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Rate of bicycle commuting speeds ahead in New York City

Oil price rise, emission worries help spur trend

A morning commuter traverses the Brooklyn Bridge. Many find that bicycling has economical and ecological advantages. A morning commuter traverses the Brooklyn Bridge. Many find that bicycling has economical and ecological advantages. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)
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Los Angeles Times / May 11, 2008

NEW YORK - The undulating asphalt gave way to a sea of potholes, and the bicycle shuddered with each curve and dip. Ahead, the Brooklyn Bridge rose in a long incline toward the camera-ready skyline of Manhattan.

But the cinematic quality of the city was lost on an approaching bicyclist, who saw only a tight grid of streets with thin slices of available roadway - spaces that momentarily widen, then narrow, in the anarchy of Manhattan traffic.

Only a decade ago, the few bicyclists who tried to wedge into traffic were seen as interlopers, scorned by city drivers and pedestrians alike - "granola eaters from a fringe movement," said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a leading bicycle advocacy group.

But with rising oil prices and heightened concern about carbon emissions, riding a bicycle no longer seems quite so silly. The number of bicyclists has grown by 75 percent during the past seven years, according to the city's count.

Soon an ambitious city plan will make it possible for riders to traverse Manhattan via dedicated bike lanes and circumnavigate the island along the waterfront. Sheltered bicycle parking and thousands of new public bike racks are in place.

"It's a new paradigm for biking in New York - a feet-first approach," said Janette Sadik-Khan, the transportation commissioner who has overseen a $1 million safety campaign that included handing out 10,000 bicycle helmets.

"The bike is not a hobby," said Sadik-Khan, 47, who cycles to work herself. "It's an important part of the transportation network."

Middle-age bicycle commuters like Amy Cohen and Gary Eckstein are more plentiful on the streets than daredevil bike messengers, once the dominant image of New York cyclists.

Every morning, Cohen, 42, and her husband, Eckstein, 45, walk their children, Tamar, 9, and Samuel, 7, to school in Brooklyn before commuting by bicycle to Lower Manhattan - a 35-minute ride to work for each of them.

As they pedal up the Brooklyn side of the bridge, their wheels rhythmically measure out the wooden beams of the pathway - thump, thump, thump - producing a beat overlaid with the occasional sound of a bike bell - driiiing. Tourists who inadvertently have strolled into the bicycle lane leap back. On the upward slope of the bridge, their legs ache from the strenuous ascent. Reaching the iconic towering arches, there's no longer a need to pedal. Descending now, faster and faster, the breeze grabs their hair and clothes.

Eckstein was once "doored" - hit by an oblivious passenger exiting a taxi. Cab drivers still drive aggressively around bicyclists. But among other motorists, the couple have noticed a growing bicycle awareness.

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