I bought a folding bicycle earlier this year in the hope that it would help me solve an embarrassing personal problem. I live in New York City, but, though I love the people I live among, I just don’t like the place. I’m loath to move out, because I only recently moved in. I left a house and a yard in Westchester for an apartment in Morningside Heights, near Columbia University, where my husband works and where life seemed likely to be more lively. But then, I got here and realized that I hated the noise and the filth and the smell. Worse, I felt trapped, unable to move around except by means of slow or unreliable public transportation. I wanted to hop in my car and go wherever I wanted at the speed to which I had become accustomed, but my car lived at a garage seven blocks away, and it would be impossible to park once I got where I was going anyway.
My folding bicycle, made by a British company called Brompton, is odd-looking enough that people stop me on the street and ask about it. It’s robin’s-egg blue and looks like a swan that stretched out its neck and stuck it into a wheel. The first time I tried out my Brompton, I refused to get off. I pretended to be oblivious to the looks I was getting from the pedestrians I was weaving around, illegally though adroitly (because the wheels are small), on one of the most crowded sidewalks in Manhattan (East 14th Street). I refused to think about the stepson I left at the store, who was imagining me lying under a truck. My bike has a steel frame and a good shock absorber and felt much sturdier than expected. I glided past East Village landmarks I hadn’t seen in years, because they weren’t close to any subway stops: Avenue D and 9th Street, where David Schearl lived in Call It Sleep; Tompkins Square Park, historic parade ground for anarchists and other radicals. For the first time in a long time, I glimpsed freedom. No longer would my way be blocked by gridlock, overly complicated subway connections, and inchworm-like buses. Now, I could scoot around everybody and everything and go where I wanted, when I wanted, faster than everything else on the road aside from other bicycles, and then, I could fold up my bicycle and hoist it onto whichever mode of public transportation I chose to further my escape.
I now know enough about the history of the bicycle to know that bypassing dead ends is what bicycles do. The very first bicycle-like vehicle, the velocipede, was invented in 1817, a year when there was a severe shortage of horses due to a volcanic eruption that spewed ash into the air and created weather that destroyed the oats that fed the horses. Bicycles invariably make a comeback during oil shortages and other energy crises, as happened during World War II and in the 1970s, and as some energy activists are hoping will happen now, in the wake of the oil spill and the moratorium on new drilling in the Gulf. But bicycles help people circumnavigate social barriers, too. In the mid-1890s, bicycle manufacturers improved on the “high wheeler,” which had one huge front wheel, and came up with the “safety bicycle,” which looked much as bicycles do today. This turned bicycles into an affordable form of mass transit, at which point it became acceptable for women to travel farther, unchaperoned, than ever before. They also began to wear bloomers, the first version of women’s pants.
The folding bicycle has been around as long as the safety bicycle, but only recently has it been marketed to the general consumer, along with an array of other bikes that challenge the supremacy of the purely recreational bike: cargo bicycles and tricycles, which haul stuff; recumbent and semi-recumbent bikes, which go faster and farther with less effort than upright bikes; even electric bikes, which supplement leg power with motor power and can be especially useful in hill country. To my mind, though, the folding bicycle is the most revolutionary of them all. Here’s what it does that no other kind of bike does: It obviates the waiting game. Right now, in New York City and other cities around the country, urban planners and transportation officials are trying to undo the damage done by twentieth-century visionary planners, such as Robert Moses, who bet, incorrectly, on automobiles. Cars turn out to be a terrible technology for cities, too big and dirty for crowded, narrow streets and unnecessarily powerful for the short trips that city dwellers make. And, though it’s hard to get people to abandon their cars for bicycles in an environment that cars make unsafe, studies have shown that, when cities signal their willingness to accommodate bicycles, people become more willing to risk riding them, and that, when more people ride, fewer of them get into accidents, because motorists are forced to pay closer attention to the cyclists in their midst.
This is why, if you pedal around a U.S. city, you will encounter more bicycle lanes than you used to, both the kind painted right onto the street and the kind protected by median strips. You will discover new bicycle parking spots; bicycle-oriented signage and traffic lights; even bike-sharing programs, in which you borrow a bicycle from one of several bike stands around the city and return it to any of those stands. (Washington, D.C., just announced an expansion of its bike-sharing program, from 120 to 1,100 bikes; Boston, Denver, and Minneapolis have such programs in the works.) What you’re less likely to find are buses and trains that let you board with your bicycle, especially during rush hour, since most of them were designed before it occurred to anyone that the real secret to urban mobility isn’t the ferrying of people but the ferrying of people plus their human-powered vehicles.
But now, if your city can’t make itself bike-friendly fast enough to suit you, with a few turns of a screw and a kick to knock your wheels in place, you can make your bike city-friendly instead. (It still takes me close to a minute to collapse my Brompton, but my stepson, who has owned his for more than a year, can do it in under 20 seconds.) You can forego parking, because you can take your bike with you; you can stop worrying about theft, for the same reason; and you can get your bicycle home by subway or taxi or commuter train if you need to.
My Brompton has made New York City feel both bigger and smaller than it used to. It feels smaller because I move faster. I spend up to 30 minutes taking my children 24 blocks to school on a public bus, then ride home along the Hudson River in under 10 minutes. I can get to Greenwich Village for lunch with my downtown friends in much less than the 40 minutes I previously allotted for the trip by subway—and I can shove my bicycle under the table in the restaurant before the waiter quite realizes what I’m doing.
But the city feels bigger because I see much more of it, and I see that it really is changing. There’s a glorious new skate park along the Hudson River, right next to the extraordinary new bike path; there are bike lanes downtown nearly everywhere you look; and there are cyclists to fill them. (The bicycle activists at Transportation Alternatives say that there are roughly 200,000 cyclists in New York City every day. New York City does not conduct a rigorous survey, as other cities do.) My fellow riders aren’t just the grim speed freaks in Lycra who race past me on their Trek bicycles, muttering about people who clog the lane. They’re people like me in civilian clothes, commuting to work, carting purchases home, marshalling broods of children on scooters, tricycles, and princess bicycles. We’re a tiny army of unwitting urban reformers, making the city safe for cyclists by making cycling a part of our everyday lives, rather than a sport we have to set aside time for.
Which reminds me: I’ve also stopped going to the gym, which has always struck me as a Dickensian place, a factory of the urban body, all wheels and gears and the urgent expenditure of energy on nothing. This policy may backfire; as a writer who works at home, I don’t have enough of a commute to gin up much exercise when I make my daily rounds. But I can always veer off to Fort Tryon Park, which has one of the most beautiful gardens and the single best view of the Hudson in the tri-state area; or loop around Central Park; or bundle my bike onto the subway and get off at South Ferry and take the greenway back uptown. I couldn’t do that in the suburbs. Now that I’m finding ways to get around, I’m starting to think that there may be a point to New York City after all.
Judith Shulevitz is the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.