Biking takes off in South Bronx

Biking initiatives are taking hold in the Bronx, but while 65 miles of bike lanes were installed between 2007 and 2013, there is only one protected bike lane, outside the original greenway that winds through Bronx Park.

Rob Colon sits on a tall bike (made by welding two frames together) inside Neighborhood Cycles in Mott Haven with Raphael Maldonado.
Rob Colon sits on a tall bike (made by welding two frames together) inside Neighborhood Cycles in Mott Haven with Raphael Maldonado.

But obstacles remain to make bike paths safer

When Celestino Calexto first opened EZ Hardware on Willis Avenue in Mott Haven five years ago, he was surprised by how many customers came in looking for bike parts and repairs. Over the years, as the requests became more frequent, Calexto figured he had stumbled onto another business opportunity. Two months ago, he and his business partners opened a full-fledged bike store on 138th Street — Cruz Bicycles Shop — with new and used bikes for sale, as well as any parts or accessories a cyclist could need.

Calexto’s story is one example of the bike culture explosion in New York City, which has been fiercely promoted by the city’s Department of Transportation under former Mayor Bloomberg, and now under Mayor de Blasio. Since 2007, commuter cycling has more than doubled and bike lanes have more than tripled. In 2013, the city launched a bike share program, CitiBike, with 6,000 bikes stationed around lower Manhattan and Brooklyn.

But while 65 miles of bike lanes were installed in the Bronx between 2007 and 2013, there is only one protected bike lane, outside the original greenway that winds through Bronx Park. And as the bike share program expands, the Bronx is still left out. Despite these challenges, local biking initiatives are taking hold in the South Bronx.

“We started organizing bike rides, exploring the idea that when you get together and ride, you create a social sculpture, you create safety in the streets, making the reality for ourselves,” said Elizabeth Hamby, a Mott Haven artist who co-founded Boogie Down Rides with fellow artist Hatuey Ramos-Fermin in 2012 to promote cycling in the borough.

Hamby is now involved with the Bronx Activist Committee of Transportation Alternatives, which advocates for better and safer mass transit, walking and biking. A 2014 highlight for Hamby was the re-instatement of Summer Streets on the Grand Concourse, when cars were banned and Bronx residents reclaimed one of the most dangerous arterial streets in the borough, and enjoyed music, dancing and socializing. “We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a significant gap,” said Hamby.

The city’s bike share program announced their expansion plan, which will bring the total number of bikes to 12,000 and stations to 700 by 2017. But the Bronx wasn’t included.

“That’s not right,” said Rob Colon of Morrisania, who works at Neighborhood Cycles in Melrose.

Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg announced a plan to add 50 miles of bike lanes per year, five miles of which will be protected lanes. In addition, Trottenberg announced a new program to make city bridges safer for cyclists. Five Harlem River crossings between the Bronx and Manhattan will be the department’s first focus, she said at the City Council’s transportation oversight committee in November.

“If there were more bike lanes like the Hudson River Greenway, it’d be cool,” said Raphael Maldonado who lives in the Patterson Houses and got into biking about three years ago. He has joined the Bronx Classics Bike Club on their ride to Coney Island, as well as Transportation Alternatives’ Tour de Bronx, New York State’s largest free bike ride.

The South Bronx is also scheduled to see new connections to Manhattan via the High Bridge and to Randall’s Island in 2015. And U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano secured $5.7 million in federal funds for three pedestrian and bicycle safety projects on Bruckner Boulevard, East Tremont Avenue and the Grand Concourse.

However, street safety remains a big issue. As of November, 19 cyclists were killed while riding in the city, compared to 12 for the entire calendar year in 2013, as reported by the NYPD.

“People need to understand they are driving deadly weapons,” said Longwood resident and regular cyclist Damian Griffin.

When Mayor de Blasio took office, he introduced the Vision Zero action plan, which aims to end traffic deaths and injuries citywide. The plan includes increased traffic law enforcement, street re-designs, legislation and education.

Despite the hazards of riding, Griffin still believes “the bike is the best mode of local transport.” His daily commute from Longwood to Norwood takes about 30 minutes, compared to the hour it would take on mass transit. He also enjoys cycling because it builds exercise into his daily routine. “Biking improves mental and physical health, develops a sense of community with people on the streets and strengthens our connection to the environment.”

Hamby agrees. “Biking is a fun and quick way to travel, and a great way to experience what the Bronx has to offer.”

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