The Trials of the Elm City Biker

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When Jimmy Murphy ’13 began his fall semester last year, he was faced with a problem familiar to many Yalies: Science Hill. He couldn’t make sense of the elaborately multicolored shuttle schedule, and he felt like he was wasting time with his daily slog up the dreary hill to his science classes. But three weeks into the school year, he found a solution: He asked his father to bring up his old bicycle from back home. In addition to easing his daily travels, Murphy had a simple motivation for adopting a two-wheeled mode of transportation.

“I wanted to be one of the cool kids and ride a bike,” he said.

Murphy quickly found himself amorous of his blue Grant mountain bicycle for more reasons than efficiency. He liked how he could take it anywhere, making more distant locations easily accessible, and he liked knowing that he wasn’t contributing to the pollution created by fossil fuels by taking a shuttle. But most importantly, he loved his bike because “it’s so fun to go fast.”

But one day in December all that changed. Murphy rode his bike through the cold from Old Campus to Silliman, locked up his bicycle with his new U-lock he’d just purchased at a local store, and met a friend for dinner. When he came back, there was no trace of his bike, not even a broken lock on the ground. His bike had been stolen.

“I was upset,” he said. “It’s not that I felt less safe in New Haven, but I was distressed that my property wasn’t safe [even with a lock].”

Yet despite his misfortune, Murphy went out and bought another bicycle this summer. It is cheap and “a little rusty,” but he still gets the same enjoyment out of it. He uses his bike every day now, and rarely goes anywhere without it.

“I’m a biker,” he said, acknowledging that the term means more than just “someone who owns a bike.” Murphy, a member of Student Taskforce for Environmental Partnership, even helped organize an exhibit for “Parking Day” this year that demonstrated how 15 bicycles could fit into one car parking space.

Murphy’s story is representative of the experience of many New Haven bicyclists: a commuter who needs an efficient way to get around buys a bike and develops a genuine ardor for the activity. It has many benefits: physical, mental, environmental and social. But external factors weigh heavily on the bicyclist’s passion: the ever-present threat of theft, infrastructure problems that make riding in an urban environment difficult and aggressive drivers who are not wlling to share the road.

But the growing pride and enthusiasm of an increasing number of bikers seems up to the challenge.

The Rise of the Bike

When Matthew Feiner, the owner and operater of The Devil’s Gear Bike Shop on Orange Street and member of the board of directors of the nonprofit advocacy group Elm City Cycling, first opened The Devil’s Gear ten years ago, cycling New Haveners were few and far between. Since that first year, he said sales have increased approximately 400 percent, as more and more city residents have begun to bike.

“We’re a busy little shop,” he said, explaining that his costumers mostly come in looking for ways to get to school, class, work, the grocery store and generally run errands in an efficient and relatively inexpensive way.

The Devil’s Gear has sold over 500 bicycles so far this year, an increase over 2009, Feiner said. He added that this is in keeping with the steady rise of bikes in the city, even despite the economic downturn.

As for the Yale community, Associate Vice President for Administration Janet Lindner said that the University recently concluded its annual transportation survey of Yale commuters — graduate and professional students, faculty and staff.

This year’s survey showed that 9 percent of commuters take bikes to campus, up from 8 percent last year. Lindner, however, cautioned that these statistics are not necessarily representative of actual numbers “because there’s a strong enthusiasm among bikers, so I bet they’re more likely than others to respond to a survey.” But she added that despite this statistical bias, the study still showed an increase had occurred.

But commuters and students are not the only people on campus with bicycles. The Yale Police Department has used bikes for almost 15 years and currently deploys eight officers on wheels, YPD spokesman Lt. Steven Woznyk said. Bike patrols allow officers to cover more ground and, at the same time, provide less of a barrier than a vehicle, he added, calling this method an “invaluable tool in improving community relations.”

In addition to the YPD, Feiner said, city employers, too, are encouraging their employees to ride bicycles, for several reasons: Bike riding employees don’t need to occupy the precious few parking spots downtown, are able to get in and out of work easier and will be happier and healthier people.

“Plus,” he added, “they will be looking forward to their commute to work.”

Even among undergraduates, bike mania is spreading. The Yale College Council developed a bike-sharing program last year to capitalize on student interest in bicycling. Charles Zhu ’11, who runs the initiative, said that it has been going well. Although there were some initial problems with getting bikes to the customers and maintaining the equipment, the program was revamped in September in time for the fall semester, he said.

Instead of renting the bikes on a day-by-day basis, Zhu said, the program now reserves 20 of its 25 bicycles for long-term rentals: either a month or a semester. The remaining five bikes are rotated for one-day rentals, he added. All told, the program has had roughly 100 customers, a number, Zhu said, that will continue to rise when the YCC establishes a bike-sharing website over winter break.

When the YCC bicycle-sharing plan was first conceived, the original conception was to create a citywide bike-sharing program that was electronically run, Zhu said. This idea, which would have been modeled on similar programs in Montreal and Paris, received support from the city, but was ultimately not put into effect because of the economic recession, he added.

“It didn’t make sense to justify the large program [at the time],” he said, adding that he believes the citywide plan will be put into place within the next decade and that New Haven is increasingly becoming a more bike-friendly city.

But not everyone is immediately jumping on the biking bandwagon, and many undergraduates said they have no desire to buy a bicycle.

“My parents asked me if I wanted a bike over Parents’ Weekend and I said ‘Absolutely not,’ it’s not that big of a campus so I don’t think that I really need one,” Samantha Greissman ’14 said. She added that there are also many buses if she needed to go somewhere inaccessible by foot.

Richard Mazzuto ’11 does have a bike at school either, and although he said he sometimes considers having a bicycle when the weather is good, he added that he would feel uncomfortable leaving it outside all of the time.

Mazzuto said he thinks of biking as a good thing, but other students occasionally take issue with the way that bicyclists ride. Joel Fernandez ’13 said that he has no problem with bikers when they ride on the street, but he finds it annoying when he has to dodge them on the sidewalk.

U-locks and Chain Clippers

But there are far bigger threats to the popularity of bikes than the naysayers. Concurrent with the rise in bikers, are opportunities for theft. Woznyk said that 2009 saw 81 reported bicycle thefts on campus, and that there have been 69 so far this year as of Dec. 1.

New Haven Police Department Spokesman Joe Avery said that the department does not track bike thefts as an independent category, so he was not able to provide any citywide statistics.

Four out of six bike-riding students chosen at random said they have had a bicycle stolen on campus, and yet every one of the four has now bought a new bike. When asked about the dangers of theft, each student said they feel their bike is now more secure because they have bought a U-lock.

A U-lock, as opposed to a chain-lock, is not easily clipped (the primary method of bike thieves), so it makes the bicycle much more difficult to steal. There are, however, incidents of U-locks being removed — as in the case of Jimmy Murphy.

Murphy said that he had bought the cheapest U-lock available at a local store, but has since learned that these models are sometimes susceptible to being picked. He now uses a more expensive lock on his new bicycle.

The YCC bicycle-sharing program also took theft into consideration with their business model. Zhu said that they intentionally bought bikes without any removal parts because of the potentiality of pieces being stolen. He added that the program supplies a U-lock with every bicycle, and that there has yet to be a theft.

But not everyone has been so fortunate. Mark Sonnenblick ’12 said that someone stole his bicycle outside of Becton Hall in the middle of the afternoon by clipping his chain-lock. David Meierfrankenfeld ’13 also reported that his bike was stolen in the afternoon outside of Becton. He has since bought another bike and uses a U-lock.

Raphael Shapiro ’12, a staff writer for the News, had his bicycle stolen over commencement weekend last year. He said he had locked his bike to a rack on Old Campus, and that someone clipped his chain-lock and removed his bike.

Shapiro said that he then was told by the head of security on Old Campus that the bikes were taken to a room in Lanman-Wright Hall, and that he could retrieve it at his convenience. When Shapiro went to pick up his bike a week later, he said, the room was empty. The same security official then told him that all of the bicycles had been stolen, and that it might have been an inside job.

Woznyk was not able to comment when asked about this alleged mass bicycle theft. He said he needed more time to gather details on the incident.

‘The biggest challenge’

But the most imminent threat to cyclists is not even theft.

“As someone who bikes in New Haven, the biggest challenge to biking in this city is very aggressive motor vehicle operators,” said Mayor John DeStefano Jr. He added that holding motor vehicle operators accountable for overly aggressive behavior is a major goal to be accomplished.

Feiner agreed, he said that the best thing the city can do is educate people about safe driving habits to make the road more secure for everyone. But there are other methods — which he called “traffic calmers” — that the city infrastructure planners have employed whenever possible.

These “traffic calmers” include changing the timing of street lights, and creating sharrows (designated bicycle-car shared roads that include road markings). New Haven has already 12 sharrows and is looking to add more, Feiner said. Shared roads are preferable to a separate bicycle lane, he added, because it shows both the biker and the driver that the road is for everyone and that bikes need not be sequestered along the side.

In addition to the sharrows, the city is also planning to create a designated bike route through the Elm Street corridor, which starts along the Broadway area and ends at State St.

New Haven has also installed 17 inverted-U-style bike racks in commercial areas and created bike parking at four schools within the New Haven Public Schools system, according to the city’s website. These changes were made based on the recommendations made in Elm City Cycling’s 2008–’09 Bike Plan, the website says.

Yet despite the modifications already in affect, several students said they still feared the cars on the road.

“New Haven is a scarier place to ride bikes than New York,” Alan Sage ’14 said. “Drivers here are less sensitive to bikers. Buses almost run over me.”

Emma Schindler ’14 said that she finds biking in New Haven particularly dangerous because the many one-way streets force cyclists to go against traffic.

But even if a bicyclist rides defensively, there are still many dangers presented by aggressive vehicles. Although he said he always assumes a car is going to do the least intelligent thing possible, Feiner has had multiple near-incidents with cars while on his bicycle. He added that he has “had more close calls than I’d like to think about.”

But sometimes, a cyclist has worse than a close call. A 14-year-old bicyclist was struck by a pickup truck at the intersection of East St. and Humphrey St. at 3:50 p.m. on Wednesday, according to Avery. The victim was treated for non-life threatening injuries at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

‘A little break every day’

Feiner, whose shop moved this year to a new space, unsurprisingly, describes himself as “pro-bike,” despite the obstacles he faces as a cyclist. But “pro-bike” is not the same thing as “anti-car,” though he was quick to expound on the reasons he loves bicycling.

“Not only is it better for you as a person to get out on your bike every day, but it gets you out of the car,” he said. “That is better for the environment and better for the community.”

He explained that moving away from a car-based culture promotes interaction between neighbors and fellow city residents because it gets people out into the open air and encourages communication.

According to the League of American Bicyclists, 40 percent of all motor-vehicle trips are less than two miles in the United States. This sort of travel, a distance easily covered by bicycle for even nonathletes, is the reason the majority of his customers buy bikes, Feiner said.

As opposed to a car ride through heavy city traffic, riding a bicycle for a commute is “great for your mind and a little break every day,” he said.

The New Haven Department of Transportation, Traffic, and Parking is also pro-bike; its website proclaims that “bicycling is an enjoyable, inexpensive, efficient and environmentally friendly mode of transportation.”

And for those individuals who do not own cars, as is the case for many students, biking opens up much more of the city to explore. Sonnenblick bought his bike specifically to explore sites around New Haven like East Rock and Miller’s Pond, he said.

Sage brought his bicycle from home at the beginning of the year and has been able to take rides out to Fair Haven and West Haven to look around, an opportunity that most pedestrian students do not have at their disposal.

Shapiro bought a bicycle last year for efficiency reasons, and said he now often finds walking places too slow. And for Shapiro, bicycling has advantages over driving because New Haven has a plethora of one-way streets.

Yet despite the community, environmental and efficiency rationales for riding a bike, many cyclists cite enjoyment as their favorite reason to ride.

“There’s just nothing like riding through your neighborhood at 12 miles per hour,” Feiner said.

Sonnenblick agreed, “Once you start riding a bike it makes it very hard to stop.”

Comments

  • prion

    “As someone who bikes in New Haven, the biggest challenge to biking in this city…” said Mayor John DeStefano Jr.

    Hilarious quote. I love how his grammatical error suggests another layer of truth.

  • Yalie

    ““As someone who bikes in New Haven, the biggest challenge to biking in this city is very aggressive motor vehicle operators,” said Mayor John DeStefano Jr. He added that holding motor vehicle operators accountable for overly aggressive behavior is a major goal to be accomplished.”

    Laudable. Can we hold aggressive cyclists accountable when they’re on the sidewalk?

  • Sara

    The problem isn’t aggressive drivers, it is improperly designed roads.

    When a road looks like a superhighway (like Church and Elm) people will automatically drive at homicidal urban speeds.

    To be fair, these two roads were redesigned in the 1950s in order to make them superhighways. Previously they had been pretty lanes, lined with several of the Governors’ mansions.

    We need to go back to what they were for hundreds of years, before the traffic engineers screwed over the city. Unfortunately, our current traffic engineers continue to screw over the area, repaving streets like Whitney Avenue and Park Street without adding any real bike lanes or xwalks.

  • gzuckier

    Why are the bike lanes between the driving car lanes and the parked car lanes? Dangerous. If bike lanes are really required, how about moving the parking lanes over to the edge of where the bike lanes begin now, and the bike lanes next to the curb? Maybe even put a little curb between the parked cars and the bike lanes, so people know where to park. I speak having collected more than one car door in my face, even before bikers were mandated to drive in the door zone (and having received not so much as an expression of sympathy from either the perpetrators or the legal authorities).

  • Jaymin

    These bike thieves need to be tracked and deported to Siberian mineral mines or something. Last year, though I had gotten a ulock for my bike, some little turd managed to steal my seat. And the bike snobs at Devil’s refuse to sell me a replacement for under $45. The seat post itself (the simple cylindrical metal tube holding the seat up) costs twenty bucks.

  • BFA2011

    “Laudable. Can we hold aggressive cyclists accountable when they’re on the sidewalk?”

    Truer words have never been written. I was walking out of Saybrook on Elm Street, and as soon had I stepped onto the sidewalk, I was run over by a hipster on a bicycle. Sometimes I really, really hate cyclists. Either you belong on the road, or you don’t. It’s one or the other.