I helped get bikes allowed on New York City subways
Once in college my bike got a flat tire, so I took the subway home. It was probably before my year off, so likely 1989-90, but I forget.
Back then I rode everywhere. I’d ride from campus to practice up at Baker Field at the north tip of Manhattan. I’d ride it to Prospect Park to play pick up. In both cases, each ride was a decent workout, but I’d play a whole practice, then ride home. Ah, lost youth.
This time with the flat, I didn’t make it home, though. A cop told me bikes weren’t allowed and forced me off. I don’t remember how I got home.
At the time, the non-car advocacy group Transportation Alternatives distributed a newsletter in bike shops that I would read. I called them and asked the rule, if bikes were allowed or not.
The guy I spoke to said the problem was that the MTA didn’t state a rule. By not explicitly banning it, Transportation Alternatives couldn’t oppose the ban. By not explicitly allowing it, cops could kick people off, as happened to me. Then he said, “we’ve been trying to get the MTA to state their policy. How about volunteering to help us?”
I declined. He playfully suggested it again. I declined again. After three or four cajolings, I accepted. Their offices were on Broadway in Soho, which was still where artists lived cheap. I rode down from Columbia periodically. The guy, Dan, led me through the process. First I wrote, through regular mail as email didn’t exist yet, several of the world’s major subway systems and asked their bike policies. Then I compiled the results. I forget the details, but most systems allowed bikes on trains so we could tell the MTA of the global trend.
The only detail I remember was that my first letter to the MTA was long, maybe seven pages, extolling the advantages of cycling. Dan said to write a different type of letter, less than a page. I did.
Eventually, the MTA wrote back that they decided to allow bikes, with some regulation, like up to two bikes per car, maybe not during rush hour. Again, I don’t remember the details.
But soon after the letter, they put signs on all the booths saying bikes were allowed. I looked at each one I saw with pride. Bikes remain explicitly allowed, in part from my work.
Come to think of it, I believe I started another project, to prompt Central Park to switch some of its work fleet to bikes. It may have been that letter that started too long. I don’t think anything came of it, though.
New York City Centuries
After that project, Transportation Alternatives started organizing annual fundraising rides. They planned routes of lengths up to one hundred miles to feature parks and bike paths throughout the city. I joined rides with organizers in the weeks leading to the rides to mark the route, which meant spray painting arrows on the ground. On the days of the ride, I rode as a marshal, meaning I brought tools, patch kits, and maps, and wore a shirt so people knew they could ask me for help.
I volunteered and marshaled with them for a few of the first few New York City Centuries. I haven’t volunteered with them in a while, but I see New York City’s bicycle infrastructure has improved a lot in the three decades since.
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