By a quirk of fate, I spend quite a bit of time in a suburbs of Queens, New York. Queens New York has many good things going for it; it is a vibrant, tolerant and accepting place. But, for cyclists, let us just say – it is the opposite of Amsterdam.
Quite a few people in the meditation group have a bicycle, but they really venture beyond a 1 mile radius. As a keener cyclist, I’m often venturing further into the suburbs and so I get the full Queens cycling experience. These are a few observations from cycling in Queens.
- Very few people cycle. When you are cycling – you rarely see anyone else cycling – (though it is still more than 10 years ago). If 0.2% of journeys are made by bicycle, I’d be surprised. In Manhattan cyclists are much more common. But, by comparison in the suburbs of Queens, cycling is very low.
- There is a very good reason why cycling is not popular. It is dangerous. If there are statistics to prove it’s not dangerous – it definitely feels dangerous. You need strong nerves, awareness and a lot more as well.
Union Turnpike is a good example of a nightmare road for cyclists. Three lanes on either side. Cars speeding. It is not a highway, it is a local road, but it feels like a highway with traffic lights every 100 metres. Because it is a wide boulevard – it would be ideal for creating an Amsterdam style cycling infrastructure, if the will was there.
- You have to get used to the fact that cars will frequently beep you – just for being on the road. I wouldn’t be surprised if some motorists actually thought cyclists shouldn’t be there. At first you feel indignant when you get beeped. But, then you realise that’s just the way motorists are here. Don’t take it personally.
- The standard of driving is appalling. Whenever you look at drivers, they are invariably texting on mobile phones, drinking or eating some dunkin donuts. There is this frenetic energy of New York. Everyone is doing two things at once. It is a bad combination for road safety.
- Nearly 50% of cars seem to have dints from accidents – hardly an encouraging sign.
- It’s hard to know where to cycle. I was quite conscious of a cyclist who recently got killed on Union Turnpike because a car door opened into his path (bike snob). You can guarantee drivers won’t look for cyclists when opening car doors. Therefore, you have to stay out of that zone where car doors can open any moment. However, if you cycle away from car doors, you will get cars beeping you for being too far out into the road – despite two lanes for cars.
- The idea of slowing down to safely pass cyclists doesn’t exist in the mindset of drivers. The only thought is to squeeze past and maintain their speed.
- There are no traffic calming measures, no speed cameras. no sensible urban speed limit.
- Different rules apply. I found myself doing things in Queens, that I would never do back in England. The over-riding emotion of cycling in Queens is one of survival. I got so fed up with cycling on Union Turnpike, I found myself looking for quieter back roads and choosing the safety of the sidewalk (pavement). I don’t believe in cycling on pavements. But, here in Queens survival feels more important than living to the letter of the law. I don’t mind people criticising me, as long as I’m alive to hear the criticism.
- The strange thing is that using the pavement never raised even an eyebrow. This is partly because I have an aversion to cycling on pavements so I always cycled very slowly, and gave way to pedestrians. But, also because cyclists are so rare, it was rather a novelty for a cyclist to be around anywhere. If there was more than 1 cyclist per hour, perhaps cycling on the pavements wouldn’t work. The irony is that if you use the road, you will get cars frequently honking the horn to say ‘get off the road’. But, when you use the pavement, you don’t get any grief at all. Again, because cycling is such a minority activity, it wouldn’t surprise me if the locals actually thought cyclists should be on the pavement rather than road.
- When I went for a training ride with another cyclist, we rode down Union Turnpike, and it was much better. With two of us, we took up the whole lane. But, it was Saturday morning, quieter and easy to do this.
- There are red lights every 100 metres in New York. A good person would never go through red lights, and in England I don’t - but in NY, you’re always thinking what is the best chance of survival? Often that is getting ahead of the junction and not getting caught in between cars. I soon had no qualms about going through red lights if it was clear and safe.
So glad to get back to the relative civilisation of Oxford. Oxford has many failings. But, at least you feel cyclists have a reasonable chance of cycling on the roads.