City Biking and advice to tourists about using New York’s Citibike bike-sharing system.

Summer Streets in New York earlier this month: That little girl in the pink helmet so beat me in a sprint race down Park Avenue.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were in New York for a long weekend visit with our daughter. A few days before the trip, I emailed my friend and city biking buddy, Dave Winer, to see if he would like to go on a bike ride, or two.

Last summer, on what was the hottest few days I can ever recall here, Dave was in Nashville visiting Ann and me and he and I  biked on some of our  city’s greenways. (Did I mention last summer was hot? The highest temperature recorded in Nashville, ever, was 109, June 29, 2012)

Fortunately, this year the weather in New York was perfect for biking, and, as it turned out, so was my timing. Dave informed me that the Saturday I was going to be there was part of Summer Streets: three Saturdays in August when about seven miles of Park Avenue are turned over to runners, walkers, rollers and cyclists from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.

A slow ride toward the PanAm Building, even though the name changed about 20 years ago.

So, in addition to a Friday ride in some wonderful weather, Dave and I were on Park Avenue by 7 a.m. the next day. At that time of the morning, and with Park Avenue being void of any cars or trucks, it felt a little like one of those post-apocalyptic movies where the streets of New York are abandoned. Yes, it felt a little creepy, but at the same time it seemed like being given the chance to play a pick-up game of soft ball at Yankee Stadium. We had a leisurely ride down to City Hall and looped back uptown for breakfast at the Brooklyn Diner on 57th Street (awesome, by the way), using the Hudson River Greenway.

The Summer Streets signs that were ignored by bikes and pedestrians equally.

As my wife and I were staying in lower Manhattan (Battery Park City) in a hotel near our daughter’s apartment, I decided to enjoy a second ride downtown after breakfast — giving me a chance to complete two grand (or, as the spandex-wearing cyclists say, “gran”) loops of the lower half of Manhattan — about 13 miles each.

By the time I rode the second Park Avenue stretch, the crowds had arrived, but the vibe was still one of fun. While it would have been natural for me, the guy from Tennessee, to be amazed at what I was getting to do — the fact is, the New Yorkers also seemed pretty amazed at the unique opportunity they were having to experience Park Avenue as an actual park.

Orange cones are the new white lines.

Along with the two rides Dave and I took and other rides I took on my own, I rode for approximately 40 miles in Manhattan over the course of 3 1/2 days. Most of it was as laid back as possible — except for the Friday mid-day ride Dave led me on from Central Park to the Hudson River Greenway. Had I not been riding so much in downtown Nashville over the past several months, I probably would have been terrified at some of the maneuvers we took. However, between my Nashville urban-riding build-up, and the passive-aggressive bicycling attitude I’ve developed by reading months and months of posts by the NYC Bike Snob, I didn’t feel the least bit intimidated riding against traffic on a one-way street or treating busses and cabs as if they were gates on a slalom ski course.

As all of the 40 miles were on bikes from the new Citibike bike-share program, the long rides also gave me the chance to observe and experience personally some of the good and bad of the New York City version of the bike-sharing concept.

Here are some of my opinions about Citibike, the third program I’ve tried around the country, including Washington, D.C. and, of course, Nashville’s B-Cycle program.:

The Citibike ‘re-balancers’ brought in the heavy ammo for Summer Streets
  • Tourists, beware, #1. Citibike (and programs like it in other cities) is NOT a bike rental program where you pay one price and ride for, say, a half-day. It’s a bike sharing program. You pay for access into the program (daily, weekly, annually). Once in the program, you can ride “for free” up to 30 minutes at a time (45 minutes for annual members). Go beyond that time limit and you’ll start racking up charges you’ll choke on when you get back home. So remember: If you check in and out every 30 minutes, you won’t be dinged for any charges beyond the day or week rate — and if you ride enough, you’ll figure out how to check in and out with the speed of a stock car pit stop.
  • Tourists, beware, #2. You know how you’d be nuts to drive your car around Manhattan if you’re from, say, Nashville? Riding a bike around New York City can be as intimidating if your route includes anything other than Central Park or the Hudson River Greenway. I recommend that tourists who aren’t clearly aware of how city biking works should practice somewhere else than the streets of New York. (On the other hand, Washington D.C. is a perfect place to participate in its bike share program due to the relative safety of the mall and clearly-marked bike lanes.)
  • That Citibike exists at all, in a city the size of New York, is an amazing accomplishment. Despite anything negative I may say about it, the more I rode and the more I saw many of the things that can go wrong, go wrong, the more I marveled at the madness it takes to believe anything like it can be pulled off — and then see the madness vindicated.
  • This is a hub dynamo. It generates enough electricity to power all of Manhattan. Okay, I lied about the Manhattan part, but it does power the lights and some hidden gizmos on the bike.
    This is a hub dynamo. It generates enough electricity to power all of Manhattan. Okay, I lied about the Manhattan part, but it does power the lights and some hidden gizmos on the bike.
  • The bikes and docking stations are jammed-packed with technology. The way bike-share programs work requires a lot of software and hardware to keep up with how long you’ve been riding and where, when you check out and check in a bike. The bikes use both GPS and RFID technology to keep up with each bike’s location. And both wheels have a “hub dynamo” that generates electrical current that’s stored in batteries that, in turn, provide the power to operate the front and back lights, and the GPS and RFID gizmos. Such technology came in handy for me when when one dock wouldn’t let me check out a bike because, according to the message I was receiving, I had too many bikes checked out. I called the user service number printed on the kiosk and the person on the other end of the line was able to tap into my account and by using the GPS and RFID information was able determine that I had, indeed, checked in the previous bike. (Sidenote: This program is not for those who want to be off the grid.)
  • Bugs, glitches and hassles. Because the program is set up for short rides — it’s about transportation, not recreation — the fee structure is all about encouraging quick rides from Point A to Point B — rides that you can complete within 30-45 minutes. As I was riding for much longer than those increments, I had to check-in and check-out bikes many times. (There’s an iPhone app with an stop-watch that helps you keep up with the time.) So many check-ins and outs gave several chances to see how buggy the system’s software can be, and how the program’s management is trying to fix things. At one station, things were so bad, a Citibike employee was there to “re-boot” the software when it locked up. At another station, during Summer Streets, I got to chat with a “re-balancer,” to get some insight into the way the program’s operations center is constantly moving bikes around. (A few days ago, the NY Times ran a story about the challenges of “re-balancing” the bicycles.) Despite this effort, the next day I saw two kiosks approximately two blocks from one-another–one completely empty, the other completely full. The full one was not allowing bikes to be checked-out.
  • The black clamp easily loosens so you can raise or lower the seat post. Raise to a height where your leg is about straight when a leg’s pedal is closest to the ground.
  • The bikes are comfortable and efficient. The three-speed bikes offer enough gear variety to power through any grade found in Manhattan. If not, don’t be embarrassed to get off and push a block or two. Also, the bikes don’t have a basket, but have a neat slot with attached bungie cords that allow for storing of items of various sizes. HINT: One of the easiest things a rider can do to add comfort and even a bit of speed to a ride is to adjust the seat to the proper height. Every bike-share program has seats that easily go up and down but I’m always struck by how few people know it’s there — or know how much difference in comfort and efficiency having the seat at the right height will make. From the Citibike website, here are the instructions for adjusting the seats:
    Just release the clamp on the side of the seat post, raise or lower the seat to your preferred height and re-tighten the clamp. Make sure the clamp is tight and the seat can’t twist or sink. Typically a seat is at the right height when you can almost fully straighten your legs when pedaling.

Did I mention that tourists who don’t ride bikes much in urban settings should avoid taking up the practice on the streets of New York City?

    That’s the best advice on this list.