My Turn: Bikers & the City

On July 8, 2005, I overslept, as usual, grabbed a quick gulp of orange juice on the way out the door, and arrived at my office on the other side of London in 20 minutes. For hours that day, I was the only person in the office and one of the few Londoners to arrive at work on time, if at all. You see, the day before, the city's public--transportation infrastructure was crippled by a terrorist attack. But I commuted by scooter.

Motorcycles and scooters form an important part of the transportation landscape in London, allowing tens of thousands of people to get where they're going cheaply and quickly. In fact, bikes are deemed so advantageous to city life that London provides them free parking citywide, doesn't charge their riders a fee for entering the city center, and allows them access to bus lanes. The British government even provides cheap, easy, and widely available training to people who want to learn how to ride.

Now I live in New York, the least bike-friendly city I know. Most people would attribute that to crazy taxi drivers and the complete absence of road maintenance, but the fact is the Big Apple is bad for bikes because of the laws. New York provides no separate—much less free—parking for scooters and motorcycles. Riding the line between lanes, considered the main benefit of two-wheelers elsewhere, is classified as "reckless riding" here. Just ask any of the judges I've seen down at the Traffic Violations Bureau. Obtaining a license is a huge chore, requiring hundreds of dollars and lots of patience; the current waiting list for the lessons necessary to obtain a license is more than three months long.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has warned that within a decade, morning and evening commutes could consume half of a New Yorker's workday. And since the state government has denied the city's request to implement a London-style congestion charge, New York is desperately looking for other ways to cut traffic. The city could achieve similar results to congestion pricing by borrowing another play from London's book: making itself bike-friendly.

Unlike cars and trucks, motorcycles and scooters don't create congestion. By traveling through stationary traffic, they're actually able to safely and efficiently reduce congestion, no matter what the NYPD says. Bikes also save you money on gas—the average Vespa manages about 75mpg—in part because they don't have to idle in traffic jams. Even a Toyota Prius gets 0mpg when it's sitting still. Of course, bikes are fun, too. When was the last time you heard anyone say that about the subway?

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