Biking in New York City

For four months, I biked everywhere in NYC. Here's what I learned.

Last month, I said an unceremonious farewell to my bike. I asked a lot from it over the course of the four months I owned it and, as fall turned into winter, it held up remarkably well. It wasn’t the best, but I did feel oddly sentimental about letting it go.

I had to sell my bike because I was coming to the end of my second four-month stint in New York and had to move back to Canada. I really enjoyed my first term there, but going into my second term, there were a few things I knew I didn’t want to repeat. Among them was my commute to work; although the 30 minute subway is by no means the worst I’ve heard of, it left me feeling drained and unfocused by the time I got into the office. To temper my distaste for transit, I turned to two-wheeled transportation. I was going to buy a bike.

About a week after moving in, I turned to Marketplace to try my luck at finding something usable. With my fixed time frame, I was looking for something bare-bones; all it had to do was get me to and from work reliably. What I ended up getting was certainly bare-bones: a “pre-owned” (to put it kindly), black-and-yellow paddle-shifter with a light frame and a flat back tire. It set me back 50 bucks. Adding a helmet and a lock tacked on an extra $40 and repairing the flat tire was another $20 for a total cost of $110. All told, the bike and added accessories set me back less than a one-month transit pass would have. Off to a good start.

Me and the bike.

In early September, I was ready to take on the road.

The Commute To Work, via 1st Avenue

Route to work

My apartment this term was in the East Village, a few blocks away from the Union Square subway station that I would have otherwise used to get uptown. My commuting choices by bike were either to brave the bike-lane-less 3rd Avenue or take a 5 minute detour to 1st Avenue’s separated green lane for cyclists. Not brave enough to risk my life just yet, I chose the latter.

While not a particularly scenic route, the bike transformed my commute from something that I used to dread to something I would cherish. The 1st Avenue route took me along the East River past the UN Headquarters that would host Greta Thunberg and the UN Climate Action Summit during my stay there. Once past the headquarters, a left turn onto 49th took me the rest of the way to my building on Madison Avenue.

The UN Headquarters, as seen from my bike to work along 1st Avenue.

The 1st Avenue commute was great for dipping my toes into biking in Manhattan. When I started in September, the omnipresent delivery drivers were far outnumbered by other inexperienced commuters like myself. Many ride CitiBikes, a New York bike sharing program that my girlfriend used extensively. CitBikes are great for casual commuters but are notorious for their slow speeds and impossible turning radius. I was grateful that my bike was able to gain enough steam along the greenway to blow past the rush hour crowds. I was able to get door-to-door consistently in under 20 minutes, a feat unparalleled by any other method of transportation available.

The 1st Avenue commute also introduced me to the daily jockeying for space that NYC cyclists do with the cars, cabs, scooters and pedestrians they share the road with. Although the bike lane on 1st Avenue has an empty lane separating it from traffic, it’s often blocked by parked cars, delivery trucks and naive pedestrians who wander accidentally into the road. The bike lane runs along the left side of the road and cars will often make left turns without first checking for oncoming bikes. To bike safely, it was essential to adopt the “defensive driving” mindset that my parents talked about while living in Doha; don’t predict what others will do on the road because they’re often unpredictable. Instead, put yourself in a position to react quickly to any unexpected (or downright illegal) maneuvers. The adrenaline from keeping track of everyone else on the road replaced any morning caffeine I might have otherwise needed.

The Commute From Work, via 2nd Avenue

Route home from work

Most New York streets are one way, which meant I had to take the southbound 2nd Avenue route when returning downtown after work. 2nd Avenue has a separated bike line as well, although this one inexplicably cuts out between 34th and 46th. The 12-block stretch sans-bike-lane was consistently the most stressful and unpleasant part of my day. The road is uneven and pockmarked by potholes; both flat tires I got while in the city were a direct consequence of this stretch of road. The disappearance of the bike lane is sudden and unexpected, throwing unwitting cyclists into a sea of lane-changing vehicles trying desperately to make a left turn onto the Queensboro bridge and willing to go through anyone in their path in order to make it happen. 2nd Avenue’s only redeeming quality was that its lawlessness allowed for some absolutely blistering times; normally I could count on being home less than 15 minutes after leaving the office.

In addition to fighting for space with cars, there’s also the other cyclists to worry about. The disappearance of the bike lane brings with it an abandonment of any laws, rules or common courtesies one would expect from a citizens of a “world-class” city. Without a lane to restrict them, cyclists began changing lanes with even more fervor (and less signaling) than was common from the cars we share the road with.

I’m not absolving myself from poor driving habits by any means, and I suspect many of the 2nd Avenue bikers would have been quite reasonable and pleasant people had I met them in any other context. We were victims of circumstance, our bike lane replaced by haphazard painted bike icons put down in random lanes and promptly ignored by everyone involved. We weaved in and out of traffic not out of sheer anarchic spirit but instead out of necessity, doing our best to carve out enough of a personal bubble amidst the traffic to be acknowledged by the cars or, at the very least, to be left alone.

2nd Avenue, you won’t be missed.

McCarren Park, via the Williamsburg Bridge

Route to McCarren Park across the Williamsburg Bridge

On Monday nights, my schedule featured a four-hour ultimate frisbee extravaganza: NYU practice from 6 to 8 followed by pickup games from 8 until no one wanted to play anymore. Field space is notoriously hard to find in New York, especially for relatively niche sports like ultimate. Typical fields that were available were either in far-flung corners of Manhattan (Riverside Park, East 125th Street, East River Park) or even further into other boroughs (McCarren, Sternberg, and Prospect parks, Randall’s island). Getting any field space at all was a miracle and people were willing to go to incredible lengths to make it worthwhile. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I played in a one-day tournament that was highlighted by constant sleet, hail, and near-freezing temperatures on an outdoor turf field. Nearly 80 people showed up.

Pier 40, the venue for the tournament, is covered by hail and ultimate frisbee players.

All that to say that I was dedicated to going to as many Mondays as possible. McCarren park is in Brooklyn but was actually reasonably close to my apartment, taking just under half an hour to get there by bike. And what a bike it was. It starts by going Downtown until Delancey street and turning left onto the bridge. The bridge has two fairly steep sections but getting to the top is normally fairly quick. I was motivated not only by ultimate but also by what I think might be one of the best views of the city; from the Williamsburg bridge, the entire Manhattan skyline is visible and looks absolutely incredible at nighttime. From there, it’s a quick shot up a quiet Brooklyn street to get to McCarren.

The Manhattan Skyline as seen from the Williamsburg Bridge. The picture doesn't do it justice because the fence blocks a lot of it, but biking along the path lets you take in the whole scene.

South Manhattan and DUMBO, via 2nd Avenue and the Manhattan Bridge

Routes to Battery Park (red) and Brooklyn Bridge Park (green)

While the weeks featured regular, familiar bike rides, the weekends were for exploring. Having lived in New York for one internship before this one, I was eager to explore neighbourhoods outside Manhattan and regularly biked across the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges to get to Brooklyn.

Battery park, on the south end of Manhattan, was my girlfriend’s favourite place to visit. From the southernmost point in Manhattan, you can get a clear view of the Statue of Liberty, the New Jersey and Brooklyn skylines and a pretty incredible sunset that is tough to beat while staying in the city.

The Universal Soldier monument in Battery Park commemorates soldiers who lost their lives in the Korean War.

On the other side of the river is Brooklyn Bridge Park, one of the best green spaces in the city.

Top: South Manhattan as seen from Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Bottom: A photo taken from the bike path that passes below the Manhattan Bridge.

I can’t stress enough how much better the Manhattan bridge is for biking than the Brooklyn Bridge; although it doesn’t have the iconic views the Brooklyn Bridge offers, the Manhattan bridge has a bike lane that’s separated from pedestrians, which is a tradeoff I’ll make every time. All of these routes are easily accessible by following marked bike lanes and are reasonable even for those inexperienced biking in the city.

Columbia University, via the Hudson River Greenway

Route to Columbia University

One Sunday morning early in the term, I rode up Manhattan’s west coast to Columbia University in uptown. First, a quick bike west to the Hudson river, then up the river along a path that is fully separated from the neighboring highway. Although I don’t know if we’ll ever be free from Robert Moses and his shoreline expressways, the Hudson River bike path offers as pleasant of a ride as you’ll get in Manhattan. The river is dotted with piers that double as businesses and community spaces; parks, restaurants, and even a floating museum make for interesting scenery next to the midtown skyscrapers on the right. North of 70th street, the buildings fade away to the green fields and playgrounds of Riverside park.

From this point onwards, the ride really gets nice; most of the crowds on the path thin out around here and despite the ever-present highway on the right, it really does feel a lot more peaceful than downtown. I stopped at 129th street but my route could have taken me all the way up to the northern tip of Manhattan and into the Bronx. If I get the chance to come back, my goal is to follow the same route and do a full lap of the island. This time, I capped it off with a walk through the Columbia University campus at 116th street that was well worth the incredibly steep hill I had to climb to get there.

Returning from Randall’s Island, multiple routes

Route to Randall's island (red) as well as several routes back: East River/2nd Avenue (green), East River/Queens (blue), and Flushing Meadows (purple).

Saturday mornings featured more NYU ultimate practices, this time on Randall’s island. Randall’s is notoriously difficult to get to because many NYU students live south of 14th street, like I did. This means the commute can take as long as an hour and a half each way while taking transit. Those who opted to take a taxi part of the way were no better off; on more than one occasion, I had friends that were refused service because drivers didn’t want to come all the way onto the island and risk a cancelled fare.

It turned out that bike rides to Randall’s were the lesser of these evils. I was able to take the same 1st Avenue route as I did for my commute to work, this time continuing all the way up to 101st street before biking across the river on a footbridge. In total, the bike took me less than 40 minutes.

Although the scenery on the bike up there wasn’t too spectacular, it was interesting seeing the transition between neighborhoods moving north. Laundromats and bagel shops in the East Village are replaced by large glass office and condo buildings in midtown. These are followed by higher-brow restaurants and apartments before finally fading into the housing projects that are so common along the East River.

The south end of the Randall's island bike path, which wraps around the island.

On the way home from Randall’s island, I often experimented with the paths I took. Practice was usually over by 1 o’clock and I took advantage of the long afternoon by taking roundabout routes home. The simplest way home was back the way I came, this time mirroring my weekday commute on 2nd Avenue. For reasons mentioned earlier, I wasn’t too fond of this path. Still, the first section follows the riverside and almost makes up for having to take 2nd Avenue the rest of the way.

The Queensboro Bridge on the East River, taken from the Manhattan side.

On days where I had more time, I would take the Triborough Bridge into Astoria and make my way from there. The view of Randall’s Island from the bridge is great, made even better by the complete lack of protective fences that are characterisitc of Manhattan bridges. The only barrier is roughly torso high and leaves bikers feeling fairly exposed. There’s also several staircases that put a temporary and sometimes unexpected pause on the ride: some of them aren’t well marked!

A Randall's island field seen from the Triborough Bridge bike path.

It has its flaws, but the bridge isn’t too bad. It spits you out in the middle of Astoria, a neighborhood at the northwest corner of Queens. The most direct route back to Manhattan from here is back along the Queens side of the East River. This takes you through Long Island City and eventually Williamsburg if you choose to go into Brooklyn like I did.

Houses along 34th Avenue in Queens.

A more roundabout path took me along the treelined 34th Avenue before I ended up in Flushing. Extending my route could have taken me to Citi Field and the site of the US Open. Instead, I opted to check out the old grounds of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fair. From here, the Manhattan skyline is just a bump on the horizon. The trip back from Flushing takes you through some of the more industrial neighborhoods of Queens and Brooklyn before eventually coming back to the Williamsburg bridge.

Top: The Unisphere, part of the site of the World's Fair.
Bottom: An industrial section of Queens with Manhattan far in the background.


More than any other experience I’ve had while living in New York, it’s the bike rides that stick out to me as the most important. Anyone who’s visited the city knows how impossibly hard it is to see everything there is to see. When friends and family come to visit, we regularly hit 30K steps in a day without straying too far from my house. Taking the subway improves your range considerably but deprives you of the details you’re able to see while walking.

Biking offers a compromise between the two. You can cover a lot of ground on a bike; pretty much everywhere that’s accessible by subway is also reachable by bike, often in less time. At the same time, you can take in a lot more of your surroundings because you have to be right in the middle of everything.

The flipside of that is that everything is fleeting. Because you’re moving quickly, you only get snapshot experiences. Sometimes I’ll see something significant enough to dismount and snap a picture, but more often than not, I’ll keep riding through. The constant motion through the city can make bike rides feel more like skimming a good book than taking the time to read it from cover to cover.

This sometimes makes me feel guilty about not fully experiencing the neighborhoods I biked through. I feel as though I should take the time to learn about the areas I’m visiting before riding through and snapping pictures. But my limited timeframe meant the experiences I had were in some sense limited as well. In just four months, there’s only so much you can see.

Overall, I’m proud of how much I was able to see and do during the time I’ve been here this year. I’m also thankful that biking gave me some much-needed calm in a very busy city.

I don’t know when (or if) I’ll be back, but I know if I do return, the first thing I’ll do is buy a bike.

Maps are built using OpenStreetMap with Stamen stylizations. The GPX files for the routes in this article can be downloaded here.