A Nervous Biker’s Guide to Cycling in New York City


by Tom Wright-Piersanti, 2016


Maybe you are visiting New York City, and that rack of Citi Bikes looks fun yet daunting. Or perhaps there is a bicycle leaning against a wall in your apartment, waiting, but the idea of joining those fixed-gear daredevils on city streets makes your stomach drop. And besides, the honking vehicles, jaywalking pedestrians and idling trucks are enough to drive anyone to call a cab.

Whatever your trepidation, you can get comfortable on two wheels in this city. We talked to some experienced urban bikers to get advice on how you, the nervous cyclist, can hit the streets.

There is no law requiring adults to wear helmets in New York, and it is common to see experienced riders pedaling with their heads unprotected. But you, the wary cyclist, should wear a helmet every time you ride.

Kristen Phillips, an experienced cyclist, has always worn a helmet.

“I have a theory that people who don’t wear helmets haven’t hit their head hard,” said Ms. Phillips, a sales associate and the women’s program manager at Bicycle Habitat, a bike shop and cycling center with four locations in the city.

“There’s soft brains in there,” Ms. Phillips said, “and concussions are terrible.”

So what makes for a good helmet? According to a buyer’s guide on Helmets.org, the most important factor is making sure a helmet fits. That means it sits level on your head, making contact all over, and feels snug but not tight. Adjust the straps so that the helmet does not move more than an inch if you tug on it.

Bikes — compared with cars — require little maintenance. There are no fluid levels to check, and nothing that can catch fire. Still, when taking your Schwinn out of storage, make sure everything works. The tires should be full, the brakes should slow you down, and the bell should make a little “ding ding!” sound.

If you don’t trust yourself with a wrench, the professionals at your local bicycle shop can get everything in working order. At Bicycle Habitat, a tuneup costs $75, and will cover everything a casual rider needs to hit the streets.

The cyclists weaving through Midtown Manhattan, narrowly missing taxis and pedestrians, seem to have some superhuman ability to slow time. You are not one of those people.

Start off by riding in an area you are comfortable with. The first rides that Casey Ashenhurst, the director of the group WE Bike NYC, which holds group rides for women of all skill levels, took in New York were confined to the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Prospect Heights and Park Slope.

“I didn’t go anywhere I hadn’t walked by myself, so I knew what the traffic would be like,” she said.

If you long to see something other than concrete and metal, plan a route to your nearest park. The city offers a robust bike map, and Google Maps also provides bike-specific directions. Your planned path should follow designated bike lanes to Central Park in Manhattan, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, or any number of other city parks that feature safer, car-free spaces to ride. There are also lovely views along the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, which has bike and jogging paths that practically surround the island.

In a worst-case situation, if you make a wrong turn and find yourself amid rushing traffic, ride over to a curb and get off the bike. No one will judge you.

Parks are great places for nervous cyclists, because they can get used to riding around others, Kristen Phillips of Bicycle Habitat said. But, she warned, “Just don’t run any red lights in Central Park.”
Parks are great places for nervous cyclists, because they can get used to riding around others, Kristen Phillips of Bicycle Habitat said. But, she warned, “Just don’t run any red lights in Central Park.”CreditSuzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Laws concerning cyclists in New York are few, which means there is little you need to learn, legally, before getting out there. Here are the most important ones to know:

• Never ride on the sidewalk. If you get off your bike because of nerves, walk it until you find another bike lane to ride in.

• Riders can have only one earbud in. If you are new, it would be smart not to use headphones at all; stay aware of your surroundings. Sounds of the city are more interesting than a podcast, anyway.

• Your bicycle must have a bell, and if you are riding after sunset, you must have a headlight and a taillight. (But new riders should consider getting home before dark.)

• Obey all traffic laws. That means stop at red lights, follow turn signals and never ride the wrong way on a one-way street.

Serious cyclists have a term for new riders who go the wrong way on a one-way street: salmon.

“Don’t be a salmon,” Ms. Phillips said. “Salmon are not known for being smart animals.”

If you are struck by a car or are in an accident, do not move if you are injured. Call 911 and wait for the paramedics. Have the police fill out an accident report when they arrive at the scene, and gather as much information as you can. Take pictures of the damages from different angles, and write down the vehicle’s license plate, the driver’s name, address, insurance company and policy number, and the police accident report number.

Designated bike lanes are marked by green pavement and offer a buffer area (which is often parked cars) between cyclists and traffic.
Designated bike lanes are marked by green pavement and offer a buffer area (which is often parked cars) between cyclists and traffic.CreditYana Paskova for The New York Times

It is important to be predictable in traffic.

The official hand signals for bike riders — a straight arm to indicate a turn one way, a right-angled arm to signal the other way — can be confusing and hard to remember in the moment. An alternative would be to point in the direction you intend to turn, so there is no question as to what you are doing.

“If I’m in the bike lane, and I don’t know if the car behind me can see me, I’ll put my hand above my head when I’m pointing,” Ms. Ashenhurst said. She also recommended holding up a fist when you are going to hit the brakes.

“And if you’re not comfortable taking your hand off the wheel,” she said, “use your voice. Ring your bell. Make your presence known.

Cars are going to honk, and it’s going to be jarring at first. But, after you get over the initial shock, consider this: Getting honked at is a good thing.

“A friend said to me, ‘I don’t really mind when they honk, because it means they can see me,’” Ms. Ashenhurst said.

The toughest thing for beginning riders, the experts said, is the natural inclination to stay close to parked cars and away from the moving ones. In fact, those parked cars can feature swinging doors, sudden movement or pedestrians darting out from behind.

Fight your instincts and ride as far from parked cars as you safely can. Trust that, if you are following the rules, drivers will give you your space.

“People can be erratic, but they’re erratic in predictable ways,” Ms. Phillips said. “Drivers in New York are more present. There’s more happening, so they’re more aware of you.”

If the reason for your nerves is that you never learned how to ride a bike, you are in luck. New York City is loaded with friendly cyclists who want to help you fall in love with their favorite pastime.

Bike New York, the nonprofit group that runs the annual Five Boro Bike Tour in May, offers many free classes that include learning to ride as an adult, a street skills course and a how-to on bicycle commuting.

For those whose hesitation to ride comes from not wanting to navigate the city alone, consider joining a biking group for an organized ride.

Biking groups can keep you from getting lost, and they are a surefire way to be certain that cars are aware of you. In addition, the experts in the group can answer your questions, and the beginners can connect with one another. As a bonus, many groups plan their rides around getting ice cream or some other treat you will not have to feel too guilty about, since you are burning those calories on the ride home.

“If you’re nervous to be on a bike, but you’re with people who are confident, you’ll absorb their confidence,” said Ms. Phillips, who runs Bicycle Habitat Women’s Cycling, a riding group that caters to women of all skill levels.

Here are a few more options:

New York Cycle Club, the city’s largest bike club.
Five Borough Bicycle Club, which calls itself “New York’s friendliest bike club.”
WE Bike NYC, a group for riders who identify as female or non-gender conforming.
Fast and Fabulous, a group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender cyclists.

This is a great article concerning the rights you possess as a cyclist and what you can do to protect yourself. Many cyclists do not know the rules, which can aggravate other users of the road. As such, education can help us all share the roads better when we know what our rights are.