How Hurricane Sandy Changed Biking in New York City

There are few woes in our modern world that a bicycle cannot fix. Are you feeling sluggish and sedentary? Start riding your bike to work. Are you on a tight budget? Biking is far cheaper than any car or monthly subway pass. Relationship problems? Get on your bike to alleviate stress and clear your mind before saying or doing something stupid. Looking for a way to reduce your carbon emissions? Bikes, man. Bikes.

The two-wheeled machines can basically do it all, and it’s borderline bizarre that more people aren’t riding them. To better understand the situation, we sought out Paul Steely White, the executive director of New York’s Transportation Alternatives, which is an advocacy group for bicycling, walking, public transit and all things non-car. Our discussion involved the city’s upcoming bike-share program, how Hurricane Sandy gave people a glimpse of life without a subway system, the frustration of arriving at work hot and sweaty after a morning commute, and what we should expect to see in future transportation trends.

I read that Hurricane Sandy destroyed some equipment needed for the bike-share program, and that the launch might get delayed. After being delayed once already due to software problems, do you sense that New Yorkers are losing enthusiasm for the project?

From what I’m hearing, the damage is not catastrophic. The system should still launch in spring 2013. And if anything, I see enthusiasm and anticipation growing, not bubbling over into frustration. Even while we wait, our bike network is only getting bigger and better by the week and by the month. Many of us in bike and safety advocacy see the day coming very soon when there won’t be a whiff of controversy about commonsense safety improvements to our streets.

While parts of the subway system were closed during and after Hurricane Sandy, did you sense more people were using bicycles to get around the city?

Oh, absolutely. It was more than just a sense. We and the city did our own independent counts, and depending on where you counted there was anywhere between a twofold to fourfold increase in commuter cycling in the days following the hurricane. Which is pretty remarkable considering that many people weren’t working at all, and that the weather wasn’t perfect. It actually reminded me a lot of the 2005 transit strike, when we saw a similar increase in bicycling. Many of those individuals who brought their bikes out of storage or had previously used a bike only to ride in the park for recreation discovered them as everyday transportation for the first time. They recognized how easy and quick it can be — just as quick or quicker than the subway or bus in some cases.

So what happens when the strikes end and the subways re-open? Do these people put their bikes back in storage?

We collected thousands of new subscribers during Sandy, and we’re following up with many of them to see what the conversion rate is, meaning the number of commuters who kept at it. So we’ll be doing our best to measure that.

Bike theft is a problem for cyclists. Do you think if more companies allowed their employees to park inside that more people would start biking to work?

It’s an issue we’ve worked on for years. We’ve helped pass legislation that makes it easier for tenants to require their building to allow freight elevator access. It used to be, not too long ago, that having a bicycle in the building was something undesirable. That’s changed 180 degrees where now many, if not most, buildings, owners and managers see bicycles as something they want to promote. It’s an amenity that an increasing number of tenants are actually looking for when hunting for office space. And that’s also something we’ve seen in the residential market, too. Prospective buyers shopping around the new condo developments in downtown Brooklyn, for example, are more likely to be concerned about bike parking than car parking.

Do you sometimes feel that bicycles simply have an image problem?

Yeah, I think there’s a very clear generational dimension to this issue, where to people of a certain age it was true, and still is true, that a car is a status symbol, a sign of being an adult. If you’re riding a bike, you’re riding because you have to, not because it’s a choice. With Gen Y and the Millennials we’re seeing a shift away from the car-orientated lifestyle and the car as status symbol. The younger generation is focused more toward transportation as a service and something flexible, not something that you own necessarily. So that includes car sharing and better bus service and both walkable and bikeable communities. It’s a beautiful thing, cause since the 1940s the car has been known as the American Dream, so it’s great to see the new generation of Americans leave that behind to embrace a much smarter, greener and, ultimately, more fulfilling lifestyle. I think people who grew up in suburbia or car-dominated communities realized how isolating it was, and they want to be where the action is. They want to be on the vibrant street; they want to people watch; they want to see and be seen; they want to engage in what Jane Jacobs called the ballet of the street.

If biking is as wonderful as you describe, why aren’t more people doing it?

I think of New York City as being a transit- and walking- and bike-oriented town, but some people are stuck in this view that streets are for driving, and to put a bike lane here or a bus lane there or even to widen the sidewalk somehow takes what’s rightfully for drivers. What Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan have shown New York and the world is that streets are flexible. There are ways to design and manage them so that while there’s still room to drive and park, there’s much more opportunity to walk or bike. This reinforces what cities were created for in the first place: transaction, human interaction and quality of urban life. That doesn’t just have to be for quaint cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam.

In terms of transportation, is there an ideal city that you use to measure New York’s progress?

New York is special because it’s so complicated and big and diverse. It’s unparalleled, and I don’t think it has a peer city. What we’ve done and like to do is cherry pick the best practices from different cities. In terms of bike-shares, the city that New York probably has the most to learn from is London, which is probably the closest to NYC in terms of population, density and economy. Also, the Barclay’s bikes there have been working quite well. We’ve also been looking to Boston and Washington – their bike-share systems are much smaller, but still very successful.

So what do you say about those bicyclists who run red lights or hop onto the sidewalk from time to time?

We want the NYPD to enforce the law, but what we’ve seen is a lack of discretion and prioritization. We’ve seen a lot of tickets for what I’d term “harassment infractions,” such as giving a ticket to a woman for having her handbag dangling from her handlebars. Or even tickets for not having a bell. I mean, it’s smart to have a bell on your bike, but it’s much more important to enforce against people riding on the sidewalk or going the wrong way against traffic. Really, what we’d like to see is across-the-board prioritization of the NYPD’s limited resources used on infractions that are causing the most harm.

How do you respond to people who say it’s no fun arriving at work all hot and sweaty in the morning?

You know, that’s a really common reason people cite for not biking to work. The fact is, the only way you’re going to get sweaty or to the point where you’re not presentable is if you’re trying to be a triathlete on your way to work. If you’re someone who has to dress up in a suit, bike slowly. You’re not trying to kill yourself; you’re not trying to break a speed record. If it’s a really hot summer day, I’ll bike to work in a T-shirt and keep some shirts at work. Maybe do a trucker’s bath in the bathroom or something. But if you look at how the bike-share program has gone in London, if you look at the number of professionals who are cycling, it’s just a matter of pacing yourself and not treating it like a race.

Whatever happened to the Segway? Wasn’t that supposed to revolutionize urban transportation?

Dean Kamen, the inventor, came in and met with us years ago when the Segway was first coming online. He tried very hard to pass legislation that would allow Segways to operate on city sidewalks, and we fought that tooth and nail because it was our assertion that city sidewalks are crowded as is. To have a 70-pound motorized vehicle on a crowded New York sidewalk is just not a good idea. He disagreed. We ended up battling it out with him in Albany, and we ultimately prevailed. But with all newfangled transportation technology, I think everyone is looking for the silver bullet, whether it’s a Segway or a pod car or a hovercraft. I don’t know about you, but ever since I was a kid people have always been promising the magic technology that’s going to save us from our transportation troubles, and it just never happens. I’m a big believer in what works, and if you look at other big cities around the world, most trips are less than two miles. Almost 40% of trips in our fine city are a mile or less in length, so let’s focus on some good old-fashioned shoe leather and bicycling.