It’s hard to imagine that there would be any fun to be had in New York right now, given that much of what makes the place run has been shut down for nearly two months. Without any concerts, Broadway shows, sporting events, tourists in town, and office workers streaming in and out of buildings, much of what makes the city run has ground to a halt with a full opening always being just over the proverbial horizon. This was evident during the last time that yours truly worked back on March 9th, as I came back to my garage after a slow night, slid the key under the slot to the dispatcher’s office, and simply told him that “you’re not going to be seeing me around here for a while”.
There’s no need to rehash what happened in the months leading up to that fateful night. Uber lost $8 billion dollars last year and Lyft was also far away from being profitable as neither stock had rebounded to it’s IPO price as of the time of this writing. Medallion owners were still hurting financially and the number available cabs at my garage continued to slowly dwindle as they kept in step with number of drivers who showed up for a typical shift. As disheartening as the industry was, nothing could have prepared it, or myself, for what happened when the Corona Virus landed on American shores.
For the first few weeks, I didn’t mind the time off. There were periods in recent years where I got into the Toyota in my garage, instead of the yellow one with a roof light and meter, and headed out west to get away from it all. As much as I forgot about the nightly grind of being on the streets, it was comforting to know that there were fares to be had whenever I returned home as I was usually back on duty within two days after pulling home after weeks on the road across America.
Now the tables had been completely turned. Most of the workers at my garage, many of whom had been there much longer than my time on the streets, had been laid off with only a skeleton crew remaining. Some nights saw nearly zero cabs going out as accompanying airport traffic was off by more than 90%. Never before had it looked to bleak for yellow cabs but this time around, those in the service, hospitality, tourism, and restaurant industries were in the same situation – although those workers had watched their incomes plummet overnight instead of gradually over recent years.
With the onset of warmer weather, the urge to get out and about only increased until I decided that I had enough with being cooped up, catching up on books, and calling friends that had fallen out of my life long ago. No, it wasn’t time to take the cab back out to search for signs of life but to do something a bit more drastic while crossing something off of my bucket list at the same time.
I took a CitiBike for the first time.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking and it’s probably the same thing that crossed my mind:
Why on Earth?
Glad you asked!
If you know me well enough or have read enough past posts, it should be apparent that cabs and bikes get along as well as the Hatfields and the McCoys. Throngs of bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, and signal re-timings over the years, as well as complete street redesigns, have favored vehicles on two wheels at the expense of those on four as our efforts to influence the flow of traffic a bit more in our favor have fallen on deaf ears. With the rare sunny day and a sunnier disposition on my behalf, I figured it was time to give it a go for a bunch of reasons.
First of all was to get some more exercise than just my daily errand-running on foot around town. Walking is my favorite way of clearing my mind here in suburbia and long, long before I drove for a living, it was my preferred way of getting around Manhattan. This was back in the time when Tompkins Square was full of homeless and runaways, the village had record and book shops, and the far West Side was truly an overlooked wonderland. I wasn’t in the city a whole lot either as it was a chance to get away from the closed-minded and conformist town that I grew up in and go run around Oz for an afternoon. Those days were probably my favorite in New York as the city was still varied, affordable, and not an overt foothold for the world’s excess wealth. Without even trying, I learned the streets below 14th Street, which gave me a leg up when learning the Manhattan street grid during my brief stint in Taxi School.
Secondly, I wanted to be out and about again but not in the way that I was accustomed to. With traffic counts being so light and knowing where the protected bike lanes were like the back of my hand, it wouldn’t be like the barrage of messengers and food deliverers that I had to dodge three or four nights a week. I wasn’t in a rush to get anywhere and thankfully, my legs would keep me from going *too* fast – unlike just about everyone else that passed me on their way to whatever could be important in the middle of a pandemic.
Finally, I had to know whether the system of protected bike lanes, unprotected bike lanes, street re-stripings, directional bike signs, and all the other infrastructure that the city installed in recent years was about to ensure a smoother ride from Midtown Manhattan to Brooklyn and around Kings County once I made my first stop. I’d seen a bunch of maps on Streetsblog and other sites that showed the progression of cycling enhancements and there were quite a few CitiBike racks near my garage that were installed in recent years but for a novice like me, were they enough to win me over and have me ride one the next time I needed to get around town above ground?
There’s an old saying that once you learn how to ride a bike, that you never forget how to and that was the case for me, as much as I had to shake the proverbial rust off of myself first. I came prepared – with the right clothing, a helmet, and facial mask in tow as I wasn’t in any rush to head downtown from Times Square. The first portion of 7 Ave that I rode down was lacking for a bike lane but one was put in through Chelsea and the West Village recently and that was more than enough to get me most of the way to the Brooklyn Bridge. By the time I made my first stop near the Gowanus Canal, I could feel my quads thumping and they’d only be put to the test again as I crept my way toward the Navy Yard, around it, and up to my familiar stomping grounds by my garage.
Did I enjoy the exercise? Sure, even though my legs felt like tree trunks for the next day or so after I docked the bike at the end of my ride. There was no doubt to me that the system works and even on two wheels, I was still passed by a ton of messengers and 10-speed pros as I even had to weave my way around several double-parked Uber vehicles. It helped that I had a sunny, mellow day outside and plenty of other riders who were patient with me as I navigated barricades, waterfront enclaves, and intersections that were just a bit different than what I was accustomed to breezing through with passengers in tow.
What went through my mind during my mind was how much has been written about the long-term effects that the virus will have on society once it’s run it’s course and becomes a footnote in history. Will people be kinder and more patient with each other? Are schools and offices as we know it doomed, as people choose to work and teach from home while cherishing precious family time together? Can people take mass transit and still be comfortable and socially distant, while patronizing subways and buses to keep them afloat? Most importantly to me, will the taxi industry survive with so many New Yorkers choosing to work from home, walk, bike, drive to stay socially distant, or just forgoing the city and it’s pitfalls altogether as they move on to greener, and less stressful, pastures?
These trying times were not the first instance that bikes gained a foothold in the transportation network as the Lindsay administration closed Central Park to automobiles during certain days and even proposed to make Madison Ave. into a car-free mall. A little over a decade later, a bike lane was instituted on 6 Ave during the 1980 transit strike by the Koch administration to handle midtown commuters. Both instances happened during times of upheaval, which resulted in some thinking outside of the proverbial box. Although those measures turned out to be temporary, the lack of leadership by the current administration has many clamoring for closed or narrowed streets to allow for more room for those wishing to walk or bike while practicing social distancing at the same time. What the results are is anyone’s guess but it’s likely that the transportation system that we’re familiar with, as well as the livelihoods of Gotham’s citizens, will not revert back to what they were before the Corona Virus came to America.
In the meantime, all of that was a distant thought as I paid a visit to the garage to see what was (or more importantly, wasn’t) going on before hoofing it by foot to the subway for the return trip home. With the world seemingly spiraling out of control with no end in sight, it was nice to slow things down for an afternoon and take things at my own pace. After all of these years and repeated disruptions, I was grateful to still have a chance to see the city anew and prepare for whatever tomorrow brought.