9 Things Travelers Should Know About New York City's Bike Share

New York Citi Bike share

As New York City's bike share program enters its third month of service, the blue cruiser bikes have already been absorbed into the city's daily landscape. Sure, a few wealthy people grumble about the docks being eyesores. But in general New Yorkers are taking to the streets, using the Citi Bikes as a quick way to dodge traffic, avoid ever-increasing subway fares and, occasionally, take advantage of a free spinning machine. Travelers can also take advantage of the new rides. But should they?

When I lived in New York, I owned a bike. In 6 years, I rode it twice. Free-flying taxi doors, lock-snipping thieves and a walk-up apartment that made carrying the bike outside more of a workout than actually riding it created a hassle rather than a convenience. But the bike share eliminates two of those concerns, and on a recent trip to the city I decided to give it a spin.
I started on Broadway, south of Columbus Circle, then rode (and sometimes walked) my way down through Manhattan and across the Brooklyn Bridge. This is my "visitor route." It hits many tourist spots: Times Square, Macy's, the Flatiron Building, Union Square, SoHo, One World Trade Center. But along the way I learned a few things about biking in New York that travelers should keep in mind.

1. Bike lanes are confusing. They've been the center of neighborhood controversies, but no matter your stance on the green and white lanes and no matter how well you think you know the city, it's pretty easy to get confused. Lanes end, shift and cross streets without warning. I tried to stick to dedicated lanes but occasionally had to resort to the sidewalk.

2. Yes it's illegal, but sometimes the sidewalk is just so much easier. You're not supposed to ride your bike on the sidewalk. But... per point #1, when a bike lane ended and I found myself besieged by one-way streets, sometimes a quick cut across the concrete was easier. Note: if you do this, play it safe by getting off and walking your bike.

3. Times Square is even worse on a bike. Ah, Times Square, the bane of most Manhattanites' existence. If you think navigating the mobs of tourists and Elmos is tough on your feet, try it with a bike. My advice: just as with walking or driving, go around.

4. Traffic lights are optional for bikers. They're not, actually. But cyclists in this city treat them as suggestions, pausing if there's cross-street traffic and continuing on their way if there are no oncoming vehicles. I can't judge. I do the same as a pedestrian, but on a bike -- especially the slightly clunky Citi Bikes -- I think I'd be dead meat.

5. Helmets are not fashionable. Duh, it's New York. Plus the point of bike share is convenience, and lugging a plastic helmet around in your purse all day is the opposite of that. Luckily, if you want to play it safe, one local company is now renting helmets to bike share members.

6. You will almost get hit by a car. On-street bike lanes are delineated by a white line that separates you from the speeding cabbies and city drivers. This line is not very thick. Cars generally tried to stay out of my lane -- unless they needed to pull over, change lanes, park or turn. There were some close calls with the side view mirrors.

7. You will almost hit a person. At least once. Between being in a constant rush and always looking down at their iPhones, New Yorkers will step into the street regardless of what's going on around them. The city even started painting the pavement to try to snap people out of their cell phone daze, but if you're pedaling more than a few blocks you're bound to have a close encounter. And if you're biking around Times Square, SoHo, Herald Square or Chinatown, fuggetaboutit.

8. The Brooklyn Bridge needs a wider bike lane. This is pretty common knowledge among local bikers, but riding over the Brooklyn Bridge will make you grateful your bike share has a bell.

9. Bike share is not for long rides. My ride was about 12 miles, a complete misuse of the Citi Bike. Designed for quick point-to-point rides, these bikes rack up fees if you use them for longer than 30 minutes. My bill at the end of the day was $38: $10 for the base fare, plus extras for the 2-plus hours I was on the road. By comparison, a subway fare between my start and end points would've been $2.50.

The Bottom Line: Bike share might be better for New Yorkers. If you live in a walk-up and aren't an avid cyclist, it makes a lot more sense to do the bike share than to own your own. Membership for the full year costs less than your monthly subway pass. Plus, you never have to worry about bike thieves again.

If you're visiting New York and know the city well, the program's ideal for quick connections that would take too long to walk. It's a little pricier for a one-day pass ($9.95 plus tax) but worth it to skip cab traffic. But for the non-NYC-initiated, biking in many parts of the city is a little harrowing, plus bike share racks up fees for longer bike rides like mine.

If you rely on a map in New York or are looking to see the sights, you're better off walking, joining a bike tour or picking up a day-rental elsewhere.

That said, if you're visiting the city and do want to try the bike share, it is convenient for quick trips to areas not served by the subway. It's great for accessing the High Line, a popular elevated park above 10th Avenue that's a trek from the closest subway. Likewise, Brooklyn is great for biking and Citi Bike docks are plentiful in neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights and Fort Greene.

New York City - Bike Sharing

(Music in video: "Seven" by bwatts, ccmixter.org)
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