Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Urban Bicycling

It might seem strange that I write about urban cycling, as I live in a truly rural environment. I am, though a passionate cyclist and spent 25 years biking daily as a commuter in Manhattan, in all seasons and weather.
Before that, I biked in Toledo and Detroit. I always used a bike when I could. As a railroad employee, I carried my bike out to the middle of the Maumee River when I went to work at the night shift as a drawbridge operator.
I got to experience the major improvements in New York's biking environment when I was there in late September. When I lived there, biking was a dangerous sport. You learned to evolve a cab alert radar system and develop an enhanced vision movement detection system or die. I survived with only a few contusions and a dislocated shoulder...
Now, New York has added over 250 miles of bike lanes. A separate road system. To ride on Second Avenue to the intersection at Houston Street is pretty impressive.
The trails along the Hudson River, which enable you to ride unhindered from the Battery to above the George Washington Bridge is like being able to take a vacation in the midst of the urban insanity. I biked in comfort in places where years earlier, you almost had to cut your own trails anew each week.
It's fantastic that Manhattan has become a truly bike friendly place. Of course there are always those who resist change and cannot understand the necessity of pollution free and healthy city travel.
If you can't adapt, then the lanes seem to be a personal affront to your right to drive and park anywhere.
Then there was the protest by the Orthodox Jewish Community in Williamsburg who rejected the bike lanes because they brought scantily clad, sweating enthusiasts into their communities on the Sabbath.
I had a great ride in NYC along the Hudson using my buddy's new Elliptigo Cycle with no seat. I wouldn't recommend it for long distances, but we did a 30 mile ride and after a few awkward moments, I got the hang of it...I guess this is my "coming out" photo. Microdot on an Elliptigo.
Here are some other photos of the new bike lanes on the Williamsburg Bridge. The Bridge used to be a very scary place, in a constant state of disrepair and you never knew what you would find once you hauled your bike up the stairway....
Now you can ride your bike onto a beautiful lit bikeway suspended above the traffic and the subway cars.
But, New York is not alone as pioneering bike city.
It started in Amsterdam in the 60's with the idea of free bikes...an idea that of course was unsuccessful because it relied on the honesty of the people who took the free bikes.
I have seen the idea of urban "free bkes" working though. It started here in Lyon, France in the 90's.
Now with a little adjusting, there is a great Velolib System in Paris. The first half hour is free, you get a bike from a station using a credit card. Then you are charged a slight fee for any time over the half hour and damage.
I had a chance to take advantage of the system in Toulouse, which is turning into one of the most progressive green cities in France. The best new subway system, an extensive modern and green cheap bus system, a huge pedestrian oriented central city and a Velolib system which has been in use for 10 years now. The bikes are sturdy, with paniers built in for transport. They are a little heavy, but geared nicely. Toulouse is a relatively flat place so it's not a problem. Toulouse is also pioneering a energy generating sidewalk system which generates power by pedestrian traffic which is used for the street lights. On a dreary late fall day of nonstop rain and fog, I get pretty depressed. I am a solar powered being and I miss not being able to ride every day. I do try to ride when I can during the winter, but it's always an effort to psyche myself up. These memories go a long way to getting me fired up for some cold winter rides in the near future.


mud_rake said...

You are an enduring cyclist and I comend you for keeping up with the 'sport.'

Although I rode my bike everywhere as a kid, I gave it up for the automobile at age 18 and never set foot upon a pedal until I was perhaps 30.

Of late, I've been off the bike due to my leg injury, and now it is too cold to get on it, so I'll have to wait until Spring.

That Elliptigo Cycle surely is hard on the calf muscles. There is one in the gym [albeit stationary] and I cannot ride it for long as it seems quite unnatural.

Great story, though, of the many different paths that have been created for the bike both here and in France.

Here in Toledo one will be aqble to ride trheir bike along the old RR tracks from the Michigan line all of the way to the Maumee River in another year or so.

eneferri said...

Bravo for this post. There’s some wonderful footage of photographer Bill Cunningham fearlessly navigating NYC streets on his bicycle in the 2010 documentary, Bill Cunningham, New York. The film celebrates not only this extraordinary man but the intimate street-level perspective –more a philosophy - that cycling offers him. No wonder this guy had a different take on NY and its well dressed folk. Sontag could well have spoken of’ le cycliste’ when she wrote: "The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the finds the world 'picturesque.' "
Did the French invent le cycliste as well as the flâneur ? Ian Hacking, in his fascinating book Mad Travellers (Les Aliénés voyageurs: how fugue became a medical entity) says that cycling, in France, was the first popular (non-artistocratic) sport, and by the 1880s the bicycle became ‘the middle class sporting instrument of choice’. He quotes Dr Tissie who was inspired to take up cycling after seeing his first velocipede, ‘the wonderful invention that needs neither a horse nor carriage’ . The famous trapeze artist and cycling pioneer Leotard (after whom the garment was named) rode past Tissie’s village en route to Toulouse: “he went so quickly, on two great wheels, I heard the grinding of metal on wood, I had seen a velocipede." He was so intrigued he later became interested in the human fascination with movement and travel, hence his later psychiatric work with Albert, the first Fugueur. Hacking's book gives some terrific insights into the nature of provincial life in France at the time, where this mental illness first appeared.

microdot said...

enferri, you have given me a door into what looks like very entertaining research. Thank you!
Biking was very socially liberating here in France in the mid 1800's. I have heard that it was an impetus to women and their quest for equality.
Certainly, the greatest cycling movie of all time was Jacque Tati's Jour de Fete, with the intrepid factuer, Marcel. I have a copy of his late 40's short film called,
l'Ecole des Factuers....where he perfected most of the bike gags seen in Jour de Fete.
the Elliptigo is based on the elliptic training system and was developed for cyclists who have knee problems. I didn't find it so hard on my legs, it has a surprising gearing system. My arms, because of the different posture got tired!
It is not easy to get going on a hill....but once it's moving...
I should have mentioned my time in Toledo in early October. I spent every nice day on a bike. I was on the railroad trail that starts by the University...very nice!
I love biking in Toledo, it is so flat. I always go up into Michigan.
The streets of Toledo, when you have to leave a neighborhood are some of the most bike unfriendly roads I have ever been on with drivers to match.

And, what's up with this no helmet thing?
It seems like a badge of honor for motorcyclists to flaunt the no helmet regulation....
I know that Michigan has a strict helmet law....

microdot said...

by the way, the pics of the Williamsburg Bridge were taken by Mr. SR, who I spent a wonderful afternoon on a bike in Manhattan with. The new Chelsea Piers park on the Hudson is worth a photo essay in itself. Old ships moored along the old railroad ferry piers which have been transformed into veritable steampunk architectural fantasies with cafes.
Then there was the trip to EATALY!