As anyone who frequents the Brooklyn Bridge promenade knows, it’s a war zone between pedestrians and cyclists. Usually, it seems that the pedestrians – by dint of sheer numbers and pervasive obliviousness – are winning. But last Saturday morning, as Gregg and I pedaled over the river to experience Summer Streets, the tide had temporarily turned: Bikers were trespassing in the walkers’ lane, rather than the other way around. The pull of the opportunity to bike car-free in Manhattan is a powerful one – in part, I hypothesize, because many New Yorkers, in particular many Brooklynites, are scared shitless of braving motor-vehicle mayhem – i.e., normal conditions – in “the city,” in ordinary time (as was I, not so long ago).
I was actually a bit ambivalent about experiencing Summer Streets this year, since it meant exiting the Better Borough for the Mad-hatter-house on a day when I didn’t absolutely have to. But by the time I was breezing up Lafayette towards Houston, I’d remembered why Summer Streets is a can’t-miss affair: Being accorded due respect as a cyclist – having all the room I want, with none of the customary anxiety – makes me feel glorious. It’s a glimpse of transportation Eden, of a time when the personal automobile will give way to the family trikester and the truck will give way to the freight train.
Not feeling fear, while biking the streets of Manhattan, is a big deal, both because it’s so unusual and because it has such substantial salutary side effects. I noticed I could sort of moodle along, absorbing the urban pageant, chatting with Gregg, feeling the flow of ideas through my head. For once it was enough to be alert, rather than intently and aggressively on guard. This, I believe, is a positive condition for citizens to be in. It promotes sociability, creativity, and safety.
Of course, Summer Streets was not entirely car-free. Every few blocks we had to stop and wait for crosstown traffic to lumber across our path. (I could swear there were more stops this year than there were a couple years ago – what’s up with that?) In RR’s considered – and completely unbiased – opinion, motor vehicles should be limited to crossing Park Avenue at the two-way streets (23rd, 34th, 42nd, 57th). Come on, DOT – let us sail! Just for these three days, just for these eighteen hours a year.
Just as the clock was about to strike thirteen – just as the combustion engines were poised to repossess our one thin ribbon of sanity – I rolled past the Brooklyn Bridge entrance to the Governors Island ferry terminal, for my first visit to the Coast Guard ghost town…which offered up one pleasant transportation surprise after another.
Governors Island is to transport forms as Galapagos was to Darwin’s finches. Set apart from the mainland – and in between all-consuming purposes – Governors Island has had the chance to develop a distinctive transport culture.
The ferry running from Manhattan to Governors Island hosts a bike rack as long as the boat (space for maybe 50-70 bikes). On the island itself, I saw only a handful of motor vehicles – and those I did see didn’t seem to be in a hurry. At one point I was able to pass a pickup truck, it was moving so slowly. Rather than honk at the walkers and pedalers slowing him down, the truck driver meandered along behind them.
The dominant vehicle on Governors Island (the pickup driver seemed to recognize) is not the motor vehicle but the cycle, whether equipped with two wheels or four. Bike and Roll has installed a vast rental fleet on the island, comprising hundreds of bikes and dozens of quadcycles. Each quadcycle has room for four big people on seats, plus two or three little ones in the luggage rack up front. I saw couples, groups of teenagers, and entire families getting their group exercise as they pedaled along the car-scarce thoroughfares.
The island boasts vehicles with odd numbers of wheels as well: Earth Matter deploys a customized Worksman trike in support of its composting operation, while Blue Marble sells organic ice cream out of another Worksman three-wheeler. In the one-der-wheeled category I found a collection of benches that are essentially elongated wheelbarrows, hence can be easily shifted from spot to spot.
For those who’d rather not walk or pedal, there’s a small, open-air jitney that makes frequent trips among all the island’s major points of interest. Since its motor is completely silent, I’m guessing it’s fully electric.
On the ferry from Governors Island to Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, I didn’t see any bike racks, but I also didn’t have any trouble stashing my bike – and I found the processes of boarding and debarking, bike in tow, to be pleasingly smooth.
If a serious conversation were to (re)develop about cutting off – or even limiting, or placing a price on – motor-vehicle access to Manhattan, lots of people would go ballistic. Which makes sense, if all you see is loss. But if you cycle (or walk, or skate, or skip) through Summer Streets – if you spend a few hours in the calm of Governors Island – you’ll get a taste of what we stand to gain: Safety. Sociability. Freedom from fear. Fresh air. Exercise. Exhilaration. Maybe – when a city kicks its addiction to “cheap” gas and “easy” transport – everybody wins.