Amtraks Across America: Biking New York City

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A vintage 1997 Trek mountain bike owned by my friends Mark Gibson and his brother Kurt that gets me up and over the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges and around New York City. On a bicycle, New York becomes Venice, and bikes like these are gondolas. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

Even though the cost of renovating what is now called the Moynihan Train Hall (after the late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who cooked up the scheme) was $1.6 billion, the new modern waiting concourse does not align with the train platforms below, so no matter how diligent you are as an arriving New York train passenger, the chances are excellent that you will alight in the “old” Penn Station, which is more a urinal (in every sense of the word) than a Covent Garden-like space with beams and light.

The original Pennsylvania Station—with its columns and marble eagles out front, and soaring arches inside—opened in 1919 and was torn down in 1963, when I was nine years old.

In place of what felt like a Roman temple (the inspiration was Rome’s Baths of Caracalla), New Yorkers were given a series of subterranean strip malls to connect to the Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit, and, eventually, Amtrak (after 1971). The Yale art historian Vincent Scully remarked: “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”

Until the Moynihan Train Hall (it’s more a waiting room than a station) opened in 2021, New Jersey and Long Island rail commuters were consigned to a purgatory of hot dog wrappers and spilled beer, as if they changing trains in Calcutta or in one of Dante’s circles of hell (probably the fourth, which was given over to greed).

On this trip, even though Moynihan Hall was within spitting distance (hey, this is New York after all) from where the Lake Shore Limited left me on the platform, I yet again ascended into the nether world of the old Penn Station—still a nine-year-old boy wondering what kind of a society would tear down the waiting rooms of the gods.

Adrift Along the Hudson River

After my twenty-hour Amtrak journey from Chicago to New York, I still had some unused “segments” on my USA Rail Pass, although no enthusiasm to ride any more long-distance trains.

Maybe if I had paid another $1000 a night for a compartment, I could have mustered excitement for a ride to Georgia or the Midwest. Instead I restricted my last Amtrak travels to day trips around New England, which turned out to be an Amtrak sweet spot.

Without having to sleep crumbled up in a day coach, I could actually enjoy my train travels. I used one segment to go up the Hudson River to Poughkeepsie, and the ride was a delight, as out the left side of the train I had uninterrupted views of the George Washington Bridge, West Point, and barge traffic plying the river.

Finally I felt liberated, as if from prison. As Huck Finn said: “There warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” And heading up the Hudson River to Poughkeepsie, in a largely empty railroad car, I felt the same.

Hell-Hole Cycling: NYC in the 70s

The other thing I did, to get over my “Amtrak experience”, was get back on my bicycle in New York City, which for a lot less than $1.6 billion has turned itself into a world-class cycling city.

I know you cannot believe that the New York City of muttering taxi drivers (Travis Bickle was only one of them) and Cadillacs weaving up and down Broadway could possibly have become bicycle-friendly, but it has.

In the 1970s, when I moved back to New York after college, the city was a bicycle hell-hole. After the 1980 transit strike, I brought my childhood Raleigh into my apartment, but only ever felt safe riding it in Central or Prospect parks, although in those days cars barreled through the parks on daily commutes with the ferocity of splitting atoms.

Nor was it easy to get from Brooklyn, where I lived, into Manhattan. There were cycling paths across some of the East River bridges, but to access them meant carrying the bike up several flights of stairs, and the paths themselves were strewn with potholes and broken glass.

Nor in either Manhattan or Brooklyn was there more than a handful of bike lanes. Riding on the major avenues meant navigating a thin yellow line between swerving taxis, stopping buses, and parked cars. Cyclists (for the most part messengers) were divided between the quick and the dead.

Two Wheels Returns to New York

About fifteen years ago—although I am vague on the timing of the renaissance—things began look up for New York City cyclists. Suddenly it became possible to bike easily over most New York bridges (although the Verrazano never had cyclist or pedestrian lanes and the George Washington Bridge has a complicated ramp access).

Even more encouraging, many Manhattan and Brooklyn avenues were given proper bike lanes. Sometimes that meant only painted lanes, but on First, Second, and Sixth avenues the parked cars were moved over, and cyclists were given a segregated lane (now jammed full of Seamless delivery men on eBikes bringing takeaway to hungry New Yorkers).

When I am in New York, I stay at a friend’s house in Ditmas Park, which is in central Brooklyn south of Prospect Park. From there, on my friend’s 1997 Trek mountain bike, it takes me about an hour and twenty minutes to ride into midtown Manhattan, but now I can do nearly the entire ride on segregated bike lanes, something unthinkable even ten years ago.

A Terrific Cycling Read

Wanting to know more of the specifics about New York’s bicycle revival, I read (with great pleasure) Evan Friss’s On Bicycles: A 200-Year History of Cycling in New York City, which was published by Columbia University Press in 2019.

Although the first bicycle (of a kind) rolled on a New York City street in 1819, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the city embraced the bicycle, and at that time it became an all-consuming passion.

At the turn of the 20th century, bicycles owned New York City. City streets were paved not for automobiles but for bikes, and for many, no matter what the problem in the city, bicycles were seen as the cure.

Friss includes a profile of an early bicycle evangelist in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Violet Ward, who wrote The Common Sense of Bicycling: Bicycling for Ladies with Hints as to the Art of Wheeling—Advice to Beginners—Dress—Care of the Bicycle—Mechanics—Training—Exercise, Etc. Etc.

Of this book Friss writes:

At the outset of the book, Ward extolled the seemingly endless possibilities of the bicycle: a tool for exercise and recreation, a way to travel the countryside, an excuse to get outside, a symbol of modernity, a democratizing machine, a means of “absolute freedom.” Although it was in a sense magical, the bicycle, in Ward’s mind, was more a product of science.

Needless to say, what killed off the bicycle in New York City, in the years after World War I, was the automobile and its patron saint, Robert Moses, who at mid-century wore many hats as the city’s master-builder, road and park commissioner, and housing czar.

Robert Moses Paves Over New York

Moses never saw a highway he didn’t love, and it’s thanks to his internal combustion energy that New York has expressways cutting through many historic neighborhoods and that Manhattan today remains an oasis for the car.

Friss writes:

Within weeks of taking the new job, Moses gained yet another title. As Chairman of the Triborough Bridge (and later Tunnel) Authority, he would ultimately oversee the design and operation of seven bridges, two tunnels, and all of the associated toll revenue. For someone never elected to public office, Moses wielded an enormous amount of power….

Indeed, Moses’s program was as much about making the streets more car-friendly as it was about providing places to cycle. The twenty-four page plan begins by acknowledging what the parks commissioner thought was obvious: “bicycles have no place on public highways.”

I am among that generation of New Yorkers who blames Moses for every ill in the city—everything from the decline of subways to the traffic on Fifth Avenue (which in every other city on the planet would be a pedestrian thoroughfare). That he hated bicycles goes without saying.

Friss writes: “Had Moses been a cyclist, perhaps his view of neighborhoods, streets, and parks would have been different.” Instead he saw New York as a vast parking lot ringed with highways, which destroyed numerous neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens.

“How Am I Doing?” Ed Koch Rips Up Bike Lanes

When the effervescent Ed Koch was New York’s mayor in the 1970s and 80s, he made some half-hearted attempts to introduce a bicycle culture in New York, including an ill-fated bike lane on Sixth Avenue that lasted but a few turbulent months. (The taxi lobby shouted it down.)

And then there was Koch’s endless feud with bike messengers (all those riders with middle fingers extended who were extras in the movies Quicksilver and Premium Rush) and his proposed daytime ban on cyclists in midtown Manhattan (which was defeated).

As Wilee says in Premium Rush (the best cycling movie since Breaking Away):

I can’t work in an office. I don’t like wearing suits. I like to ride. Fixed gear, steel frame, no brakes. The bike cannot coast. The pedals never stop turning. Can’t stop. Don’t want to either. There are 1,500 bike messengers on the streets of New York City. You can e-mail it, FedEx it, fax it, scan it, but when none of that shit works and this thing has to be at that place by this time, you need us.

Koch thought those like Wilee were outlaws and needed rounding up, but it turned out more guys in suits were dreaming of becoming bike messengers than there were single-speed riders who wanted to work on Wall Street; and from the ground up a cycling culture was born.

Bloomberg Moves People

Not until Michael Bloomberg became mayor in 2002 did cyclists get an advocate in City Hall, although Bloomberg himself was more an efficiency expert than a guy with a folded-back Brooklyn cyclist cap on a fixie, biking the wrong way up Second Avenue while flipping off an ambulance blocking his way.

Bloomberg wanted to relieve congestion on the streets and in the subways, and getting people to commute on bicycles could help break the logjam. Also it was an inexpensive (the riders pay) and non-polluting way to move people around a crowded city.

Bloomberg helped to launch Citi Bike—a bicycle sharing program that remains popular—but the baby blue “Dutchies” didn’t hit the streets until 2013, when Bill de Blasio was mayor.

Vision Zero in NYC?

Like all New York City mayors, Bloomberg had a harder time articulating a future vision of the city: would it be carless, share space among many forms of transit, or remain what it is today, a speedway and bumper-car emporium with some bike lanes on the edges?

Nor was he able to imagine that bicycles and pedestrians themselves would have to fight for space alongside electric scooters, eBikes, Segways, rollerbladers, skateboarders, unicyclists, and assorted people movers.

Friss found this report from the 1960s, which remains an issue today:

Much of the problem stemmed from the complicated way New Yorkers and Americans at large understood bicycles. As a municipal report described in unusually existential terms, how could the city plan for the bicycle, “this step-child of the transportation world,” unless it was “firmly anchored conceptually”? Was the bicycle more like a pedestrian and thus in need of a separate space, or was it more like a car that belonged on the road? “It is unlikely that the bicycle can successfully straddle this dichotomy, no matter how nimble it may be.” Because of its interrupted history and the changing ways it was most popularly used, the bicycle still did not have a conceptual grounding.

Fries, however, points out that New York still has the “Liberty Bill” on its books, which entitle cyclists to same road access as cars and other forms of transportation. Keep that in mind the next time a car tries to run or honk you off a road.

Copenhagenizing New York

Personally, I would turn much of Manhattan into a vast greenway of pedestrian malls and bike lanes, and consign truck deliveries to overnight hours and necessary traffic to single lanes where the speed limit is 30 m.p.h. If you have to get somewhere in a hurry, take the subway, ride, walk, or call Wilee.

I like it that Friss quotes city planner and author (and Moses critic) Jane Jacobs, who said in 1985: “A city good for cycling is also a city good for walking, strolling, running, playing, window-shopping, and listening to bullfrogs if listening for bullfrogs is your thing.”

He also quotes the writer Calvin Trillin, who in the 1970s got around New York on a Moulton, an early folding bike much like today’s Brompton:

For Trillin, the bicycle easily beat the alternatives. Millions rode the subways, “most of them,” he quipped, “quivering from anger at the experience.” The buses, and the calculus involved in figuring out where they stopped, where they were headed, and which numbers corresponded to which routes, were an “uncrackable code.” Taxis needed to be found and hailed, were increasingly expensive, and worst of all, were driven by editorializing cabbies. “I ride my Moulton. While I’m on it, nobody yammers at me about how that movie star [Mayor John] Lindsay is giving away everything to the blacks,” Trillin wrote.

The French Connection

During my last week in New York, I took time out from my appointed rounds to ride my bicycle out to Long Island, where I had lunch with friends. On the way, I decided to detour through Queens and see the houses in Jamaica Estates where Donald Trump lived when he was growing up (except when he was shipped upstate to a military academy reform school).

I calculated a route that started out in Crown Heights (once Jewish, now mixed and somewhat Yuppie) and took me through Brownsville, East New York, Cypress Hills, Woodhaven, Richmond Hill, and Jamaica.

For much of the ride I was weaving under elevated subway tracks, a slow-motion version of Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, but I would wander off the proscribed GPS route to take in Russian Orthodox churches in East New York and the remnants of Jewish Brooklyn on Pitkin Avenue.

Donald Trump Comes of Age

Where Trump was born in 1946 was at Jamaica Hospital, which overlooks the Van Wyck Expressway (it takes you from LaGuardia to Kennedy Airport), but where he lived growing up was in Jamaica Estates, a suburban enclave off Hillside Avenue.

Between the expressway hospital and the Trump homestead, I kept seeing signs in Bengali, which puzzled me until I figured out that many medical professionals at what is now Jamaica Hospital Medical Center come from India and Bangladesh, and many live in Trump’s old neighborhood.

Trump’s early childhood home was at 85-15 Wareham Place, a small brick-and-mortar Tudor-style house of modest size. I found it with GPS and took a few pictures of the row house (closer to Archer Bunker’s place at 704 Hauser Street than you might think), which is vacant and has garbage strewn across the small front lawn.

According to the New York Times, some Chinese front company bought the house a few years ago, perhaps hoping to cash in on owning a Trump Log Cabin, and has since been trying to auction it off, but has yet to find a willing buyer, perhaps one that can get zoning permission for a gift shop in the garage.

Father Fred Trump’s totem house was around the corner at 85-14 Midland Parkway in Jamaica Estates, which is actually a lot behind Wareham Place, and that’s where Donald Trump did most of his growing up (assuming that he ever did).

That period-piece 1950s MacMansion has four columns and a portico, and looks a lot like a failed savings bank (Homeland Security… for all your Ponzi needs?), where the young Donald might well have learned the finer points of running an alleged billion dollar real estate empire that year-after-year pays $750 in federal income tax.

De Tocqueville Rides Amtrak

My last train ride on my USA Rail Pass was on Amtrak’s Downeaster, regional service (as they call it) between Brunswick, Maine, and North Station in Boston. The train does not set any speed records (it mostly trundles along single track that belongs to freight lines) but at least it’s train service to Maine, which for the longest time in my adult life (spent married to a Maine woman) was train-less. Other states without trains are Wyoming and South Dakota, although I am sure the ayatollahs of the Freedom Caucus will add to this list.

I was early for my transatlantic flight from Boston but heavy rains ruled out my idea of walking the Freedom Trail to Old North Church, that of Paul Revere fame. At the TD (Boston) Garden I thought of buying my friend Mark Gibney a t-shirt on sale that read: “Kyrie is a Douche,” but then figured, as a station-of-the-cross Celtics fan, he was probably already wearing one.

Instead I dodged the downpour and rolled up at Commonwealth Books, a quirky bookseller in downtown Boston. It was just before closing time, but the genial owner welcomed me into his shop and didn’t mind a pile of wet luggage near his front door. In a half hour of browsing, I came away with four books, including Volume II of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Years ago I read Volume I (in Maine, over a family Thanksgiving) and loved his attribution of American greatness to the jury system, and admired his observation that most men who ascend to the presidency are mediocre hacks (but the system works in spite of them). But I have never made it through Volume II, which broods more generally on the American experiment, along the lines of: “Freedom engenders private animosities, but despotism gives birth to general indifference.”

No sooner had I given up on Amtrak—the rolling equivalent of a trailer park—than I had de Tocqueville in hand, and I was back to dreaming of the rails. Maybe someday I could read Volume II while on the train up to Buffalo (after all, it was an important de Tocqueville stop) or dip into his letters while following his footsteps to Pittsburgh or Memphis, two other cities visited in his travels. Besides, I am sure Amtrak moves at speeds that would have been familiar to de Tocqueville, even though he began his travels in 1832. I could search for the source of his quotation that reads, in part: “When the Americans lose their republican institutions they will speedily arrive at a despotic government…” At least neither I, nor the democracy, would get there very fast.

This is the last in the series. Earlier installments can be found here.

 

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.