Janette Sadik-Khan’s announcement heralding the arrival of Citi Bike labeled it the first new transportation system in New York City since buses. Bloomberg claimed the bike-share system will be an excellent complement to the city’s extensive system of trains and buses. I hope they are right. But if my experience yesterday was any indication, there is plenty of work left to be done.
Yesterday I attended a conference for work in Midtown, about 2 blocks from Grand Central. First I considered riding my bike all the way there. If I were coming from within Manhattan I might have attempted it, but it is a pretty far trip from Riverdale. It is only a bit further than my usual trip to 39th Street, so I probably could have done it in about 50 minutes, but the weather report indicated it would by pretty hot and I would have arrived a sweaty mess. Since I would not have a place to shower and change, I decided against that.
The transit options in the area are quite plentiful. The area is well-served by the subway, express buses, and, of course, commuter rail into Grand Central. Given the unpredictability of the express bus and the inconvenience of the subway at my end, I opted for Metro North, despite the fact that at $8.25 one-way it is the most expensive option.
I considered at least taking my bike to the Metro North station, thus avoiding the $2.50 charge for the rail link bus. While the station is at the bottom of a very steep hill, hills no longer scare me, so this could have been a viable option. However, I looked into the bike parking options online and found only a recommendation for secure bike parking lockers to be installed, presumably because the station is geographically isolated and bikes left there all day would be an easy target for thieves. I like my bike, and would rather not have it stolen, so this option was nixed, too.
Ultimately, I opted for the most expensive but most reliable option of bus+train. At a total cost of $21.50 and a door-to-door trip time of 1 hour, it really was a close call between this and the bike. In fact, you’d think that for that amount of money Metro North charges they could at least provide some adequate seating, but alas my train was completely packed and arrived at Grand Central with standing room only. I ended up spending far more time seated thigh-to-thigh between two other people than I have in a very long time, and I cannot imagine the misery of the folks who pay for this pleasure on a daily basis. If one thing is clear it’s that running trains every 25 minutes down the Hudson Line during peak hours is simply not enough.
I arrived in the center of Midtown in the middle of rush hour already harried but relieved that I had to walk only 2 blocks down 43rd Street to my final destination. And it was then that I realized just how much work really needed to be done to achieve serious mode shift. I did pass a Citi bike station right outside, but no one seemed to be riding bikes in or out of it at that moment. On my way down the streets there must have been 5 times as many people on the sidewalks as in the cars rolling down the street, yet the cars are allocated more than twice as much space. In some (most) places, construction limits the sidewalk width to a fraction of its potential. Walking down I couldn’t help but think that a truly drastic solution is called for. Ideally, I’d like to see a number of high pedestrian traffic cross-town streets completely closed off to cars and re-paved with mostly sidewalk and perhaps 10 feet of two-way cycle track and 10 feet of truck loading/unloading zone running down the middle. There is absolutely no need to waste all this valuable street space on parking and taxis that move slower than the pedestrians.
I looked hard for some cyclists as I was passing through, both there and back, but other than a few pedicabs and delivery cyclists I didn’t see many. “This is the peak of rush hour,” I thought. “Surely some workers will opt to bike to work here.” Yet the fact that so few do bike to work here is not all that surprising. I’m relatively lucky that my building is on the waterfront, requiring virtually zero on-street cycling. But the majority of people working in NYC work in the large office towers in Midtown, where even walking to work can be a contact sport. If NYC is serious about improving cycling mode share, far more drastic steps will be needed.