Cycling down a completely traffic-free Park Avenue in the heart of New York City over the weekend, I was reminded of the numerous futuristic or Sci-Fi movies in which the Big Apple is abandoned after some major disaster.
Last year's I Am Legend (available on DVD at Amoeba) -- in which Will Smith and his canine companion wandered a deserted midtown Manhattan -- specifically sprung to mind as myself and other cyclists, hikers, and skaters, unhindered by any autos, passed by the raised street level outside Grand Central Terminal at Park and 42nd Street, heeding the city's invitation to "Play. Run. Walk. Bike. Breathe."
The reason there were no cars two days ago, and also on two previous Saturdays this month, was because it was the third and final weekend day in the first ever city initiated Summer Streets program. From 7AM to 1PM, all autos were banned on Park Avenue from 72nd on the Upper East Side all the way downtown, essentially connecting Central Park to the Brooklyn Bridge -- a seven mile long distance, all traffic free!
But what made this whole cycling experience so special is that it is normally impossible to do a bike ride like that, at least in such a stress-free way. Like most major cities, the best way to see New York is by bike, but the problem is that cycling round Manhattan is far from safe. Typically you take your life in your hands, maneuvering your bike through New York's congested auto-dominated streets, on weekdays especially, with erratic drivers (including lots of yellow cabs & buses) unpredictably accelerating and cutting you off or worse. And as for the few bike lanes on Manhattan's major thoroughfares: drivers notoriously ignore them and cut off cyclists all the time. I personally know of several NYC cyclists sent to the hospital due to negligent drivers.
Compared to Europe, where inner cities are generally more bike friendly, the US is traditionally much more auto-centric. San Francisco and the Bay Area is far better than New York for biking round town safely. Still, NYC is slowly changing for the better and over the past decade the City has built bike paths almost the whole way around the perimeter of the the island of Manhattan. Critical Mass, which began in SF in '92 but now happens in cities worldwide, involves bikers take over the streets for a mass cycle the last Friday of the month. Ever since Critical Mass has taken root in NYC some years ago, there have been several serious altercations between cyclists and the authorities. During the 2004 Republican National Convention, police arrested more than 250 riders. More recently, at last month's NYC Critical Mass in Times Square, an NYPD officer (caught on video and hence suspended) shoved a Critical Mass bicyclist to the hard concrete of the street for no apparent reason and continued to give him a nasty unwarranted beat-down.
New York City's Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his transportation department say they based the Summer Sreets program on successful similar programs practiced in other major cities round the world, including London, Paris, and Bogota, and never officially cited Critical Mass as an influence of some kind. I still suspect it had to have been somewhat instrumental, if only in helping to help build goodwill and counter the bad publicity surrounding Critical Mass and the NYPD's mistreatment of cyclists. Regardless of the reason for the Summer Streets program, the end result for bikers and hikers and skaters alike was inspirational since it shows how great a city can be when it is free of cars. It makes one ponder what a world would be like free of autos altogether!
Kudos are also in order for NYC's current citywide art installment of musician/artist David Byrne's nine bike rack sculptures, including the one pictured right, that will be on display for two more months. There will also be many more bike rack sculptures by various artists popping up around NYC in the future.
Finally, in keeping with this Amoeblog's bike-friendly theme, a Top Ten Bike Songs chart follows below. Note that this top ten, culled from various genres over several decades, is a totally subjective listing, by no means comprehensive, and could easily be expanded into a Top 20 or Top 50 to include other worthy bike themed songs by the likes of Orbit, Stephen La Marca, The Smiths, The Pixies, Luka Bloom, and many many more. Please feel free to nominate your fave cycling song in the COMMENTS below. Thanks!
TOP TEN BIKE SONGS
1) “Bicycle Race” Queen
2) "Black Mags" The Cool Kids (see video below)
3) "My White Bicycle" Tomorrow (later covered by Nazareth)
4) “Tour de France” Kraftwerk
5) “Midnight Bicycle Mystery” Deerhoof
6) "LDN" Lily Allen
7) “Bike, Parts 1 and 2” Clouddead
8) "Riding On My Bike" Madness
9) “Schwinn 24″ Teen Titans
10) "Scraper Bike" Trunk Boiz