Despite its size and perceived toughness, New York City is actually a relatively hospitable place to bike—a seemingly endless network of new lanes is being perpetually painted and planned, and the arrival of Citi Bike has put thousands more cyclists on the road. Drivers, for the most part, have begrudgingly accepted that the popularity of cycling will only continue to grow, and that acceptance has heralded more accommodating streets than the ones of only a few years back.
Riding a bike may not require a license, but there are certain protocols to which all cyclists—green and grizzled alike—are expected to adhere. Let's discuss!
1) Start slow. You wouldn't just swim the English Channel fresh from your water wings. Acquaint yourself with your new favorite hobby on safe, protected bike paths: Belt Parkway, the Hudson River Greenway, and Central and Prospect Parks are in general safely sequestered from motorists, though of course you must always be mindful of the equally terrifying Texting Zombie or Erratically Weaving Child liable to dart unpredictably into your path at any moment. After some practice, try out one of these pleasant rides.
2) Be bold! As with encountering a mountain lion, you are less likely to run into problems if you make yourself a strong presence. Experienced cyclists advise to "take a lane" during rides where no adequate shoulder is available, which tends to discourage motorists from trying to "thread the needle" by zooming past you.
3) But not too bold: Drivers will sass you—some will get up right behind you and honk, others will tell you to get out of the way. Such confrontations can be cathartic, as nothing starts your day quite like engaging in fisticuffs with the owner of a Dodge Neon. Some days, you might silently relent to drivers swerving in front of you; other, more fiery days, you will bang on their windshield with your clenched fist and shout expletives. This can be great fun until you consider the possibility of a handgun hidden in the center console. Bang with caution, or don't bang at all. Remember: you have something to live for (right?), while the psychopathic stranger in the Focus may not.
3) Watch the right hook. Most cycling accidents occur at intersections, so approach them with an abundance of caution. One big thing to watch out for is the "right hook," which is when a motorist—particularly a truck driver with bad blind spots—passing on your left obliviously turns right into an intersection as you're pedaling through. Be aware of vehicles zooming up behind you whenever you're reaching an intersection, and make eye contact with drivers in the oncoming lane waiting to make a turn.
4) Beware the door zone.The door zone is that dangerous space spanning about four feet from the sides of parallel parked cars. Stay toward the outer edge of this zone, and always be aware that these doors could pop at any moment. There have been too many heartbreaking deaths and injuries to cyclists who swerve to avoid an opening door and get run over by a passing bus or truck, so if a car door is suddenly flung open in your path and it's too late to stop, you're usually better off just running into it, rather than trying to swerve around it. And don't bike between an idling cab and the curb; there's probably someone about to get out.
5) Obey good bike etiquette. Don't give your fellow cyclists a bad name by behaving like a jackass. There are certain practices that everyone, even fledgling cyclists, should follow, and the majority of them are contained here.
6) Do not talk on your cell phone. Ever! EVER. Also do not juggle flaming knives while cycling or tote your pet giraffes under an overpass...while cycling. In fact, the only activity in which you should engage while cycling is cycling.
7) You get ONE (1) earbud. Frankly, you should be attentively listening for sounds like honks or crunching metal or blood-curdling screams, but if you truly cannot pass your commute without the soulful croons of Duncan Sheik, then do so with a maximum one embedded earbud. Alternatively, you can hum as loud as you want!
8) Be excessively safe. Contrary to apparent logic, cycling is a great activity for people suffering from crippling anxiety. Why? Tim Kreider expressed the thought process impeccably in an essay for the NYT a couple years back:
Which is why it’s such a relief, an exhilarating joy, to break the clammy paralysis of worry and place yourself at last in real physical danger. Even though it’s the time when I am at most immediate risk, riding my bike in Manhattan traffic is also one of the only times when I am never anxious or afraid — not even when a cab door swings open right in front of me, some bluetoothed doofus strides into my path, or a dump truck’s fender drifts within an inch of my leg. At those moments fear is a low neurological priority that would only interfere with my reaction time, like a panicky manager shoved aside by competent, grim-faced engineers in a crisis.
Biking in New York City is dangerous; anyone who tells you otherwise is probably dead or will be soon. There is no such thing as exercising too much caution. Oh, you're in a one way bike lane? Some asshole is invariably headed straight toward you on his cell phone. Oh, the bike lane is protected? Beware of the cop car parked in it. Don't even get me started on the joggers.
The point is that when cycling, you must always assume that sudden, unpredictable death is mere inches or seconds away. Envision every terrible thing that can happen, and proceed as though it will. There's probably not a car hurtling around that corner, but slow down and check anyway! That child weaving maniacally in front of you probably won't suddenly veer 15 feet to the left, but offer excessive, even obnoxiously wide berth anyway!
You cannot always stop The Bad Thing from happening, but when it does happen, you will be ready. Get yourself a pair of front and back lights, and a bell.