First-time visitors to New York have a conception of the city that’s been constructed entirely by Hollywood. Of course, the beauty of New York is that it’s so very different from this artificial stereotype committed to celluloid. A perfect balance of urban landscape and green space, one of the busiest cities in the world, New York also lends itself to one of the healthiest, most enjoyable outdoors pursuits – cycling. And with plans afoot for a bike-share scheme, biking NYC is only going to get bigger.
Cycling in New York is rather less frightening than you might think. Despite the seemingly crowded streets and never-ending lines of yellow taxis, it’s remarkably easy to cycle in New York – particularly if you know where to go and how to best maneuver yourself.
1. Hooking up some wheels
Whether you’re in New York for a week or you’re one of those lucky souls who gets to stay forever, it’s easy to get started. For tourists, bike rental is cheap and easy and often comes with options or advice for organized tours. There are full service operations like Bike NYC or Central Park Bike Rental. Residents can find a good number of bike stores selling anything from secondhand or swish to the hipster fave, the ‘fixie’, or fixed gear bike. Although helmets are technically a legal necessity, you’ll find lots of cyclists eschewing them to protect their artfully disheveled locks – so it’s really up to you. On the other hand, with so many fashionable helmets on the market now, is there really any reason why you’d want to risk turning your noggin into a pulpy mess?
2. Find the Greenways
Now that you’ve got your trusty steed, it’s time to saddle up and hit the road. But what if you’re not ready? While most cycling in New York happens on streets with motor vehicles, there’s a comprehensive network of bike lanes linking neighborhoods and boroughs. In fact, New York developed the country’s first bike path back in 1894 and various coalitions and government departments still continue to push for better safety provisions for cyclists. If you’re a bit nervous about tackling the city streets on two wheels, find the Greenways, bike paths set off roads in the many parks that fill New York. The west side’s Hudson River Greenway is so heavily used that bikes have had to be separated from pedestrians.
3. Don’t be timid – but familiarize yourself with the rules
Although it can be tempting to breathlessly weave your way along the streets, like an underfed sparrow taking its first steps towards flight, it’s actually far better to breeze confidently along. If it’s safety you’re concerned about, you’re at far greater risk of causing an accident when drivers overestimate your ability to navigate their streets. You’re operating a vehicle, so you have to obey the road rules. This includes yielding to pedestrians, following the flow of traffic and adhering to the stoplights. Note: Watch out for being ‘doored’ – some older bike paths are set too close to (if not actually in) parking lanes and cyclists have been clipped by car doors suddenly opening in front of them.
4. Find a club
One of the great things about a city like New York is that it has the critical mass to make stuff happen. Consequently, there are also numerous clubs dedicated to cycling – from occasional enthusiasts to those for whom greasing a chain is a complex religion. A casual internet search will reveal countless options for social activities, such as the annual Five Boro Bike Tour which takes cyclists through 42 miles of car-free roads from Lower Manhattan all the way through to Staten Island. Sign up, make some friends and share your tips.
5. Have fun!
It sounds twee, but cycling really is about the joy. Whether you’re a recreational rider or a daily commuter, cycling through New York is just one way to remind yourself that you’re flowing through the veins of one of the world’s greatest cities. Explore the city above ground and get a fresh perspective. Even long-time residents of New York will discover things they never knew existed when they pedal past on their two-wheeler.
But whatever you do, don’t be that guy who rides his bike with no hands. That guy’s an idiot.
For more ways to navigate the city, grab a copy of Lonely Planet's New York City guidebook.