The Country's Best Urban Bike Commute?

Mike Lydon's picture

More than two years years ago I chronicled my daily bicycle commute in Miami. The 8-mile trip was as representative of Miami's built and socio-cultural landscape as it was harrowing. 

While that city has surely made progress in the pas two years, I'd be lying if I didn't disclose that I partially moved to New York City because of the progress being made in designing livable streets infrastructure. Quite simply, it feels good to be in a city that "gets it." 

So, without further ado, I offer to you what could be the nation's best commute. (feel free to position your own commute as such in the comments section below) 


My 3-mile commute begins on Henry Street, in BrooklynHeights and ends on the border of SOHO and Chinatown in Manhanttan where I share office with the good folks at The Open Planning Project. Using an GPS iphone app, I can now trace my routes, snap photos, and upload them instantly to Google Maps, Twitter, or Facebook.


The Henry Street bicycle lane, designated in green, awaits me outside of the front door each morning. As you can see, the NYC Department of Transportation has enacted a policy to paint bicycle lanes green when they are placed directly next to a curb. It is assumed that this helps the lane become more visible to motorists and pedestrians. The well-marked lane also narrows the visual width of the vehicular lane, which, in theory, helps to slow cars down. 



From Henry Street, I take a single-block jaunt east before moving several blocks north along the Clinton Street bicycle lane, which is a heavily traveled route for those bicylists traveling from points south towards the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Where Clinton meets Cadman Plaza West, a small "plaza" splits the vehicular and bicycle traffic. This aids cyclists in making a safe and direct transition across the four lane street to a two-way, protected bicycle lane on Tillary Street. 



This is exactly the type of infrastructure that inspires interested, but concerned bicyclists to ride more frequently along streets once perceived to be too dangerous by the average person.

From here, the two-way, protected Lane provides a direct connection to the Brooklyn Bridge Shared Use Path, or to the Adams Street bicycle lane, which leads to the Manhattan Bridge via Sands Street. The connection is to undergo additional improvements by 2012. 


I forgo the pedestrian packed Brooklyn Bridge in favor of the Manhattan Bridge bikeway. Adams Street offers a low traffic count street, but also features broken pavement and a standard--ho-hum--bicycle lane design that places the bicyclist in the door-zone. I frequently take the whole lane here to avoid the worst of these conditions. Fortunately, it's only a one-block section of my commute. 

After turning right onto Sands Street, my commute takes me directly to the Manhattan Bridge bicycle ramp, which recently doubled in width to safely accommodate the growing number of bicyclists. 


As an aside, the entrance to the Bridge from the north has also been dramatically improved (as seen above). This Streetfilms short depicts the completion of the so-called Budnick Bikeway--another two way, protected facility that ushers bicyclists to the foot of the bridge and the bicycle ramp.


The Manhattan Bridge offers a cantilevered two-way path for bicyclists over the East River, which offers sweeping views up the river and the Manhattan skyline. 

Upon arriving in Manhattan, where the bridge entrance/exit has also been doubled for bicyclists, another two-way, protected cycle track offers safe passage for bicyclists heading to or from the bridge via Chrystie Street. Most bicyclists head north on Chrystie here, but my commute takes me west on Canal Street, which is the fastest and most direct route. 


This final 7-block stretch is by far the most hectic, and perceivably unsafe part of my morning ride. As I exit the Manhattan Bridge bikeway, a contorted "ghost bike" reminds me that Canal Street--the epicenter of pedestrian and traffic thronged Chinatown--is not designed with users like me in mind. That being said, traffic moves slowly in the morning and I am able to reach my destination safely, and far faster than if I were in a car or bus. It also feels much safer than some of the 3-5 lane, one-way arterials I had to navigate in Miami. 

As you can see here, under the leadership of Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City has made significant gains in the last two years in both perceived and real safety, and bicycle mode share. However, the city is a large and complex place where some neighborhoods are far more bikeable than others. To be sure, New York City still has a long way to go before it becomes comparable to some of the world's best cycling cities.

Nonetheless, the progressive work being done here is instructive, and at a scale and pace that surpasses all other American cities. And as my colleague, Michael Ronkin, is fond of saying, far more important than the design of any one bikeway is that the city is actually taking space away from cars to make more room for pedestrians and bicyclists.

With good fortune, I feel lucky to experience some of these improvements on my way to work. 


Mike Lydon is Principal of the Street Plans Collaborative and co-author of Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Actions for Long-term Change (Island Press, 2015).



Nice route.

Getting on and off the Manhattan Bridge OR the Williamsburg Bridge on the Manhattan side is pretty scary. It's the most dangerous part of your trip and the part we need to do something about. Also, that painted bike lane on Henry street is silly. I always ride in the middle of Henry street till a car comes. The lane is in the gutter and often has ice, water, or leaves in it. It's also a quiet street to begin with and was a great route before the green lane was added. What I'm looking for in a bike lane is help and protection on busy, traffic-filled, aggressive-driver-filled streets, not on the already-quiet streets of Brooklyn Heights.

Also, can someone go after Harold Ford Jr? He doesn't take the subway, and he owns/drives an SUV in Manhattan. Someone get that man a bike!

Mike Lydon's picture

Manhattan Bridge/Henry Street

Thanks for the comment.

I agree with your assertion that the Manhattan side of the Williamsburg is pretty scary. However, the improvements made to both sides of the Manhattan Bridge have helped with the clarity of the street-to-bridge transition. I think we will see over time, too, that this will have a positive effect on safety too. Naturally, when leaving a bridge from facility separated from traffic, one must be most cautious about re-integrating with traffic. The protected paths on both end of the Manhattan help that transition occur, if the cyclist is cautious and follows the law.

As for Henry Street, I agree that it's a street type that most often matches with a shared use lane marking. However, I say that as an experienced and skilled urban cyclists. Such infrastructure may seem "silly" to you, but it is as much for the *yet to be, or casual bicyclists* as it is for the regular rider. In that light, it's important that the network remains clearly marked; most beginner or intermediate cyclists prefer a lane, no matter the street type, and as you point out, skilled cyclists don't have to be in the lane if it presents any known risk to them. But, for the record, I see aggressive drivers, even on Henry Street and I rarely see the lane filled with debris.

Safer routes

Yes, getting rid of "scary" components (intersections etc) of bike trips should be a top priority. If I feel my life is significantly at risk while on the route, it needs improvement.

Ah, I liked the pics I've seen from Denmark- pretty paver bike lanes along cobblestone much prettier than ours.

Henry St

I don't disagree with you at all; there should be bike lanes all over the place, on all kinds of streets, for all kinds of riders. I don't advocate removing the Henry Street lane. I think, too often, in this city and this country, bike lanes/facilities go in where they are politically safe not where they are critically needed.


Oh, the subway and bicycles are only for us common folk!

American River Bike Trail

I've commuted by bike in Sacramento, Seattle, Dallas, Denver. Sacramento is the best in my view, despite the plethora of aggressive idiot drivers. The American River Bike Trail makes it the best.



Bike Commuting in the rest of New York

I live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and work in Kew Gardens, Queens. My coomute takes me on some pretty treacherous streets. I start on Greenpoint Ave which for the first few blocks of my ride has a very nice bike lane. The problems start when I get to the Greenpoint Ave Bridge. I can take the roadway, however I have to deal with wheel eating grates and also large trucks speeding just a foot from me on my bike. I can take the sidewalk, however the curb cut on the queens side requires me to make a tight 180 degree turn onto Review Ave usually into a line of garbage trucks. Sometimes there's another cyclist in the hairpin turn which makes things extra hairy.
I continue up Greenpoint Ave where I have to deal with the first of two dangerous intersections with the Long Island Expressway. I can usually make my way across the onramp without too much trouble. I continue through Sunnyside where I then can either take Queens Blvd all the way to work, or continue across Queens Blvd to Roosevelt Av. I'll take Roosevelt Ave to Woodside Ave to Broadway, except for double parked cars, this part of my route isn't too dangerous.
I take Broadway to Queens Blvd and turn left, crossing eight lanes of traffic to get to the outbound service lane. I ride in the service lane to the second intersection with the Long Island Expressway. Here I cannot stay all the way to the right, because there is an exit ramp and cars never see me enough to be able to cross an onramp to continue on my journey. What I usually do is stay in the middle lane, so that I am all the way to the right after the onramp splits off. The problem here is that cars often stay all the way to the left, floor the accelerator when the light changes and cut across three lanes of traffic, leaving me caught in the middle.
After the Long Island Expressway, I try to stay out of the door zone by riding on the left side of the service road. I also have to be aware of cars changing from the service road to the main boulevard. I continue this until the intersection with Union Turnpike where I turn off onto Kew Gardens Rd. and my office.
The morning commute isn't great, but the evening commute is awful. With more cars on the road, people to be in more of a hurry and i get less respect on Queens Blvd, more double parked livery cabs and livery cabs doing three point turns in the middle of Roosevelt Ave and those terrible grates and onramps on the Greenpoint Ave Bridge. I'd be really interested in writing a similar article to show the difference between two different bicycle commutes in New York City.

Mike Lydon's picture

Great idea, Noah

Noah, great idea. Take photos and we can show the stark geographical differences that demonstrate how difficult it remains to bike in NYC if you are not in select areas.

Semi Urban Bike Commute

My bike commute is under 6 miles from Benicia to Martinez, across the Carquinez Strait, which is where the Sacramento River connects with San Pablo Bay, 30 miles northwest of San Francisco. I begin at the green arrow near the top of the aerial photo (see below) and arrive at work at the red “A” near the bottom of the aerial photo. Most of my commute follows the Bay Trail, a 400+ mile bike/ped path that circles San Francisco and San Pablo bays, and extend as far east as the Benicia Bridge. More than half of the Bay Trail has been built.

I start down the street where I reside, in a largely single-family neighborhood, heading west

I ride south down another residential street to the tunnel (on the right in the photo below) to go under the freeway. The freeway is only 4 lanes so the 8’-wide tunnel isn’t that long or too creepy.

I continue heading south after exiting the tunnel. There is a weak storm front moving in this morning so the lighting is gloomy. You can barely see across the strait.

Now I head east on Military, Benicia’s main east-west street. From this point on, the commute route follows the Bay Trail. This section of the Bay Trail is a bike route, which means there is a bike route sign, but no pavement markings. The city at one time proposed to eliminate on-street parking on one side and install 5’ bike lanes. Since most of the street is residential, elimination of a parking lane in front of homes was not well received. The signal up ahead does not detect bikes, so I need to push the pedestrian xing button if no car is present (annoying).

Continuing on Military East I enter the former Benicia Arsenal. It was established during the Civil War to store munitions for the troops posted in the "Pacific Theater". It closed in the early 1960’s and much of it is now included in as an Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places. There is some controversy associated with a city-sponsored master plan for the Arsenal. They hired some architects that a proposing rezoning using a “form-based code”. Unfortunately the city didn’t hire experts in historic preservation so some residents are concerned that the historic district will be overdeveloped and loose its historic integrity. The Arsenal is pleasant to ride through.

I turn southwest up Park Rd to get to the bike path on the bridge that will take me to Martinez. Park Rd has a bike lane. This designation requires a sign and a shoulder area reserved for bicyclists.

Signage appears as I approach the bridge path. The ‘Benicia by the Bay” is part of a branding program the City completed last year. It replaced the home-grown tag line used by the locals since I moved here in 1986 “Its better in Benicia”

The following picture shows the entrance to the path on the bridge.

The picture below was taken midway on the bridge as I cross the county line. I took this picture in the evening on my way home, after thinking about the advantage of having a picture that included the vital statistics of Martinez. Population 36,500 and elevation 16 feet. The bridge path is great and the views are spectacular (when it is not cloudy). The path opened last August and I have been commuting by bike about 50% of the time since it opened. This bridge used to carry 3 lanes of traffic each way. In 2008, they opened a new bridge to carry northbound traffic, part of a funding package justifying a $1 toll increase back in 1991. The old bridge was repaired (the fifth and six lanes they added in 1989 were buckling under the heavy truck traffic) and was reconfigured to carry four lanes southbound plus shoulders and a 12’ bike lane. True to a highway agency’s mission, no provisions were made to accommodate the Amtrak trains which currently must compete with freight traffic for space on a rusty cantilever railroad bridge built in the 1920’s. The Martinez Amtrak station is pretty busy serving both long-distrance and intercity trains.

The path is reasonably well maintained despite its many litter-catching features. Crowds haven’t been a problem. I say one other bicyclist today on my ride to work. In July, Bridge tolls will increase to $5 for northbound traffic, so we will see if that generates more bike traffic. I can’t say enough bad things about the Bay Area Toll Authority. Since I moved here in 1986, tolls have increased from $.40 to $4.00. Before the bike trail opened, my monthly toll bill was higher than my gas bill. The $1 increase (the toll was raised from $3 to $4 in 2007) is to fund earthquake reinforcements on two of the seven bridges they operate in the Bay Area, plus to fund increased interest costs from an irresponsible bond deal they signed up for that went sour in the financial meltdown that Bush left us with. Few people know about the mess because journalists are too lazy to investigate and the Toll Authority meetings aren’t on anyone’s radar screen. Anyway, I digress waaaay too much here.

The exit from the bridge path takes you downhill to a slight curve where it intersects with Mococo Road. In addition to the grade and curve, our highway designers installed bollards to ensure no car could get through. I wonder how many bicyclists the designers were guessing would be taken out by the hazard they created for bicyclists at this location.

As I head west on Mococo Road, I am impressed by the pavement delineation and signage that was installed to alert motorists to the bike route in this area.

From Mococo Road I jog over to Marina Vista and continue west, which will take me to downtown Martinez. Marina Vista connects downtown to the interstate and goes through the some industrial facilities, including an oil refinery. While I haven’t had any problems with the heavy truck traffic, I have been taken out once by the railroad tracks at the pictured location. The angle of the railroad tracks is close to the direction of travel, so I lost traction when the rails were wet and did a shoulder-roll away from the travel lane. The only damage to me was a bruised rib.

From Marina Vista, I turn south on Pine Street, when I chain-up my bike at the entrance to this green architectural wonder of the 1960’s. That completes my commute, about 25 minutes from my home.

Thumbs up for colored bike lanes

I saw those green colored bike lanes in NYC in person recently and I like them. The color helps all road users by demarcating the lane and may even add legitimacy to them.

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