Out-of-towners often are aghast when I say I ride a bicycle for transportation and fun in Manhattan. They hear “bicycles” and think “EEEEK! Traffic! Potholes! Trucks!” I used to laugh and reply, “it’s a death-defying experience.” Now, I see it as a life-affirming one.
As a native, I have been biking the Big Apple since childhood. Thirty years ago, it was fairly terrifying. There were few bike lanes except in Central Park, where there was traffic too much of the time. On the main north/south avenues there was anarchy; I was knocked down several times by taxis.
In Your Bucket Because:
- New York is the capital of the world.
- You want to visit without expensive taxis and guided tours.
- You want to get exercise and tour at the same time.
Happily, attitudes have changed and city officials realize that bicycles belong. There are hundreds of miles of green-painted bike lanes along city streets, some of them protected by a physical curb or planters from moving traffic. No, it’s not Copenhagen, but it is compact, flat and weather-appropriate most of the time. Be alert, be visible, and take up most of a car lane in a street without a bike path. You may get honked at, but you will survive.
Your First Ride: Central Park
To avoid potholes, demonic cab drivers and clueless tourists (typically visitors on rental bikes who seem to have no inkling of riding a straight line) start within the friendly confines of Central Park. Cars are banned from most of its roadway (a total of 6.1 miles) all weekend long and most of the time during weekdays. You can easily spend a day exploring this man-made green playground. Signposts abound, but a map, available at park visitor kiosks and centers, comes in handy.
From Central Park South, walk your bike to the main loop road and head northward, counterclockwise. A quick rundown of highlights that I never tire of:
- The Mall (Center of the park from 66- 70th Streets), a handsome formal promenade by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvin Vaux. There is also a bandshell and a summer concert area.
- Bethesda Fountain and Circle (72nd St crosstown roadway), with Emma Stebbin’s grand sculpture of an angel rising from the pool. You’ve seen it in countless movies and TV shows.
- The Lake, Bow Bridge and Loeb Boathouse (mid-Park north from 73rd St.) is where you can find tranquility amid 8 million people. The boathouse restaurant offers a formal lunch or informal snacks, and rowboats are available for rent. I often join The Weekday Cyclists, an informal group that gathers at the boathouse to ride laps at 10 a.m. on Tuesdays, or to venture on full-day trips to Queens, Brooklyn, New Jersey and Westchesteron Thursdays.
- Belvedere Castle (at roughly 79th Street), an 1869 turreted miniature fortress designed by Vaux. It’s also a visitors’ center. It overlooks the Delacorte Theater, home each summer of Shakespeare in the Park.
- The Reservoir, now named for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, one of the many runners who frequently used the 1 ½ mile track surrounding it.
- Harlem Meer (northeast quadrant near 110th Street), a lake where you can fish (yes, really! catch and release) and even watch a flotilla of pumpkins during Halloween festivities.
When you rent a bike (Bike and Roll has a big station outside Tavern on the Green, 67th and Central Park West), ask for a lock so you can explore its walkways, ice-skate, ride the Carousel or even stop at one of the museums on its borders — the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Guggenheim Museum, and Museum of the City of New York, as well as El Museo del Barrio on the east side and the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Historical Society on the west side.
Rolling on the Hudson River Greenway
Ready for a more intrepid excursion?
You can spend another day on a protected bike path traveling Manhattan’s entire western shoreline, a total of 13 miles from Battery Park to the northern tip. The Hudson River Greenway system is far from perfect; riders must be on high alert for runners, dog walkers and other cyclists.
I use the Greenway as my route of choice to get almost anywhere from the Upper West Side. I love rolling through a kaleidoscope of scenes, even if the path gets clogged sometimes by passengers exiting a Norwegian Line cruise ship or Greenwich Village walkers who ignore pedestrian paths.
At its southern end is Battery Park and the ferries that go to Staten Island (free, bikes allowed) and to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island (No bikes; tickets must be purchased in advance). Several Bike & Roll rental outlets are located along the Greenway, including one at Battery Park.
At Battery Park and its surroundings, you can pedal though hundreds of years of New York history in half an hour. The circular brick structure Castle Clinton was first a Dutch fortress, then a fortification before the War of 1812; now it’s a museum. Flanking the park are two more museums: the National Museumof the American Indian and the Museum of Jewish Heritage
In Battery Park’s northeast corner is “The Sphere,” a metal Fritz Koenig sculpture that used to reside between twin towers of the World Trade Center. Shortly after you start your Greenway ride north you’ll see on your left BatteryPark City, a housing development built atop landfill left from the excavation for the twin towers. Then, what was Ground Zero appears on your right. For the better part of a decade it gaped like a wound. Now there is the 9/11 Memorial, solemn and touching — two reflecting pools with the names of those lost carved in bronze. (NOTE: you must register online in advance in order to visit on foot.)
As you head uptown, the evolution of the New York shoreline from brawny industrial port to active leisure space plays itself out like a living timeline. When I was a kid, the area consisted of wharves and piers teeming with trucks and longshoremen. My dad would take us for drives on the elevated West Side Highway to gawk at the luxury liners and commercial ships.
Today, you can watch the wake from tugboats splashing against rotting old pier timbers. You pass public tennis courts, a trapeze school, batting cages, a kayak center, a skateboard park, a helipad, the gargantuan sports and restaurant complex called Chelsea Piers, the docks for the Circle Line’s sightseeing boats, and the Intrepid, a recently renovated aircraft carrier at 46th Street that is now a sea, air and space museum.
Barricades separate you from the six lanes of vehicles on West Street. To me, the ride is a metaphor for a new urban renewal that accepts the melancholy absence of the towers but throbs with activity and ultimately blossoms into grassy soccer fields and sailboats as you near the 79th Street Boat Basin.
A Detour and Longer Routes
Early on, make a detour at Gansvoort Street in the former Meatpacking district, lock up, and stroll the elevated Highline, a repurposed rail spur transformed into a hugely popular park.
Later, if you’re energetic, continue along the Greenway beyond 79th Street, through Riverside Park, below Grant’s Tomb, past the massive Fairway food market, past tennis courts until you see the Little Red Lighthouse. Yup, it’s the one you read about as a child, now protected from terrorists (or maybe just graffiti artists) by wire mesh fencing at the base of the George Washington Bridge.
Still zip in your legs? Climb the steep, leafy path beyond the bridge and head for the Cloisters, the medieval-style museum in Fort Tryon Park. Or continue to the northern tip of the island at Spuyten Duyvil Creek, where you can picnic at the very spot (at least according toNew York lore) where Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan Island from the natives for $24 in trinkets.
It was a bargain then; by bike, it’s a bargain today.
- New York City Bicycling Map— it’s free and indispensable. Published annually. Download it or pick one up at the Department of City Planning bookstore,22 Reade St., or most local bicycle shops.
- Manhattan Bike Rentals: Costs typically run $6- $20 per hour or $25 and up per day. Click for details on Bike and Roll, with 11 locations.
- NYC Bike Share bicycles for rent in lower Manhattan and midtown below 58th St. plus northern Brooklyn. (June 2013)
- Rental bikes are available in Central Park. Toga Bike Shop, 110 West EndAve. 212-799-9625, is a shop with better ones.
- For clubs, riding tips, and events, visit the New York Bicycle Coalition Web site.
- Guided tours (Central Park Bike Tours, Bike the Big Apple) including bike rentals typically cost $40-70 and up.