The Complete Guide to Riding a Bike in New York City
ESSENTIAL TIPS FOR WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, AND HOW TO RIDE IN THE BIG CITY.
Hello, and congratulations on your decision to become one of the more than 800,000 regular bicyclists in New York City! We’re in the midst of a kind of cycling renaissance, with almost half a million bike trips made in the five boroughs every day. Still, we have a long way to go before riding in New York becomes safe and convenient for everyone. Now that you’re ready to tackle our city two wheels at a time, you should make yourself aware of our laws, customs, and quirks—and hear valuable advice from hardened cyclists who biked the mean streets before you.
Buying (or Renting) a Bike
Say you move to New York without a bike and want to get used to things before committing to a purchase. You can try rental shops, but they mostly cater to the tourist class from whom you’ll quickly want to separate yourself. Citi Bike, meanwhile, is a useful bike-share system provided you live somewhere in the service area. (Manhattan below 134th Street, northwest Brooklyn, western Queens, Jersey City, and a small dockless pilot in the Bronx). Though large, somewhat slow, and a little unsightly, the bikes are serviceable. And at $169, an annual pass barely costs more than a one-month unlimited MetroCard (and that doesn’t factor in what, exactly, a MetroCard gets you these days). Memberships can be worthwhile even if you already own a bike, for handling unpredictable weather or meeting up with bike-less friends.
When it comes time for you to buy a bike, keep a few things in mind. While you’ll need a ride that can withstand the rigors of potholes and torn-up city roads, you will also have to lug it around—into and out of your apartment, up and down subway steps, maybe even around your workplace. You will also likely ride it over bridges and some hillier parts of the city, so you’ll want to split the difference between a full-on mountain bike and a sleek road bike. If you’re buying a used bike, try to avoid those hefty all-steel frames. It’s hard enough out there without an extra 10 pounds weighing you down.
You can also get an electric bike, which are now legal in New York as long as they don’t have throttles. The pedal-assist feature can make handling long distances or tough climbs way easier. (Much of the debate around the legality of e-bikes has centered on bike delivery workers, who have concerns about weariness and timeliness on the job.) E-bikes, though, are still relatively pricey. If you don’t have the scratch to buy one for yourself, Citi Bike recently added about 200 e-bikes to its fleet, and plans to roll out even more when the L train shuts down next year.
New York’s ever-expanding bike network, growing from 250 miles of bike lanesin 2006 to nearly 1,200 today, has made it so you can ride pretty much anywhere. Yet you won’t always have a direct route that runs entirely or even mostly along bike lanes. (As you get used to traffic patterns, you’ll also get better at riding on streets without them.) Plus, fewer than half (471 miles, to be exact) of the city’s bike lanes are protected—that is, they don’t have a physical barrier between riders and car traffic—meaning ordinary drivers, cops, delivery trucks, and cabbies will drive and park in your space. So even if you’re in a fully painted designated lane, don’t let your guard down. New York also has plenty of bike sharrows, which might as well not even exist for all the good they do. Don’t ever feel the need to only stick to streets with bike lanes, since cyclists have the same rights to the road as drivers. (See the “Rules” section below.)
If you’re looking to get some laps in, you can always do loops in Prospect and Central parks. Just be aware that you’re sharing space with pedestrians, so try not to act incredibly aggro, huh? The city also built a few off-street greenways in each borough if you’re in the mood for a distance ride. You can also find mountain bike trails, ranging from beginner to expert difficulties, in the city’s free parks in northeast Manhattan, eastern Queens, and southwest Staten Island.
For the commuter crowd, the west side of Manhattan has the Hudson River Greenway, a bike path that runs all the way from Battery Park to Inwood. There’s also a path along the East River. (It has huge gaps in Midtown and East Harlem, but the city is getting around to filling them in.) The Brooklyn Greenway doubles as a major commuting artery, and the lower Manhattan views you get on the Brooklyn Bridge Park section will give you serious Punch-Out vibes.
For waterfront rides, try the newly rebuilt Rockaway boardwalk, which runs from Beach 126th Street to Beach 9th Street, and the Ocean Parkway bike path, which will take you from Windsor Terrace all the way to Coney Island. (Coney also has a boardwalk, albeit one with restricted cycling hours during the summer).
My personal ranking of the major East River bridges to bike over goes as follows: 1) Williamsburg, 2) Manhattan, 3) Queensboro, 4) swimming your bike across, and 5) Brooklyn. Of course, you’ll have to cross one or another depending on where you’re going. But if you have extra minutes to spare and a choice between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, take the Manhattan. It’ll save you the aggravation of shouting at tourists who wander into the bike lane (though the pedestrian crowd on the Brooklyn Bridge thins when the weather gets colder).
Bridges between Manhattan and the Bronx are smaller and flatter. Some have protected bike lanes, while others make you choose between a pedestrian path or the street. You can also take the Triboro Bridge from Queens, which will drop you on Randalls Island, which then connects to the Bronx on the island’s north side. Getting to Rockaway means taking either the Gil Hodges or the Cross Bay bridges. You’ll see signs on both telling you to walk your bike, since the pedestrian paths are so narrow. I’ve always ignored them and ridden carefully, but be aware that doing so could get you a ticket (advice that also applies to the Triboro).
As for biking into New Jersey, you only have one option right now: the George Washington Bridge. The Bayonne Bridge, which connects Jersey to Staten Island, has a bike path, but it’s closed for construction at the moment.
Sometimes—because of the weather or because something breaks or because you’re with someone who doesn’t bike or because you’re just very tired—you will take your bike on the subway. Which is fine: It’s legal and happens every day. My personal advice is to avoid it during rush hour at all costs. If you’re by yourself, alert the booth employee at a station, and they’ll open the emergency exit for you after you swipe your MetroCard. If you have someone with you, swipe them in and have them open the emergency exit. When you get on the train, don’t act foolish with your bike. Bring it into the car as far as it can go, and don’t lean it across seats if people won’t be able to sit.
Bikes are allowed on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North commuter trains, provided you get a $5 bike pass that’s good for the rest of your life. On the Staten Island Ferry, you can bring your bike on board for free—just be aware that there isn’t a ton of room for storage. On the new NYC Ferry, which covers a number of routes in the city, you’ll have to pay a dollar extra for the privilege. PATH and NJ Transit allow bikes on board for free, but not during rush hours.
While cities around the world seem to have figured out the process, the MTA is only now experimenting with bike racks on buses. So unless you’re riding one of four lines (the Q50, Bx23, S53, or S93), the bus is no help to a New Yorker with a bike in tow.
There are, in fact, laws related to bicycle use in New York, including some that could wind up costing you money. If you get caught running a red light, for instance, you’re looking at a $270 ticket—the same fine given to drivers. But it doesn’t happen very often, because even cops generally don’t know all the bike laws. Did you know you’re legally required to use a headlight and taillight, a bell, and some kind of reflective tape? Or that you can’t ride with both headphones in your ears, or on the sidewalk at all?
Of course, there are laws and then there are “laws.” While you can’t technically bike on the sidewalk, you should feel free to use it as a kind of on-ramp when arriving at your destination, depending on where you are. An empty industrial sidewalk in Brooklyn? Go for it. A packed tourist street in Midtown? Maybe not. You’ll also encounter many people salmoning, or riding against the flow of traffic, which is also illegal. Our take is: If you’re in a bind, and need to do it for a block or so, go ahead. Just be careful.
As for running red lights… look, for people who have never biked in the city, there’s a certain lack of understanding for how exhausting and irritating it is to constantly stop, lose your momentum, and have to start again. So let them clutch their pearls as I say yes—provided it’s safe—run reds to your heart’s content. “Safe” mostly means checking for cars and people crossing the street. To avoid collisions, maneuver around back of pedestrians as they pass instead of trying to cut them off. Seriously, don’t antagonize pedestrians.
If you’re anything like me, you’re deeply attached to your bike and live in desperate fear of the day someone steals it. Do not bother with those dinky cable locks that might have helped you in the suburbs and other places where people leave their doors open. I’ve been using this padlock/chain combo for a few years and have held onto my ride thus far, but it’s admittedly heavy. The advantage is that it gives me a little more wiggle room than a U-lock, which you might need if all the available bike racks and street signs are taken. For specific advice on what to get, see our roundup of the best bike locks.
Basically everyone I know has ditched quick-release bike skewers on their wheels, if they ever had them to begin with. Why take the extra time to remove your wheel and lock it to your frame or carry it inside when you could just… not do that? If you have quick-adjust seat, chain it to the frame because, yes, people do steal bike seats. And while this is less of an anti-theft than a city-proofing strategy, get a pair of fenders on your bike. You’ll ride on wet or snowy streets eventually, and you don’t want a muddy trail on your butt, do you?
Whatever you do, don’t lock your bike like this, or I will find you:
I also recommend keeping your bike inside overnight. Your building might have a bike room, but if it doesn’t, there are a variety of bike storage options you can add to your apartment to save space and avoid scuffing the walls. Various off-street services are willing to hold onto your bike seasonally, but remember that not cycling in the winter puts you out of practice.
As for commuting: If your office has a freight elevator, your boss or the company you work for can legally compel building management to allow bike inside. They may have already done that, in fact, so ask before you show up. The city is slowly rolling out “bike valet” lockups, but until that gets sorted out, there are garages of varying quality where you can lock up off the street. The first Oonee storage podis supposed to debut in downtown Manhattan sometime this year, which could even more fully protected public bike lockups down the road.
Tips and Tricks
Watch out for drivers. I don’t know how to say this gently, but something about getting behind the wheel of a car turns otherwise nice people into sociopaths (there are studies on this and everything). The most important thing to remember is to ride like you belong on the street, which you do. Timidity and second-guessing yourself is a quicker path to getting hurt than asserting your right to the road. You will get doored at some point, you will watch drivers blast through red lights, you will stop short as someone almost hooks you. Stay alert, learn to anticipate what drivers will do, and don’t engage in any, ahem, riskybehavior until you’ve gotten used to the way people move around here.
For a long time, I was a headphones guy when I rode, despite the fact that it’s technically illegal to have two earbuds in while riding. (One is fine.) I mostly thought it was obnoxious to blast music from a portable speaker affixed to your bike or messenger bag, but I’ve since come around. More so than headphones, speakers help you stay aware of the world around you. Plus, this entire city is a loud obnoxious mess, so pumping a few seconds of Tha Carter V while you ride past won’t ruin someone’s day.
When it comes to carrying stuff on your bike or person, just go with what makes you feel the most comfortable. I use a Vaya bag (made right here in New York), but you can use any bike bag or saddle bag, or even a simple backpack. I never had a proper basket, but I did attach a milk crate to the front of my bike for extra storage. (Unfortunately, people will put their garbage in there.) If you plan on using your bike for more than just rides around the park, make sure you have something to carry your stuff in.
The Kids Are Alright
Every now and then, you might see a news story about kids taking over a major roadway in the city, a la Critical Mass but with more BMX bikes and popped wheelies. It’s great! Good for them! These rideouts are just kids who love bikes doing the damn thing. Many of the scene’s star riders have huge followings on Instagram, where you can keep up with their antics (or see if you can catch a planned #bikelife gathering for yourself).
Group Rides and Classes
You may have some cycling experience and even know how to fix a flat before you come here, but it never hurts to get a little extra education. Bike New York, the organization that runs the annual Five Boro Bike Tour, hosts group rides and free classes for adults that teach everything from basic maintenance to how to commute without becoming a sweaty swamp monster. If you’re a woman, female-identifying, or gender non-conforming, WE Bike NYC is a good source for group rides, classes, and the occasional happy hour with other female/GNC cyclists. Elsewhere, your local bike shop and the environmental activism co-op TIME’S UP offer the chance to get hands-on experience fixing bikes, and the Social Cycling NYC Facebook group is a good spot to find friends for a group ride and solidarity among fellow two-wheeled types.
Finally, stay aware and get involved while you can. Follow advocacy groups Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets and pick out some causes, organizers, and activists they boost. Make sure you vote for candidates who take street safety seriously. All these improvements to cycling in the city didn’t happen by accident, after all. And there’s always more work to be done.