A perfect balance of urban landscape and green space, New York City lends itself to one of the healthiest, most enjoyable outdoor pursuits: cycling.
It may come as a surprise to those who still envision the Big Apple as a gritty no-go zone for pedalers, but New Yorkers and visitors alike have discovered the joys of zipping around on two wheels – and helped transform the city into a cycling haven in the process.
New York has hundreds of miles of bike lanes and one of the largest bike-sharing programs in North America. Demand only increased during the pandemic, as residents turned in their Metrocards in droves, opting instead to travel across the five boroughs by bike.
Though it's not without its perils, riding in NYC is rather less frightening than you might think. Despite the busy streets and seemingly endless stream of yellow taxis, it’s remarkably easy to bike here – particularly if you know where to go and how to best maneuver yourself.
Getting your wheels is easy
Whether you’re in New York for a week or one of those lucky souls who gets to stay forever, it’s simple to get started.
For a quick jaunt across town, Citi Bike is the best option. Launched in 2013, this bike-sharing program has hundreds of self-service kiosks scattered around the city. Here's how it works: purchase a single ride or a 24-hour access pass at any Citi Bike kiosk. You will then be given a five-digit code to unlock a bike.
Return the bike to any station within 30 minutes to avoid incurring extra fees. To check out a bike again, reinsert your credit card (you won't be charged) and follow the prompts. If you opted for the day pass, you can make an unlimited number of 30-minute check-outs during those 24 hours. Annual memberships are also available.
For longer jaunts, bike rental is cheap and easy and often comes with options for organized tours. There are full-service operations like Bike Rent NYC or Bike Rental Central Park, both located near Central Park. There are also loads of places to buy bikes, including Brooklyn Flea, one of the best places to browse for a secondhand option. Wearing a helmet is, of course, strongly recommended – and required by law for children under the age of 13. Every bike shop sells them, with plenty of stylish options for maintaining those artfully disheveled locks.
Greenways are a smart place to start
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 cars, 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 governmental departments continue to push for better safety provisions for cyclists.
If you’re nervous about tackling the city streets on two wheels, find the Greenways – bike paths set away from the road in New York's many parks. The west side’s Hudson River Greenway is so heavily used that bikes have had to be separated from pedestrians.
Don’t be timid, but familiarize yourself with the rules
Although it can be tempting to weave your way through the streets, it’s actually far better to breeze confidently along. If you're concerned about safety, 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 quite a few cyclists have been clipped by passengers suddenly opening car doors in front of them.
Find a club and pedal in good company
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 numerous clubs dedicated to cycling, from occasional enthusiasts to those for whom greasing a chain is a complex religion. A casual 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.
Don't forget to have fun!
It sounds corny, 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.
Regis St Louis also contributed to this article, which was originally published in 2011 and updated in October 2020.