding a bike throughout the winter, enjoying the same fine neighborhood views, the exhilaration of two-wheeled freedom and overall sense of well being that you get while riding in warmer months.

It can be done as long as you defend yourself from the bitter elements, namely wind, which more than cold itself is the main offender in winter riding.  Dress accordingly and you'll find that you're actually warmer while riding the bike than while walking.  That's because you're doing a lot of work while riding and generating heat that keeps you warm inside your clothing.

(In the ultimate test of this theory, I once rode in 3 degree weather to the local swimming pool for an early morning dip.  I was plenty warm.  And, on many occasions I've commuted from Manhattan to my current Brooklyn home via the Brooklyn Bridge, where the big "Watchtower" thermometer showed temperatures in the mid-20s).

Here's a guide to the clothing you'll need to keep warm in the coldest weather, from head to toe.

HEAD: Helmets suck at keeping a head warm since they're designed to provide airflow on a hot summer ride.  My jaw drops when I see otherwise well-bundled cyclists riding on a winter day with their heads fully exposed under a Bell.  And we all learned in junior-high science class that some 80% of body heat is lost through the head (debunked here, but hey), so cover it up.

On moderately cold days a thin skullcap worn under the helmet serves to keep the wind at bay and all the thermal energy generated by intense thought in.  I use a $20 Pearl Izumi cap, which is good down to the mid-40s.  When it gets colder, I cover up with this thicker polyester cap, which is very warm.

Fleece skullcap fits under helmet

You'll have to adjust your helmet a little to comfortably fit over the thicker skullcap.  If it's freakin' cold a helmet cover will totally eliminate airflow to the head.  If you can leave fashion sense aside choose a bright, optic yellow cover.  It'll give drivers another clue that you're in the neighborhood, increasing visibility and safety which, next to the cold, are the biggest concerns during dark winter commutes home.

Cold weather helmet covers

EYES: On very cold rides my eyes start tearing up and I can't see a thing.  To solve the problem, get a pair of skiing glasses (rather than goggles, which don't work with a helmet) with foam eye cups to keep the wind out.  My Panoptics/7 Eye Diablo glasses have groovy rose-colored prescription lenses that make even New York look peaceful.  The rose lenses aren't dark so they're great for riding on gloomy days.

Glasses with foam eye cups keep wind out
EXTREMITIES: NOSE, FINGERS, TOES: In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll admit that I haven't found the perfect solution to keeping these body parts reliably toasty on brutally cold days, although cyclists are ultimately dealing with the same limitations that skiers have worked around for millenia.

Here are some strategies.  When it gets into the 30s I put a thin coat of Vaseline on my nose and sometimes on my cheeks as well.  Nothing too thick and slimy, but enough to keep the wind off of my skin.  By the time I arrive at my destination the Vaseline has been absorbed leaving my Rudolph-red nose super soft.  If it gets really cold I use a balaclava (without Vaseline).  It can make it a bit tougher to breathe, though I have ridden up the Brooklyn Bridge without too much trouble with a balaclava on.

BODY: Keeping one's body warm is pretty straightforward.  If the temperature drops below freezing I find that a T-shirt, covered by a thermal cotton long sleeve shirt and a then a sweatshirt, and topped by any wind breaking shell does the job.  Another commuter recently told me that she actually puts the windproof shell under a soft outer shirt to keep from overheating.

Wind protected

I used to wear an old rain jacket for the top layer, but a couple of years ago invested in a bright, optic yellow Descente cycling jacket.  It's thin but blocks the wind, and it increases the chance I'll be seen by drivers, who don't expect to see cyclists out after dark on a frigid evening.

On the bottom half, I wear summer cycling shorts covered by old Reebok long nylon sweat pants.  They 100% block the wind (I wore them the first time I went skiing) and that's all that matters.  My legs simply don't get cold.  I also own a pair of fancy winter cycling tights, which are really warm, but find that they're tight over my kneecaps, which were ravaged by years of BMX racing on bikes with cranks that were too long (I've had multiple operations to fix chondromalacia, or wearing out of the padding behind the kneecap - the tights put pressure on them and make 'em ache).   I used to own a pair of Bellwether tights that had accordion knees that relieved the pressure.  They were great, but I haven't been able to find a similar pair since.

GLOVE and SOCKS: When it gets colder I slip on a pair of winter cycling gloves that I found at PerformanceBike for $10 on sale.  They work well to about the high 30s, below that my fingertips can get pretty chilly on a longer ride (i.e. the 45 minute or so commute home from the City).  Miraculously, some days my fingers do fine. I don't know why.  My toes are generally good until the freezing point.

Big-buck ski gloves would probably work better when cold, though it might get tough working the brakes and gears.  If someone has wisdom on fingers and toes please share (there are high end winter cycling gloves such as these, though I haven't tried them).

To be honest, sometimes it's just too damned cold to ride. Or, at least too cold to ride for very long. Everyone has their own threshold.  And, of course, deep snow makes it hard to travel safely or far.  But most of the stuff you need to ride in the winter is likely already in your closet.  The frigid streets of Gotham await.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Rally to save New York bike lane draws huge crowd

This morning Prospect Park Neighbors ran a super rally in support of the Prospect Park Bike West bike lane in Brooklyn.  Three hundred people RSVP'd for the event, but many more cyclists and pedestrians turned out to blanket the farmer's market grounds on Grand Army Plaza and chant "We love our safe street!" 

PP Neighbors elicited the help of Transportation Alternatives to organize the rally, which coincided with a small protest against the lane by a group of local residents.  The resident group has been emboldened by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz's opposition to the lane, which was built in June, on the grounds that it makes PPW more dangerous for pedestrians.  Yet initial data compiled separately by Park Slope Neighbors and the Department of Transportation contradict that assertion.  Ultimately, opponents want to see the bike lane erased and the street returned to 100% motor vehicle traffic, and some appear to be distorting the safety issue to further their cause.

As I've written in earlier posts, the PPW bike lane is an essential improvement in bike safety.  Prior to the lane's construction there was no way for cyclists to safely travel from Grand Army Plaza to 15th Street, particularly during rush hours when the prime thoroughfares in the area, PPW, 7th and 8th Avenues turn into virtual NHRA drag strips with drivers speeding to work.  Riding those streets in the morning was suicidal.

The bike lane now provides a safe and dare I say enjoyable way to commute on two wheels.  Extreme speeding, once a regular phenomenon, has noticeably fallen since the road was narrowed to two lanes.

And, per my own informal observation, this morning's safe-cycling turnout dwarfed that of the opponents.  Following 30 minutes of enthusiastic rallying on the plaza cyclists rode calmly along the bike lane, passing the nay-sayers and local news camera crews.

On my way to the event, however, I was yelled at by one opponent of the lane as I rode across a pedestrian crossing - said lady let me know at full voice, while she was apparently being interviewed by a newsman, that I should stop at the crossing.  But the flashing light at the crossing is yellow, not red, and the lady was not crossing but standing fast in the parking median, eyes to the camera.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Urban Bike Commuter Tools Part 2 - Bags

The last post of New York Bike Commuter overviewed racks, an essential tool for commuters who want to haul important stuff like a clean change of clothes, a lock, books, etc with little effort.  Bike racks don't reach their hauling potential, however, without a bag draped over them.  This post gives a quick overview of bags that work best for commuting and running errands.

Bags come in three general categories relevant to urban riders: serious commuting bags for people who've got to bring a nice change of clothes to work, cheapo bags that will wrinkle your stuff but are light and easy to use day-to-day, and big grocery bags.  All hook onto a rear rack.  There are also some detachable baskets on the market, and a milk crate strapped to your rack is a great way to carry a basketball...but I digress.

Serious Commuting Bags: Pricey commuting bags earn their keep by getting fancy clothes to the workplace in fine shape.  Top end models have compartments that keep a suit smoothly folded and are waterproof in everything short of a Brooklyn tornado.  With this sort of bag the excuse "riding a bike means I'll look crappy at work" no longer applies.

6th Ave Brooklyn after last week's tornado
Jaand, Ortlieb and 2WG, among others, make panniers that run from about $100 up.  Many of these bags have compartments for books, a carrying handle and look reasonably briefcase-esque.  Thus, no one will suspect your green inclinations when walking into the office at the oil company.  Usually one bag is enough to carry work stuff: the bags are generally sold individually.  But these bags aren't much for general cargo duty - they tend to be tall and narrow so bulky stuff won't fit (top-of-rack bags are another good option for carrying clothes).

Ortlieb Downtown commuter bike bag

Cheapo Bags: If you don't mind wrinkled clothes, want to use your panniers for multiple purposes (which means keeping them hooked to the rack all the time) or simply don't want to spend much money, there are a zillion inexpensive (under $50) bags on the market.  Check the local bike shop, should have many of these, or online.

I use a $25 (on sale), two-sided Nashbar Daytrekker pannier that allows me to stuff a heavy chain lock and shoes in one side and put work clothes in the other.  The bag also works great for quick trips to the supermarket, a picnic and was even enough, tightly stuffed, for a weekend ride up the Hudson River (sleeping at a B&B).
Nashbar Daytrekker bag

Cheapo bags are likely to rip apart after 2-3 year but that's why they're cheap.  If they get stolen, no biggie.

Grocery Bags: These are big, square, wide open bags that allow serious grocery hauling (see top blog pic).  A pair will easily swallow a gallon of milk, cereal boxes and a six pack with room to spare.  Good grocery panniers should have rugged mounting hardware to ensure they won't fall off the rack, spilling Brooklyn IPA all over the road.  Seams should be rugged and the bag should have a flat plastic bottom to hold things level.

For many years I used a pair of bags from L.L. Bean.  They withstood a lot of abuse (they got sliced up but never ripped apart) although the mounting system could have been a bit more trustworthy.  REI sells Novara's 'Round Town grocery pannier, which looks like a more fashionable version of my old Bean bag.

Finally, a safety warning:  Really heavy loads can affect bike handling, making it harder to turn, or making it easy to fall over when at a stop, particularly if one side of the bike is much more loaded than the other.   Pack evenly (note that clothes bags are often used on one side of the bike only but, since clothes generally don't weigh much, the effect on handling is negligible). Also, use caution when moving from a stop - heavy loads are particularly treacherous at slow speeds: the faster you go, the less you notice the weight, until you have to make a quick turn.

Also, I've completely avoided front fork mounted racks and bags, which weigh down your front wheel and make it harrowing to swerve on a milisecond's notice, an important skill on the streets of NYC.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Urban Bike Commuter Tools - Racks

While riding to the Red Hook swimming pool a few weeks ago I managed to catch the attention of a woman driving by, who stretched her head out of her car window and gazed in my direction.

"Where'd you get that bag?!" she yelled out the window, pointing, unexpectedly, at the black nylon pannier draped over my bike rack.

I answered that I'd gotten it from BikeNashbar, for about 25 bucks on sale.

Her awe of my equipment made me realize that many folks who are new to bike commuting may not be aware of some of the tools that can, in fact, turn a bicycle into a practical tool of transportation.  So, in today's post I'm going to focus on the most essential of those tools: the bike rack (I'll get around to mountable bags, aka panniers, in my next post).

A bike without a rack is like a semi truck without a trailer or the Space Shuttle without its cargo bay, i.e. pretty much worthless. Seriously, while a bike will get you around, a bike with a rack lets you get around with your stuff, be it heavy books and laptop, groceries or whatever.

Rear bike rack

A decent rack costs around $40, with some popular manufacturers including Blackburn, Topeak and Trek.  A good aluminum rack is strong, capable of carrying 40+ pounds and surprisingly light itself so it won't weigh down a bike when unloaded.  Also, a solidly attached rear rack won't noticeably affect bike handling, which can be a problem when wearing a heavy backpack that raises a rider's center of gravity and causes backaches.  Racks save your back.

Racks are pretty straightforward, but there are a few mega important considerations to take into account when choosing one:

Size: racks are often sized to fit bikes based upon wheel size, i.e. a rack that works on a 26" wheeled mountain bike won't necessarily work on a hybrid or road bike with 700c wheels.  I've seen lots of incorrectly sized bike racks, the result being that the top of the rack isn't horizontal, which looks pretty goofy.  Stuff hauled on a sloping rack wants to slide off, defeating the purpose.

Some manufacturers offer adjustable-height racks (the "legs" of the rack are threaded allowing height to be adjusted up and down).  My personal prejudice based on absolutely no scientific data is that these racks add unnecessary complexity and moving parts to something that's supposed to be simple and reliable.  And, adjustable racks definitely weigh more.  So, shop around and find a solid rack that works for a particular bike.

Disc Brakes: Disc brakes have become popular on mountain bikes and, increasingly, on hybrid-style bikes that many urban commuters/Gothamites ride.  But disc brakes presented a problem for riders who wanted racks, since the bulky disc caliper tended to get in the way of the rack mounting point next to the wheel axle.  Rack manufacturers have figured out how to get around this problem (see the picture of a disc-specific rack below - see how the rack supports bend outward around the disc caliper) so take this into consideration when buying.

Disc brake-specific rack with child seat mounting hole to boot
Hauling kids: Rear-mounted child seats require a bike rack, and most child seats are specifically designed to work with a certain rack, i.e. seat and rack are sold together.  Check to see that the child seat can be easily unmounted leaving just the rack, which can be used for general hauling.

If you already have a rack on your bike and you decide you want to bring a little kid along beware that the rack you have probably won't work with a child seat.  Take a look at the picture above - this Topeak rack has a hole in the top platform. The hole is needed to mount the Topeak child seat. Other Topeak racks, with essentially similar designs, lack the hole...

Fame mounting: This important point relates to the bike itself, not the rack.  Most modern bikes come with rack mounting holes drilled directly into the seat stays (the tubes that run from just below the saddle to the rear wheel) but a few manufacturers still neglect to add them.  For example, a friend of mine recently bought an ultra hip Surly single speed.  After forking out $700 for what was to become his main urban ride my friend discovered that the bike lacked mounting holes in the seat stays. 

The bike shop rigged up a mount using steel and rubber straps wrapped around the frame, but the rack is kind of wobbly, is likely to scratch the bejeezus out of my friend's precious paint job and simply looks lame.  What's worse, due to the overall shakiness of the setup he can't haul much.

If you're on the market for a new bike, make sure the rack mounts are built in.

Removable racks: These racks, which mount directly to the seat post via a hefty clamp, are fairly popular among mountain bikers or anyone who might want to completely remove their rack when it's not needed.  They're generally a good option if you don't plan on carrying heavy loads.  Also try to find a removable rack that has railings that drop from both sides - this will allow you to hang a bag over the rack without having the bag sway back and forth, banging into the wheel.

Seat post mounted removable rack

And beware in the city - anything that's easily removed is easily stolen.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Beating the weather and staying on the bike: commuting tips

Yes, it's early August here in Gotham and we've all been sweating it out more than usual. Temperatures climb daily into the 90s, while a single measly window A/C unit fails to rise to the challenge of cooling my railroad apartment. An undulating layer of superheated air hovers just above the floor and sweat drips from my brow into my bowl of Grape Nuts.

All this reminds me that it's time to address one of the most common excuses people give for NOT riding their bikes: the weather. Be it too hot, too cold or too wet. Let's look at each excuse individually. I'll proceed to blow each excuse out of the water in this and coming posts. Starting with:

Too Hot
Given the insane cost of living in Gotham, it's likely that the vast majority of residents under the age of 25ish can't afford to live in 'fancy' air-conditioned apartments, and must rely on a legion of floor fans to circulate oven-hot air throughout the home.

What the heck, you can get the same current of hot air while riding your bike! Should you happen to ride on the West Side bike path, you'll also get a view of the Hudson, scantily clad members of the opposite sex and, if you're really lucky, a cool breeze wafting down from Canada now and then. So get out and ride!

But, what about bike commuters, the very focus of this blog? People with jobs can't arrive all sweaty and stinky to their cubicles. And  there's always the alternative of subway cars, taxis and private helicopters, where A/Cs work great.

Here are a few ideas to help make biking to work on a hot day more plausible:
1. Ride to the gym near your office, take a shower, go to work. New York Sports Clubs and YMCAs blanket the city. New York Recreation Centers have basically the same amenities as fancy health clubs, but without the glitz, while a year membership costs just $75. You read that right, and one membership gets you into all of the Rec Centers, many of which have pools to help cool off.

Hitting the gym before work sounds like a hassle? Well, you were going to go to the gym anyway, right? How about getting up a little earlier and riding to get warmed up for a good weight workout, and skipping a boring half-hour on the treadmill. Overall weekly time at the gym remains unchanged, even reduced.

2. If you can't swing the cost of a gym membership or the closest location is really inconvenient, take a change of clothes to work in a rack-mounted clothing bag, along with baby wipes to clean up. Yes, baby wipes are pre-moistened, clean, compact and leave you smelling pretty darn fresh (but cyclists who don't want to smell heavily of nursery and baby oil will avoid Pampers standard wipes: they reek. Pampers sensitive skin are a better bet, while Costco's Kirkland brand comes in easy to use, resealable pouches and are cheap - get a relative in Stamford to pick them up.)
 Um, yes. This is a cycling blog.

Wipes are designed to handle the mess on a baby's bottom and, as yet, riding through NY traffic hasn't gotten anyone that dirty.

3. Advocate for showers in your office building. Sure, this is a process and success isn't guaranteed, but someone has to do it.

Shower stall. 
Image courtesy of jonbrak

Finally, remember that it's insanely hot a relatively small portion of the year, even in NYC. So, if none of the above work, slack is cut from mid-June to early September, at most.

I'll tackle rainy days, and super cold (which is easy to deal with. Really) in my next posts.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Many of NYC's best destinations accessible only by bike

Bicycling can be an alternative form of transportation, i.e. an alternative to traveling by car, bus or subway.  In New York, however, bikes provide practical freedom of movement and are an essential form of transport.  And, without a bike, many of the city' most interesting and off-the-beaten-path destinations remain practically out of reach.

Take, for example, the hole-in-the-wall Mexican bakery I happened upon on a 1 a.m. ride home, where I got the next morning's fresh bread straight out of the oven (subject of a future post).  I'd have never found the place, sniffed that luscious bread, had I taken the train.

New York's subway system is famous for its spiderweb of lines that seem to reach into every corner of the city.  The reality, however, is that the web is a loose and sloppy one with big gaps, particularly in sprawling boros like Brooklyn and Queens.  Sites (stores, cafés, bars, museums, whatever) that are close to the lines get lots of attention.  But most destinations fall in the vast space in between and remain lost opportunity, like flies that got away.

For me, those otherwise lost destinations include swimming pools.  During two precious months in the summer I swim outside at the Red Hook Recreation Center, which has what must be the biggest pool in NYC, in my guesstimation 100 yards long and 40 yards wide (the width being confirmed fact).  There are two daily lap swims, from 7:00 to 8:30 a.m. and p.m., in addition to open swimming during the day.  In the morning, when the air is still relatively cool and a breeze sways the trees surrounding the pool I almost feel like I'm on vacation someplace relaxed.

 Red Hook Pool

The pool really is that nice, but it's in an otherwise industrial neighborhood, Red Hook, that's served by a skimpy few bus lines and no subway.  It would probably take 40 minutes to walk to the pool, but it's less than 10 minutes away by bike (at last night's evening swim EVERYONE appeared to have ridden in, telling from the number bikes locked to the fence outside)

(BTW– Red Hook also has what may be Brooklyn's best supermarket, Fairway, which is on the waterfront overlooking New York Harbor. It's a great place to grab lunch and sit on a bench to watch ships pass by.)
 Old streetcar in front of Red Hook Fairway supermarket
Photo courtesy of bayridgephantom

The pool I frequent the rest of the year is at the St. John's Recreation Center in Crown Heights.  Without convenient subway service the options for getting to St. Johns are limited to car (where to park?), taxi ($15 each way for a 45 minute swim?) and of course bicycle.

My route includes a ride along the new Prospect Park West bike path to grand Army Plaza.  From there I proceed on a dicey one-half mile ride along Eastern Parkway before picking up its protected, tree-lined bike path, which runs through one of New York's famed Hassidic neighborhoods.

 Eastern Parkway bike path in winter
Photo courtesy of unchienandalusia

After a couple of miles I take a left at Troy Avenue and ride a few blocks to Prospect.  The rec center is on the corner. Note that a year membership costs $75 and gets you into all the city's rec centers, all of which have gyms, some of which have indoor pools.  The Red Hook pool is free in the summer, but you have to show the guards your swimsuit and a lock to get in.

Without my bike, all these places would be out of reach.  Enough said.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Wow! The city puts bikes ahead of cars (again)

Air pollution and traffic safety are the two big threats to the wellbeing (i.e. life) of the urban cyclist, and the main deterrent to people who'd otherwise to take to the streets.  Thus, I'm excited to report that the city is making impressive headway on at least one of these fronts with its aggressive campaign to build protected bicycle greeways, the latest of which is under construction along Prospect Park West, a heavily trafficked thoroughfare in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood.

A couple of weeks ago the city began building the greenway along the avenue, which has always been a magnet for drivers who get a kick out of drag racing from one stoplight to the next. Anyone who lives in the neighborhood, and saw the movie "Speed", probably has had nightmares of those drivers flattening one of the thousands of baby strollers that prowl local sidewalks. The furious traffic made the road a hazard for any rider trying to make his or her way south from Grand Army Plaza.

The city has now downsized Prospect Park West into a two lane driving road, with the third lane re-purposed in three parts: the relatively wide greenway that runs along the curb, a barrier zone and a “floating” parking lane that creates a wall of parked cars to separate traffic and bicyclists. There’s a feeling of great, self-righteous satisfaction that comes from the knowledge that cars are now lending their own metallic hides to protect the fleshy ones of cyclists. The whole project is, in essence, one big thumbs up to bike commuters and a big middle finger to motorized traffic and the city’s drivers.

Prospect Park West bike greenway under construction, June 2010. 
The bike lane will also be lined for two way traffic (car traffic is only one-way), which means that cyclists who previously had to rely on 7th or 8th Avenues to go northbound on their morning commutes toward the bridges (or towards the pool in Crown Heights were I swim a couple of mornings each week) can now completely bypass those harrowing routes via the greenway.

Big credit is due to Mayor Bloomberg, who’s lent an open ear to transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, an advocate of bikes as serious transportation, and to Transportation Alternatives, NYC’s pedestrian lobby that’s put in tons of effort to make the city noticeably less hostile to cyclists. (A city source close to the project revealed to NYBC that certain drivers loudly bitched and moaned when they heard about the city's plans. The city moved ahead anyway.)  Previously, the city made my jaw drop with surprise when it created similar protected bike lanes along 8th and 9th Avenues in Manhattan, complete with their own traffic lights. NYC seems to be returning to it's roots as New Amsterdam.

8th Avenue bike lane, Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Jimmy Lin.

Most “bike lanes”, however, remain nothing more than painted street paths that drivers encroach upon at will. And, of course, bicycling will never truly be healthy in this city until air pollution comes way down. I was reminded of this fact when I rode into the City a couple of weeks ago on a very windy day. Crap from the street whipped into the air and landed in my eyes and lungs, which felt like they were full of gravel by the time I got home. True, most days aren’t this bad, but I wonder what might be the cumulative effect on the lungs of so much aerial muck.

Looking up, if the city continues to make life easier for pedestrians and cyclist, I might at some point begin to consider New York a nice place to live. Not just exciting and frenetic, but a place where a person might achieve a bit of spiritual peace by being able to enjoy a leisurely ride through the city without fearing so much for his/her life. Lots of work remains as safety is still a big problem. But credit the city, it's made solid progress and deserves a big THANKS!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Brooklyn Bridge vs. Manhattan Bridge: Which route into the City?

Anyone ever notice that the Brooklyn Bridge is a rustbucket? It’s true. Corrosion oozes from every bolt, girder and cable on the 127-year-old Gotham landmark. I’ve watched the bridge’s slow deterioration on countless rides into and out of the city, and a fold deep in my brain prays that the whole thing won’t come tumbling down, Minnesota Highway I-35 style, forcing me and hundreds of other bikers, pedestrians and drivers to swim for our lives in the East River.

My neurotic caveat about the Brooklyn Bridge aside, I’ll add that it’s THE commuting route for beautiful cityscapes, including a view of imposing lower Manhattan, and for people-watching. Bikers get to use the narrow upper level above most of the traffic noise, leaving us free to enjoy the view and dodge the tourists that invariably stand in the bike lane to take photos.

While the Brooklyn Bridge oozes 19th century romance, its neighbor a few hundred yards to the North, the Manhattan Bridge, is best described as industrial. The Manhattan Bridge was completed in 1909, when America’s steel industry was running full steam. The bridge is almost all metal and it has an Erector Set look. (The Brooklyn Bridge, by contrast, has stone towers, and the bike path is made of suspended wooden planks).

I always feel a bit caged in when I ride over the Manhattan Bridge bike path, which is located on the north side of the bridge. Maybe I feel that way because there actually is a cage over the path (to prevent folks from jumping off). The bridge is LOUD, especially when the Q train passes just feet away, and there’s no view to New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty to the South.

But the Manhattan Bridge is in much better shape than it’s neighbor (no obvious rust) and it’s a much quicker ride that’s smoothly paved and lightly traveled. If you’re into fitness, it also provides what may be the longest uphill ride in New York City as you come from the Brooklyn side. I can tell who’s in shape as I pass/ get passed on that incline. I get to work and my legs are pumped up. It’s kind of cool to know I got a real workout in the morning.

Aesthetics aside, there is a practical consideration when choosing which bridge to take into the City: where do you want to go? The Brooklyn Bridge ends at City Hall Park. From there it’s a short ride to the bottom tip of Manhattan and views of the Harbor.

View Larger Map
If you’re commuting uptown there are two basic ways to go. One, take an immediate right off of the bridge onto Centre Street. It’ll take you in front of the Justice Department and Court House where there’s a ton of traffic, but at least there’s a bike lane through the busiest bits. If you’re going to the West Side or just looking for a leisurely ride, take the first left off of Centre onto Chambers Street and ride clear across the island (which is narrow at this point) to the West Side bike path. It’s set apart from traffic and extends 15 miles to the top of Manhattan.

The Manhattan Bridge ends up on the edge of Chinatown (and passes over a good chunk of it). If you’re looking for a cultural experience, cruise through the neighborhood but realize that the narrow, heavily trafficked streets of Chinatown rival the Brooklyn Queens Expressway for bike unfriendliness. But the bridge does dump you into Manhattan a good deal farther north than the Brooklyn Bridge.

Two good ways to head uptown are to go straight off the bridge exit ramp onto Canal Street and head east. Go two blocks to Allen Street and turn left to follow the bike lane uptown (Allen turns into 1st Ave. when it crosses Houston Street). The second way north is to turn left uphill when you get to the end of the bridge ramp and continue straight across town on Canal Street, or turn right onto Chrystie Street, which has a bike lane and will direct you up into Little Italy, Soho and the Village.

Location is less of a deal in Brooklyn, since both bridges start in pretty much the same area (their entry ramps are maybe a three minute ride apart, at most). I choose which bridge to take based upon my mood (do I prefer a view or a less congested ride) and, depending on my destination in Manhattan, which bridge will get me there faster.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Fast vs. Clean Travel Routes Brooklyn > Manhattan

Okay, okay, I don't have a new job yet, which means I'm not technically a "bike commuter" since I don't have anywhere to commute to. But I do like to think of myself as a wellspring of practical information on riding the streets of Gotham, wisdom that I've gained on hundreds of round-trip commutes through the city in all seasons. I'm going to lay out my accumulated wisdom bit by bit in coming posts.

Today's topic: the quickest, safest and least air polluted routes from Brooklyn into the City (that's Manhattan for those who aren't intimate with NYC). First of all I'll say that riding in New York presents fundamental compromises for a bike commuter: in other words, a Gotham cyclist is not likely to find a single route that fulfills the criteria "quick", "safe" and "clean air".

Looking for a safe ride? That means you'll likely have to avoid the major Brooklyn thoroughfares and ride a more roundabout route through Brooklyn to either the Brooklyn or Manhattan bridge, the only links between the two boros. Looking for a fast ride? Then take the major roads, but realize you're putting your life in increasing danger. Your lungs won't appreciate the added pollution from multitudes of busses, semi-trucks and general traffic jamming on the big roads, either.

My pick for the FASTEST RIDE from the south Park Slope neighborhood to either of the bridges (which originate in pretty much the same place along the bank of the East River):

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1. Ride 9th Street (bike lane) west (downhill) to 3rd Avenue and turn right. Ride along 3rd Avenue until Bergen Street. 9th Street and 3rd Avenue are both wide open thoroughfares (by Brooklyn standards) with heavy traffic and well synchronized traffic lights that require relatively few stops. Drivers tend to drive so fast along these roads that you, as a bicyclist, will discover that you ride faster than you thought possible as you attempt to go with the flow and minimize yourself as a traffic target.

2. Turn left onto Bergen (it’s a one-way street, as are most non-major roads in this part of Brooklyn), which gets you back onto a designated bike lane. Take Bergen all the way to Smith Street, where you turn right. Smith isn’t the widest street, but it does have bike lanes that should provide a modicum of protection from frequent heavy traffic. Smith will change names as it crosses Fulton Street, becoming Jay Street. Jay will take you through the heart of “downtown” Brooklyn, a jungle of soot-spewing busses, rush hour drivers and pedestrians that venture onto the pot-holed road at will. Ride fast but keep a couple of fingers on the brake levers at all times.

3. Following three or four minutes along Jay you’ll come to Tillary St., where you’ll have to make a decision: ride straight ahead and take the Manhattan Bridge, or take a left and merge onto the Brooklyn Bridge. I’ll discuss the relative merits of travel along each bridge in a future post.

The total travel time getting out of Brooklyn is about 15 to 20 minutes. If you’ve made it without a scratch, your lungs will nevertheless be aching from all the crap you’ve breathed in, which brings me to my FIRST RULE OF COMMUTING IN GOTHAM: Get started early.

Rush hour traffic picks up significantly by about 7:45 AM as drivers rush to make it to their offices by 8. Plan to finish your commute before rush hour takes hold. A 40 minute ride into the Village dictates leaving home by 7:15 or so. Take this recommendation seriously.

SLOWER, CLEANER RIDES: If you’re not particularly competitive, type A or in a general hurry, you can avoid traffic by taking smaller roads and an enjoy a more leisurely commute through historic brownstone neighborhoods.

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1. Take 6th Avenue through Park Slope, rather than 3rd Ave. 6th Avenue is a residential street through the heart of picturesque Park Slope. Thus, there are relatively few trucks although you might find yourself stuck behind the odd school bus. The drawback to this road is that it’s relatively narrow so you’re more likely to get stuck if and when traffic piles up, slowing your commute. Ride along 6th until Prospect (the last place you can turn left before getting to Flatbush Ave, a major congested artery). Turn left on Prospect, ride one block to 5th Ave and turn right.

You’ll ride along 5th Avenue, a relatively narrow, heavily trafficked commercial street, for just a couple of minutes until you get to Bergen Street, where you’ll hang a left and join the bike lane. Ride Bergen all the way to Smith.

2. Remember, Smith is the main, polluted artery I discussed in the fast route. Smith is commercial and mega-urban, not a pretty site. It gets worse once it changes into Jay Street and enters downtown Brooklyn.

So, take this route (a painted bike lane the whole way - a Gotham city planner knew what he/she was doing): Once you get to Smith, turn right and ride 2 blocks to Pacific Street, where you’ll turn left (as I said, the bike lane will follow). You’ll ride two blocks to Clinton Street, where you’ll dog leg to the left to cross Clinton and pick up Pacific again on the other side of the street.

You’re now entering Brooklyn Heights, the chi-chi neighborhood of Brooklyn. It’s full of luxurious Brownstones that are furnished with the money of investment bankers.
Ride along Pacific two blocks ‘till Clinton Street and turn right. You’ll ride Clinton all the way through Brooklyn Heights, including its café-lined downtown, until the bike path dumps you onto Tillary Street. Ride Tillary downhill until you get to the bridges, where you’ll get to make the Brooklyn-or-Manhattan Bridge decision.

You’ll see that this ride is a bit longer and slower than the faster option, but it’s a whole lot prettier. If you’ve got the time, I recommend it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

No Job, No Commute

As of late October I'm out of my job as a journalist at a big time (but numbered days?) biz mag/web site in Manhattan. When I get a new job (hopefully one that I can bike to), I'll get on the blog.