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Alex Henry

Alex Henry

Posted: August 3, 2009 11:47 AM

On Running (or Bicycling) with the Herd


One of the curious features of life in New York is the way certain activities and establishments, appealing though they may be, acquire a popularity disproportionate to their merits, while others remain obscure despite their good qualities. I suppose this phenomenon, which could simply be called the herd mentality, must occur in any large city, and I mean no particular offense in ascribing it to New York. This trend towards trendiness must be at least as entrenched in a Paris or a London, and it is probably far worse (again, no offense) in a place like Los Angeles.

But the New York version is the one I know, and the one that has continued to amuse me during my admittedly brief two years of living here. It takes on many incarnations. One of my favorites is the long line stretching back from the Metro-North ticket machine or the ATM, next to which sits an unused machine. One assumes the neglected machine is broken, and sometimes it is. But on asking if others in the line have checked--since the screen appears normal--one often finds that no one has done this. An understanding has simply arisen in the collective mind that the machine is broken, and this understanding is reinforced by the sheer number of people in line for the working machine. To investigate for oneself is to risk a humiliation greater than the potential time saved by not waiting in the ten-person line. But then some bold soul will make straight for the "broken" machine, find that it works, and, on departing, leave the meek and wondering members of the tribe to migrate slowly towards the now-socially acceptable second machine. I hasten to add that I have more often been one of the meek rather than the bold, lest anyone imagine I think myself impervious to the powerful stigma of being Broken Machine Guy.

One could quickly list other lemming-like phenomena--Pinkberry, Williamsburg, Magnolia cupcakes, outdoor movies in Bryant Park--all of which, let me say, I like perfectly well. The question is not whether they should be popular but whether they should be so popular. But perhaps it would be more interesting to move on to a practice which is undeservedly unpopular. The example I have in mind is so basic and so obvious that I guarantee no one will get excited about it. It is--if my drumroll guy will wake up--getting around by bicycle.

I admit that for a long time I resisted riding a bike in New York, for all the usual fears: arriving sweaty, having my bike stolen, and getting killed. These are hard fears to get over but I have concluded, after finally getting in the habit of using my bike for transportation, that we greatly exaggerate them. Naturally, if you haven't ridden in a while, you may want to take some laps around Central Park or up and down the Hudson to get reacquainted with your bicycle. And once you take to the streets, you may want to start small--going around the block, for instance. Riding in New York does demand constant alertness: for opening car doors, distracted pedestrians, buses and taxis pulling over, and those cursed fellow cyclists who ride the wrong way up one-way streets. But provided you stay alert, this interaction can be a kind of game, and the awareness you develop in playing it lets you arrive feeling much more refreshed than if you had been huddling in the subway. You also will arrive sooner in almost every case. The website ridethecity.com, like hopstop.com for subway riders, can help you with your route.

As for whether you will get sweaty or have your bike stolen, of course these are risks, but you can do a lot to prevent them, in the first case by taking a moderate pace and coasting often, and in the other by using a really good lock and leaving the bike in well-peopled locations. My own solution is to use a bike called a Strida, which folds and unfolds quickly, fits easily in crowded elevators, and is generally a more welcome presence indoors than a full-on bicycle.

I write all this in the first flush of cyclomania, not having, like a certain cousin of mine in Brooklyn, pedaled through seven winters of slush and sleet. Whether I am but a fair-weather cyclist remains to be seen. But perhaps in my neophyte's enthusiasm I will be able to convince others that this way of getting around--which is still amazingly underused in New York--deserves to be given a chance. For some, this will hardly be news, but their numbers are still remarkably small in a city of eight million. For the rest, I say, finish that Pinkberry and get thee to a bicycle store.