Cyclists fight for space on subway

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2008, 12:00am

New York

The daily changes in energy prices are giving America's fuel-guzzling drivers heart palpitations at a time when the threat of another rise in New York's subway and bus fares next year is looming over public transport users.

One of the immediate results of the energy crisis (and it certainly feels like a crisis) is that not only are more New Yorkers spurning cars in favour of buses and trains, but more are taking to two wheels.

'I've never seen so many people ride bicycles as I have this spring,' said Wiley Norvell, spokesman for the pro-cycling advocacy group Transportation Alternatives.

The city's recent policies may also have helped. In his environmental blueprint, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has launched several projects to promote bike riding, such as a three-year construction project that aims to add 320km to street bike lanes by next year, and a programme that has handed out more than 10,000 free helmets to cyclists since 2006.

These seem to be having the desired effect. With bike ridership jumping 77 per cent since 2000, the mayor's team won the unofficial title of the most bike-friendly administration from cyclists, and the city climbed from its previously low rank to be recently listed as one of the 84 Bicycle Friendly Communities in the US by the League of American Bicyclists.

But unlike some European or Asian cities where bikes are ubiquitous, cyclists have a tougher time competing with the more established commuter groups such as drivers, pedestrians and public-transport passengers.

A recent conflict has involved the mayor himself. When cyclists began to hit the subway in greater numbers, the mayor, who is known for taking the subway to work, was unimpressed. In his weekly live radio show recently, Mr Bloomberg complained that a bike 'is so big in a crowded train' and he indicated he would ban bikes on the subway.

The mayor's comment came at a time when the cycling community and elected officials are pushing hard for a lift on a peak-hour ban of bikes on Metro-North trains, and immediately triggered criticism from some cyclists.

'That's nonsense,' said Tony Jensen, a cyclist who boarded the subway on Friday afternoon with his bike. 'First of all, I never take a bike on a train that's too crowded. But also, what about people with large suitcases, or what about him?' said Mr Jensen, pointing to a man pushing a newly-bought chair through the open door of the train.

Now, Mr Bloomberg's view won't have an immediate effect because the subway system is mainly state run and the mayor has little power over it. Officials who influence subway policy such as John Liu, chair of the city council's transport committee, don't seem too keen on a ban. 'People have much higher priorities for space on subways than bicycles,' Mr Liu said. 'I don't think it's necessary to have a ban. [But] bike riders need to understand that if the subway is too crowded, they should not bring their bikes on.'

Mr Norvell agrees cyclists should be guided by common sense. But he also calls for better access to public transport for them - installing bike racks on buses and adopting the rental programme from Paris where people can pick up a bike in many parts of the city and return it at a point near their destination.

'Things happen. You could get a flat tyre, a storm, or you get tired. Mass transit is a safe net. It keeps bikers from being stranded,' he said. 'If the city does better on this, it'll get more cyclists on the street.'

Tomorrow: London