Greenways are the absolute best way to get around by bike when they’re available. With beautiful scenery, smooth pavement, and no car traffic, what more could you ask for? But that last caveat, “when they’re available”, underscores a major hurdle to the wider acceptance of cycling for transportation.
I probably would not have started cycling to work if the NYC Parks’ Manhattan Waterfront Greenway didn’t happen to cover exactly the route I’d be taking. In fact, I, like most riders, was reluctant to ride on mixed-traffic roads at all initially. Off-street paths start up just 10 blocks of quiet neighborhood streets away from my door. Any further, or more heavily trafficked, and I may have figured it wasn’t worth the effort.
Just a few months into starting my bike commute, a friend and I decided to join Transportation Alternatives‘ NYC Century Bike Tour. Although as the name implies the full tour covers 100 miles, my friend and I opted for the much more novice-friendly 35-mile route from Central Park to Prospect Park and back.
For those who’ve never tried a charity ride, I highly recommend this tour. Unlike other rides, such as the TD Five Boro Bike Tour, this tour operates on open NYC streets in mixed traffic. In fact, much to my initial chagrin, the route rather purposefully avoids some greenways and off-street paths where available, such as opting for Riverside Drive over the Hudson River Greenway or the Central Park drive. This is done in part to better support the mission and purpose of the ride: to advocate for greater recognition and accommodation of cycling on public streets. For those who have never cycled on NYC streets and are afraid to try, such a ride is the perfect way to get started. Even though the route takes one through some ordinarily rather hairy intersections, being surrounded by cyclists dramatically improves safety and visibility.
Despite this experience, though, it was only after many more months of greenway riding that I decided to take my bike through the city’s streets on my own. More recently, though, after riding the greenway almost daily for over a year, I’ve come around to the view that cycling on public mixed-traffic streets must absolutely be encouraged. Despite all the advantages of greenways, the simple truth is that a network of such completely separated paths will never have anywhere near as broad a reach as the vast street network already in place. Of course, bike lanes, and especially protected bike lanes, must absolutely be included in the redesign of many of our major streets. But until those lanes are constructed, the best way to improve cycling safety is through safety in numbers. That means encountering bikes must become a regular occurrence for all drivers.
So now, with my new-found confidence to explore all the region’s roads on a bike (well, maybe not all roads), I feel free from the shackles of the narrow greenway. What will I do with that freedom? I’m not sure. For now, it involves exploring more of the close-in suburbs of New Jersey along my way to work. Wherever you may be, don’t be afraid to take the lane and assert your right to the roadway.