Biking NYC in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy

Four days after Hurricane Sandy unleashed an unprecedented storm surge, our Downtown Manhattan neighborhood remains without electricity, water and cellular service. Still, I’m grateful that our family and home are safe and dry.

Would it surprise you to learn that during these temporarily challenging times, it’s my bicycle that’s helping us get on with our lives? Traveling on two wheels is easing post-storm hardships by making shorter work of obtaining water, food and medicine, checking on relatives and, now, getting back to work.

While the aftermath of Sandy is extraordinary in its crippling effect on the public transit system that New Yorkers rely on, to me it’s also a remind of the obvious: bicycling in New York City is always the fastest, most efficient means of getting around. What’s more, in the depths of cabin fever and general grumpiness about a lack of running water, the everyday pleasure of cycling continues to work its magic, helping me rise to the level that New Yorkers are known for when the chips are down.

Here are some day-by-day examples, as well as photos I shot while riding around town:

Photo above: A storm-tossed tree branch on University Place.

Taped Window
A Greenwich Village hair salon taped its windows.

Stranded With Lights Out

Greenwich Village is a ghost town. During a week when visitors typically swarm into the neighborhood for the famed Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, most citizens have fled to wherever electricity, a shower and the internet are to be found or they have left town altogether. Countless rolling suitcases attached to taxi-hailing neighbors lined the avenues beginning on Wednesday. Now, the streets are empty; traffic is light and pedestrians and cars move haltingly in the absence of working traffic signals. At night, the neighborhood is completely dark.

Despite many generous offers from friends who have electricity, we’ve decided to stay put because my husband is recovering from knee surgery and is, in the absence of elevator service, unable to walk down the 11 flights of stairs from our apartment. So, for us, it’s candles and flashlights, bottled water, buckets from the street-front tap for washing and meals foraged daily from neighborhoods to the north, where the difference between electricity and none is like the contrast between B & W and color.

On Tuesday, the day after the storm, I was able to carry my lightweight racing bicycle down the stairs and hit the streets to survey the damage in the neighborhood, which was thankfully confined to downed tree limbs and branches, and to ride to my inlaws’ apartment to check on them.

In addition, being able to ride quickly uptown helped me discover the limits of the power outage, which weren’t immediately clear from radio reports, which were all we had. On the east side, I rode up Third Avenue past countless shuttered and darkened businesses, a few with taped windows. As I approached 39th Street, the presence of a working stop light signaled that I had found the boundary line.

Charging Station
In the West Village, a brownstone owner who was running a generator, generously extended a power strip to neighbors.

Foraging for Food Uptown

From there, I was able to ride crosstown in search of an open restaurant. Food stocks that we thought had been generous in preparation for the storm (happily) evaporated as our grown children fled their own blacked-out apartments to stay with us. I found, of all things, an artisanal grilled cheese sandwich shop where the line out the door wasn’t as long as that of the few other open restaurants that I had passed. Rapidly dwindling supplies turned ordering into sketch comedy: “I’ll take a sharp cheddar and smoked bacon sandwich.” “We’re out of cheddar and we’re out of bacon.” But I was able to buy enough to feed a family of five. The party atmosphere at the shop, where the owner handed out free cans of cans of beer to patrons facing long waits, was a mood booster.

On Wednesday, my search by bicycle was on for an open drug store to pick up medicine for my husband. Remember, we’ve got no internet access, and radio reports were mostly limited to breaking news and man-in-the-street accounts. On the west side I found that power was on above 26t Street, and an open pharmacy at Seventh Avenue and 27th Street had what we needed. Along Seventh Avenue, I passed clusters of smartphone users huddled near the windows of jammed fast-food chains to grab free WiFi. I pulled over and joined them.

Coffee Truck
Coffee- and electricity-starved New Yorkers lined up at food trucks.

Becoming a Bicycle Commuter

Although I’m not a daily commuter — in the sense that I follow a specific route from point A to B — I’ve became one as I’ve relied on friends in Upper Manhattan for temporary office space. With the help of my super, I carried my regular city bike — the one that holds a sturdy basket for shopping and that can be locked without worry on city streets — down the stairs. So as people returned to work on Thursday, amid radio reports of clogged bridges and snarled traffic, I jetted up Sixth Avenue to Rockefeller Center in the company of plenty of others who traveled by bicycle that day. On 49th Street where I was working, there wasn’t an open spot to be found to lock up a bike. Even an iron traffic barrier around the corner, just south of Radio City Music Hall, was jammed, mostly with mountain bikes.

Bike Commuters
Bicycle commuters navigate around a branch that fell into the First Avenue bike lane. (via Transportation Alternatives)

As the MTA struggles to fully restore service in the wake of what’s been called the worst disaster in the agency’s 108-year history, greater numbers New Yorkers are turning to cycling to get where they need to go. My friend John told me yesterday that he had used his bicycle to commute from his Upper East Side apartment building to his office in Midtown. “You know,” he said. “I was thinking ‘Why not?’ I could probably keep this up.” Wouldn’t it be great if more New Yorkers, like John, discover in the wake of Sandy the many personal and civic advantages of making two-wheeled transportation a part of their daily lives?

New Commuter
Portrait of John: Future bicycle commuter?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *