Bicycles have always been a part of my life since the day I first learned to ride. As a kid, they offered my first taste of independence. It’s an independence that’s served me well for four decades now.
In 1989 I was was set to finish my undergraduate university studies. I couldn’t wait to get out of Michigan (and the a Detroit metro area). San Francisco, Europe and NYC were the options I considered as places to possibly pursue my ambitions and dreams. I wanted a place that would give me opportunities, offer a greater world view and also importantly- where I didn’t need to depend on a car.
NYC won out. I settled into my first NYC apartment in (Alphabet City/LES) in August that same year. I don’t remember exactly when I bought my first bike in NYC, but most likely it was purchased from the nightly “second hand” (read: mostly stolen, just as my previous bike had been stolen from the front porch of the house I was living in two weeks before my move to NYC) bazaar that crowded the sidewalks of 2nd Avenue in the East Village. In my memory, bicycles were always a part of my NYC life though I know that’s not entirely true.
Bike theft is, was and always will be a problem in New York. I’ve had countless bikes stolen from me. Occasionally, I’d get fed up with trying to maintain bike ownership and switch back to walking or taking the subway. It never lasted long. The bicycle was always the best and easiest way to get around the city.
In 1995 I moved to Amsterdam on a whim. Friends had been encouraging me to move to Europe for years and it had nothing to do with bicycles. Strategically, Amsterdam was the best place for me to give my dreams a chance.
During my time there, I never really gave any thought to bicycles. People on bicycles weren’t anything special or different, they just were. It was normal. I went through ownership of three bikes, each bought illegally off the street for the going price of 10 guilder. The locks I bought cost me many times over the price of any one bike. Each bike eventually made it’s way back onto the black market.
The year and a half I lived there was one of the most rewarding and at times, difficult things I have ever done. I learned so much from the experience of living there. Much of what I learned and experienced continues to define who I am today.
When I moved back to NYC in 1996, I had a rude awakening when it came to riding a bike for transportation. What I had taken for granted while living in the Netherlands was glaringly non-existent in NYC. We had no infrastructure, there were very few people on bikes and those of us who did choose bikes were treated like second class citizens at best. Each indignity I experienced had me muttering under my breath “I can’t wait until NYC becomes like Amsterdam and bikes rule.”
Honestly, even though I wished for it, I never really thought it would happen. The development of the West Side Greenway (NYC’s ‘crown jewel’ of bike infra) came first, but it wasn’t until the first on street stretch of protected bike path appeared in 2009 that I began to get really excited. It was like, “Wow! Where did this come from and can we have some more, please?”. Regarding the process and hard work that went into achieving that short stretch of ‘real’ infrastructure – I was completely ignorant. For all I knew it could have been dropped out of the sky. What I did know: it represented possibilities and it was good.
The “bike lash” of 2010/11 is what finally got me involved in advocacy. Certain interests were trying to erase the progress that had been made. Once I had seen a taste of the possibilities that could exist, I wasn’t going to sit back and let that happen without fighting for what I knew was right.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that this was bigger than just people on bikes- it was about all of us. Our streets needed some serious redesign to bring justice to the transportation inequality that existed and which still swings in favor of the automobile. Getting more people on bikes was and is a big part of that solution.
In campaigning for street improvements, I often bring up Amsterdam as an example of how we should be thinking. At one Community Board, I was asked to “Stop comparing NYC to Paris and Amsterdam. NYC is a busy commercial center and we’re different”. (Anyone who thinks Amsterdam <or Paris> isn’t a busy commercial city needs the wool pulled back off their eyes.) Other advocates have advised me not to mention Amsterdam again at this particular Community Board. I’ve been labeled the “Amsterdam girl” and apparently it’s a turn-off even to constituents who are becoming more “bike-friendly”.
I’ve also had advocates in other cities tell me that what the Netherlands have won’t work here because we’re different and <insert excuse>.
We have the answer in front of our faces and people still can’t see the forest for the trees. The Dutch have created the best bicycle infrastructure in the world and consequently their streets are the safest for all road users.
What works in the Netherlands can work here too. It’s not a simple cut and paste, but we can’t be complacent in accepting substandard infrastructure either. Companies borrow and share best practices from one another in trying to improve how their operations run. It shouldn’t be any different with designing complete streets and prioritizing people on foot and bicycle- we need to borrow from and apply the best practices of the Netherlands.
Myself and other advocates have been saying that the launch of Citibike would be the tipping point for people on bicycles in NYC. The phase one launch gave us 6000 public bicycles at 330 docking stations. As of June 30, 2013 51,772 annual members have signed up.
Since the Citibike launch I’ve seen a marked difference in driver behavior towards people on bikes in NYC. It’s most noticeable when I’m on an actual Citibike (I swear those bikes are like an automatic good will/ good luck charm) and in the areas where Citibike docking stations exist.
Those nearly 52,000 annual members represent a lot of people new to riding the streets of #bikenyc for the first time. It should become glaringly apparent to them how much our city streets still need to be transformed. I would hope that many of them (if not ALL – hey, I’m an eternal optimist) would join the begriming All Powerful Bike Lobby in demanding safer streets.
Speaking of begriming and the bike lobby- it’s time for NYC’s mainstream journalists and newspapers to man up and start writing more responsibly about how Citibike and bicycles in general fit into our transportation landscape. The Wall Street Journal and Dorothy Rabinowitz found their fifteen minutes of fame and gave bike advocates around the world the best unintentional PR gift ever. The lazily written hate pieces that the NY Post and Daily News print every few days to drive up page hits are getting boring at this point and to be expected. Now the NY Times has jumped into the fray of ‘click-baiting’ by printing a lazily researched piece on the ‘problem’ of congestion and bicycle parking in Amsterdam. They added insult to injury by choosing one of the most ridiculous letters possible to print and then ‘inviting’ people to a dialogue.
To the mainstream media ‘reporting’ on ‘bicycle culture’ in the Netherlands, NYC or anywhere else- it would behoove you to dig a little deeper and truly try to grasp what ‘it’ is instead of just reaching for sound bites that create controversy and increase your page hits.
People on bicycles are part of the solution, not the problem. Join our fight for for safer and complete streets. Who knows, you may just want to get on your bike and ride too. Everyone should have the chance to feel like they’re “King of the World“.
(Endnote: I’ve been back to Amsterdam twice since I lived there, the last time was 2006. Sadly, due to circumstances I didn’t get a chance to ride either visit. Next time.)