Things I've learned about biking for transportation in NYC

I've been biking for transportation for a few months now, and honestly, I've never been a happier person. That said, it took a while to go from very comfortable riding a bike around the car-free loop inside Prospect Park to no longer feeling extremely anxious riding on NYC streets. I figured I should share some of the things that I've learned before I forget that they're worth passing on. (I'm also curious to look back on these thoughts in a year or so.)

I certainly didn't magically figure any of this out on my own: I'm very lucky to have started biking in NYC with the support of my partner Matt, my bff Geoffrey, and many friends in Transportation Alternatives's Brooklyn Activist Committee and the #bikenyc community at large. I am forever grateful for their encouragement and guidance.

NYC biking basics/knowing the rules

What to wear

  • I dress for biking almost the same as how I dress otherwise for the same weather, but of course, I also wear a helmet! You will generally get warmer from biking than walking: I might wear one layer fewer, but I pack that layer in my bag in case something happens to my bike and I need to fix a flat or walk it to a shop. This is also really helpful when your destination is outside!
  • It's a lot more important to make sure your hands are warm while biking since you can't just stick them in your pockets. When I start wearing a heavy hoodie, I need to start worrying about keeping my hands warm while biking - even though I rarely wear more than fingerless gloves when I'm walking and it's freezing out. I also found this winter biking zine extremely useful for how to dress to bike in freezing temperatures. In my experience so far, the hardest thing about biking when it's freezing out (but there's no snow accumulation) is making sure you're dressed properly to bike in that weather.

Getting started

  • I rode a bike for fun as a child, and I used to ride a bike in Cambridge, MA a decade ago. At the time, the streets I frequented in Cambridge were a lot quieter than NYC's. I started here by riding Citi Bikes around Prospect Park with my partner and a close friend. The space for bikes there is wide and mostly car-free. Other large parks in the city have car-free spaces for biking, too, but Prospect Park is close to me so I can bike it everyday. It was a good place to get used to riding with cyclists going different speeds. I got comfortable biking while only holding on with my right hand so the other could be free to hand signal turns and stops. I practiced scanning, signalling, and scanning again as I turned without worrying about the risk of cars. I worked on keeping a steady distance from the marked lane lines until I felt confident I could go through the narrowest bike lane on NYC streets easily.
  • After I felt ready to bike on the road, I started by only biking to places I've walked many times before and knew exactly where the bike lanes were, what they looked like, and how they worked at intersections. I took all of these first trips with my partner or my best friend. After a few rides, I was no longer nervous about biking these on my own.
  • After that, when biking on less familiar roads, I made sure to take my first few rides with friends. When I started feeling less like I was riding along with them and more like we were riding together, I started feeling ready to do this on my own.
  • There is never shame in riding e-bikes, and Class 1 pedal-assist bikes (including Citi Bike's electric bikes) ride very much the same as traditional, non-assisted bikes but make hill climbing a lot easier. They also extend your range and allow you to show up to your destination a lot less sweaty.
  • I did not feel comfortable riding with my saddle (seat) as high up as is ideal at first. I am glad it's at the right height now (it's a lot less stress on my knees!), but I am also glad I let myself gradually work up to it (it's good to not force yourself out of your comfort zone before you're ready!).

Route planning

  • It's worth looking at the NYC Bike Map whenever you're planning a new-to-you ride as map apps don't seem to fully understand how to suggest bike routes based on it. The NYC Bike Map shows protected bike lanes, conventional bike lanes a.k.a. paint lanes, shared lanes a.k.a. sharrows, and signed routes. Shared lanes and signed routes are nothing infrastructure, and I don't find it useful to consider them differently from unmarked streets while biking. The map doesn't seem to get updated every time new lanes go in, so you might be pleasantly surprised to find a new bike lane that's not on the map.
  • Sometimes walking my bike on the sidewalk to go the wrong way down a one way road or just down a stretch that seems exceptionally difficult to bike is worth it to me. Sometimes, this is even a useful shortcut! I especially appreciated doing this to avoid making three left turns when I was starting out.

How to navigate lanes

  • You're supposed to stay in the bike lane when it's available and not blocked and you're not turning off that road.
  • Most protected lanes in NYC are parking protected lanes. They provide more protection than just paint, but not as much as the name implies. Drivers often don't pull into and out of these parking spots while thinking about the bike lane next to them, and sometimes, they even choose to make incredibly deranged choices like using the space between two cars and the bike lane behind it in three-point turns.
  • When there isn't a bike lane, you need to ride where you are safely out of the danger of being hit by a parked car's door opening suddenly. (This is also a danger in designated bike lanes, but you have less choice as to where to bike within the designated lanes as they are usually very narrow.) You also need to be visible to cars driving in the lane you're sharing, and if there's not room for a car to pass you safely, you want to take more of the lane so that they are not tempted to dangerously squeeze past you. Bike New York's "Where to Ride on the Street" video explains where in a lane you should ride to stay safe and be seen. (DOT's Bike Smart brochure, linked above, says you should ride on the arrows of the sharrows, but I'm not convinced that these arrows are always as thoughtful as that brochure claims.)
  • Drivers tend to speed and otherwise drive more erratically down travel lanes that are wider.
  • Long vehicles like trucks and buses aren't always able to see you when you're biking next to them, but their ability to see you isn't the only issue. One particularly dangerous place to be is by the side of a bus, truck, or other long and flat-sided vehicle, even if it is moving extremely slowly. If it moves into your space, you can get completely trapped in a way you're unable to escape - even if you come to a sudden stop immediately because, unlike with a car, it won't move forward clear of you. To stay out of this danger zone, you need to be completely behind (or in front of, but that's harder to control) these vehicles, not right by their window side.

How to navigate intersections

  • Gear down when approaching a stop so it's easier to start again. You don't necessarily need to gear all the way down to make it easy to start, and I figured out which gears I feel comfortable starting from in the park so I wasn't figuring this out next to overeager cars. Before doing this, I wasn't really sure which gears were easy to start from. Unfortunately, you can't gear down on most bikes after you've already stopped. Remembering to gear down while I was still pedalling and approaching the intersection took conscious practice to become a habit. I feel a lot safer now that I consistently start more quickly at intersections.
  • You might ride up to the right or left of a stopped car at intersections on streets without bike lanes. To be seen, you probably want to go in front of them instead of staying to their side, but don't block the crosswalk.
  • Some intersections have leading pedestrian intervals (LPIs), which means the pedestrian walk signal changes to walk before the traffic light turns green to give pedestrians a head start. In NYC, bikes are allowed to use the LPI, but cyclists should obviously still yield to pedestrians. I'm fairly comfortable using this interval to go straight or take right turns, assuming there are no pedestrians in the crosswalk. I still find it tricky to make left turns safely on the LPI since I don't know how long it will last and cars tend to be over-eager to start as soon as the light turns green. Also, some cars and trucks, at least in Brooklyn, aggressively and illegally use LPIs as their own personal left turn signal without checking for pedestrians or people on bikes.
  • There are two ways to turn left, commonly called "pedestrian style" and "vehicular style." I usually make pedestrian style turns instead of vehicular style turns at any at least slightly busy intersection because I don't feel safe waiting in the middle of intersections or crossing multiple lanes to turn.
Turn with pedestrian traffic when the light changes if vehicle traffic is heavy or when you aren't comfortable changing lanes. 1. Pull over in front of the crosswalk and out of through traffic. 2. Wait for the green light and then move ahead.
From NYC DOT's Bike Smart: The Official Guide to Cycling in NYC; if there's a leading pedestrian interval, you can proceed on that instead of the green.

Illegally parked cars and other obstructions

  • It's obviously terrible when cars or other obstructions block bike lanes and you have to go around them. It's also extremely dangerous for cyclists, even cyclists in bike lanes, when anything blocks any nearby lane because cars will often swerve around them - and into you - without looking. When I see one, I mentally prepare myself for a sudden stop, and scan the street to see if I can continue biking straight without a car coming at me.
  • Bike lane or no bike lane, you want to pay close attention to where cars might turn into your path. Cars don't always look before pulling into an open parking space or turning out of a driveway. Taxis, Ubers, and Lyfts often stop pretty randomly without warning, and their occupants may open doors without looking. Cop cars behave particularly erratically since turning on sirens (or not) seems to mean they can ignore any rule.
  • Buses usually don't stop for very long, so it's not always worth finding a way around them.
  • Bike bells, even loud, resonant ones, aren't as effective on their own as also screaming loudly when a car is coming at you or someone else. I take no pleasure in screaming at drivers (and the occasional stares from confused onlookers who were lucky to miss seeing the crash that almost happened), but it's worth it to try to keep a close call from becoming a possibly deadly crash.
  • Near misses truly freak my body out. I thought this would lessen over time, but it hasn't yet. If it's easy to pull over for a minute to take deep breaths before starting up again, I will. (It usually is.)

I realize some of this information is a bit morbid - after all, riding a bike in NYC isn't anywhere near as safe as it should be. I am generally an anxious person when it comes to doing things that potentially have very terrible consequences, so I really cannot explain how biking is the one thing that doesn't constantly flood my thoughts with anxiety while I'm doing it! Instead, it just brings me joy. It's okay if that's not true for you: you know your own comfort level best. That said, this is part of why I spend time on safe streets activism: everyone should get to feel genuinely safe and comfortable while biking!

Footnotes

  1. I haven't actually done this yet, but I am ready for whenever I have to!
  2. Cops and Parks Department vehicles drive through regularly, more regularly than seems to have a purpose. They usually drive pretty slowly, but not always. Their speed seems to increase when the sun goes down, and NYC should really think about replacing these cars with cargo bikes to keep our parks car-free. Also, there's a visitor parking lot in the middle of the park that's open from October to March and often is at least half full even though "cars, NYC taxis, and other private and for-hire vehicles are not allowed in Prospect Park without authorization." Parks not parking, please.
  3. Actually, there is evidence that painting sharrows increases danger.
  4. Before I started riding a bike for transportation, I didn't actually realize that I'd be able to see where drivers looked - or didn't look, as it were - as they were swerving into me!

Trashy Holidays from [the rats of] New York City!

This year, my household's holiday card will celebrate ("celebrate") one of New York City's most iconic images:

Cartoon-style holiday greeting card. A rat heads toward the feast of trash that's overflowing from a trash can. At the center of the overflowed trash is a slice of pepperoni pizza. The trash can has been decorated with a string of multicolored holiday lights. The greeting is: Trashy Holidays from New York City!

The back of the card explains why this problem is so commonplace on NYC's streets and says how we could fix it:

Piles of trash blocking sidewalks and bike lanes are as iconic a part of New York City as the Brooklyn Bridge and the subway, but it doesn't have to be this way. Sealed waste containers could replace a couple street parking spots on every block to ensure trash stays where it belongs - in the bin!

I've made two versions of this card that you can print on a standard 8.5" by 11" letter piece of paper and fold into quarters:

The "Trashy Holidays from New York City!" card design is licensed under the Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license so anyone can print it for non-commercial purposes!

Bridges 4 People

Since Summer 2020, I've been organizing with Bridges 4 People, a campaign of the Transportation Alternatives Brooklyn, North Brooklyn, and Manhattan activist committees. Bridges 4 People reimagines what the bridges that connect Brooklyn and Manhattan would look like if they focused on serving the vast majority of New Yorkers who walk, bike, and take public transit. Our campaign calls for reallocating two car lanes each on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg Bridges into protected space for cyclists and for creating protected bike connections to these bridges.

Earlier this year, our campaign had its first win when Mayor de Blasio announced a car lane would be converted into a two-way protected bike path on the Brooklyn Bridge (and the Queensboro Bridge, too!). This new protected path was installed a month ago:

The Brooklyn Bridge's new two-way bike path
There's barely enough space for cyclists to go single file in each direction over the Brooklyn Bridge's new two-way bike path and no space for anything to go wrong. The additional pedestrian space on the promenade is already filled!
My partner, Matt, and I riding towards Manhattan in the new Brooklyn Bridge two-way-bike path
My partner, Matt, and I would feel a lot safer if this path was at least twice as wide, but we were pleasantly surprised by the reduced incline of the roadway compared to the promenade.

The Brooklyn Bridge's new two-way bike path finally gives enough space to the many pedestrians on the promenade of New York City's most iconic landmark, but another lane still needs to be reallocated to cyclists so there's enough space for cyclists to truly cross the bridge safely. An 8-foot wide two-way bike path simply isn't a wide enough for cyclists riding at different speeds, families biking with young children, anyone with a lot in tow on a wide cargo bike, and unlucky riders who have to deal with their bikes breaking down.

There's a lot more work to do before our bridges serve the majority of New Yorkers who do not own cars, and I wrote an opinion piece, Brooklyn Bridge Bike Lane Is Only the Beginning of 'Bridges 4 People,' with two of our campaign's other leaders about what New York City needs to do next:

The new Brooklyn Bridge lane is an important first step, but much more is needed: Now is the time to build on that momentum with bold infrastructure changes. We are facing a record-breaking year for traffic violence and need a truly connected bike network across the city that enables cyclists to plan trips entirely along protected routes. This new connected network would feature wide protected bike lanes that meet national standards on all the bridges that connect our boroughs, including the East River bridges, the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, and the Washington Bridge.

You can read the rest of our opinion piece on Streetsblog.

Route: annoying insurance upsell or online shopping data aggregator?

I've been increasingly seeing an item for Route Package Protection automatically added to my cart when I purchase things online:

Route Package Protection item in cart for $5.15
I went partially through the checkout flow of a shop that uses Route with a $278 item I have no interest in purchasing to illustrate this post.

If you haven't encountered Route, it's a company that offers package tracking and protection for lost, stolen, and damaged products for online merchants. Route offers plugins that integrate directly into common online store software platforms, and since Route is set up so the customer pays, it's free for the merchant. They have a mobile app that allows users to track packages, and companies can advertise within the app.

Later in the checkout flow, I have the option to remove Route Package Protection, but if I do so, it would be at my own risk:

Route Shipping Protection from Damage, Loss & Theft for $5.15 next to an on/off slider. By deselecting Route shipping protection, redacted is not liable for lost, stolen or damaged products.
I hate to say it, but I really wish this was just built into the price of whatever I'm shopping for.

It surprised me a little to see basic shipping insurance, something that's long been built into the costs of online shopping and shipping options, has suddenly shifted to a separate, explicit upcharge for shoppers. Part of the surprise is certainly because paying for it directly as a shopper feels like I'm being charged more for something that should be a core part of online shopping. It's a little unclear what value Route provides since insurance is available through most shipping companies: perhaps, it's difficult and time consuming to make claims with shipping companies, or maybe, it's just a belief that the customer paying for Route saves the company money.

The other part of my surprise lies in this third-party service automatically getting all of the information about my purchase, whether or not my package arrives safely. In an alternate universe, Route would have designed package protection to be an insurance service that companies buy into and request assistance when something goes awry with a package. Companies might increase costs slightly to cover Route's service fees, but they might not need to due to insurance pooling. Companies would get to save time dealing with lost and stolen packages, but most importantly, this model would significantly reduce the amount of customer data shared with Route.

Unfortunately, that's not the route Route chose (sorry not sorry), and instead, Route is gathering customer purchase data across a wide swath of online vendors. Purchase history data has a direct value propostion for retailers and advertisers, especially when it's tied to your actual personal information including your address and phone number - the latter being a common key for advertising databases.

Route seems to realize this is a likely customer concern, and their Privacy and Data Security Statement (July 26, 2021) implies they won't sell your data:

When do we share it? We share personal information when needed to fulfill our legal obligations and when our vendors, business partners, and affiliates need it to perform the contracts we have with them. We provide further detail about our sharing of personal information here. We do not sell or rent any personal information from any data subjects to third party data brokers or marketing companies.

However, the extended Privacy and Cookie Statement (July 26, 2021, linked at "here") clarifies that your personal information is not actually protected in the event that the company itself is sold:

Business Sale/Purchase
If we or any of our affiliates sell or transfer all or substantially all of our assets, equity interests, or securities, or are acquired by one or more third parties as a result of an acquisition, merger, sale, reorganization, divestiture, consolidation, or liquidation, personal information may be one of the transferred assets.

Of course, this issue around personal information privacy and company acquisition isn't unique to Route, but Route is a relatively young VC-funded company, the exact sort of company I expect to be eyeing acquisition. VC firms specifically want companies to grow fast and make large exits, and one common strategy to do that is to get acquired for a lot of money. In fact, it's plausible that an entity might even want to acquire Route solely for the vast amounts of customer data it has amassed from the various online stores that use it to save a little money dealing with lost packages. Sure, it's possible that Route's investors are simply happy for it to turn into a consistent business and have no aspirations of monetizing customer data, but I'm not willing to bet that VC firms are happy to leave potential money behind.

Footnotes

  1. So far, every package that's been shipped to me from a company using Route hasn't required the mobile app to get the tracking number from the shipping company. As far as I know, you don't have to use their app to know when your packages will arrive, and I haven't installed this app.
  2. In the same thread, another Redditor points out that customers might "think about the issues associated with buying online just at the time of making the final call on the purchase." By the time I, personally, want to buy an item online, I've usually already thought very thoroughly both about wanting it and wanting to buy it from a particular place online, so while I'm not likely to rethink my purchase entirely, having to decide whether or not I can afford to take a loss if something happens to my package sours my experience.
  3. I've also noticed that some companies choose to use Route for shipment tracking even if you don't opt into package protection, which unfortunately means they're sharing my customer data with Route no matter what I choose.
  4. Uploading your privacy statement as a .docx on Google Docs is an odd choice for public consumption. Among other things, it was weird to see Route's Head of Information Security and a Sr. Compliance Engineer looking at this document at the same time. Maybe they were curious who the Anonymous Crow was?

Updated colors for the Library Blanket color palette preview tool

Purl Soho added some new colors and discontinued some old colors of the yarns called for in Joelle Hoverson's Library Blanket. I've added the eight new colors to the Library Blanket color palette preview tool I made last April, and I also labeled the discontinued colors as such. Hopefully knitters haven't already fallen in love with color combinations featuring discontinued colors unless they already had those colors in their stashes!

I also alphabetized the Linen Quill and Line Weight colors within the dropdown menus so they're easier to find.

Finally, I made a new color palette that used all three of the new Linen Quill colors and all five of the new Line Weight colors called "Featuring September 2021 new colors." Here's the new combination:

My rendering of the color palette featuring the new colors
I was pleasantly surprised that all eight of the new colors happened to work together!

Yarn colors:

  1. Line Weight Clear Sky (new)
  2. Line Weight Clover Green (new)
  3. Line Weight Hydrangea Blossom (new)
  4. Line Weight Lilac Fog (new)
  5. Line Weight Mountain Blue (new)
  6. Linen Quill Heirloom White
  7. Linen Quill Clover Green (new)
  8. Linen Quill Blue Pansy (new)
  9. Linen Quill Green Turqouise
  10. Linen Quill Blue Blue (new)

Color combo list:

  • A: Linen Quill Blue Blue + Line Weight Hydrangea Blossom
  • B: Linen Quill Clover Green + Line Weight Clear Sky
  • C: Linen Quill Blue Blue + Line Weight Lilac Fog
  • D: Linen Quill Blue Blue + Line Weight Mountain Blue
  • E: Linen Quill Heirloom White + Line Weight Clear Sky
  • F: Linen Quill Blue Pansy + Line Weight Hydrangea Blossom
  • G: Linen Quill Heirloom White + Line Weight Clover Green
  • H: Linen Quill Blue Blue + Line Weight Clover Green
  • I: Linen Quill Green Turquoise + Line Weight Lilac Fog
  • J: Linen Quill Blue Pansy + Line Weight Mountain Blue
  • K: Linen Quill Blue Blue + Line Weight Clear Sky
  • L: Linen Quill Clover Green + Line Weight Clover Green
  • M: Linen Quill Blue Pansy + Line Weight Lilac Fog
  • N: Linen Quill Heirloom White + Line Weight Lilac Fog
  • O: Linen Quill Blue Pansy + Line Weight Clear Sky
  • P: Linen Quill Green Turquoise + Line Weight Clover Green
  • Q: Linen Quill Heirloom White + Line Weight Mountain Blue
  • R: Linen Quill Heirloom White + Line Weight Hydrangea Blossom
  • S: Linen Quill Clover Green + Line Weight Lilac Fog
  • T: Linen Quill Blue Pansy + Line Weight Clover Green