Saturday, 5 October 2013

5 Oct: A ride around Manhattan Island

Nigel writes: A weekend in New York City gave me the opportunity to rent a bike for the afternoon and go for a ride around the city. I wanted to ride a complete circuit around the edge of the island of Manhattan, using the traffic-free cycleways which run along the shore for much of the way.

I rented a bike from Bike and Roll at Pier 42 on the western side of Manhattan, near where 42nd Street meets the Hudson River. This is a large tourist-oriented bike hire chain (I had seen their bikes in San Francisco last week) with multiple rental locations. I chose this one because it was within walking distance of my hotel. Four hours' rental of a slightly better-than-cheapest "performance" bike cost me $52 (£32) - quite expensive, though earlier research had shown that this was a fairly typical price, and of course I thought it well worth the enjoyment obtained.

The Bike

The bike was a fairly basic Trek hybrid. With a rear rack, a small handlebar bag, a lock and plenty of gears, it was a perfectly practical vehicle for use on a big city. The only problem was that the pedals were a bit slippery for my cleated shoes, but I got the hang of that fairly quickly.

The route itself was suggested on the Bike and Roll website: a 31-mile circumnavigation of the island of Manhattan - though I suspect that this would be rather too far, and too adventurous, for a typical tourist.

I set off north from the bike hire place along the Hudson Valley Greenway, which is a traffic-free cycle path which runs along the Hudson River for almost the entire western side of Manhattan. For the first few miles it was busy with locals and tourists.

The weather? - it was hot, still, hazy and overcast, and somewhat humid.

Heading north along the the west side of Manhattan. This is the Hudson Valley Greenway

Although the path itself was free of motor vehicles, the roar of traffic was always close by, since for much of the way the path runs between a busy highway and the river. Generally the quality of the path was very good, although at 132nd street we were diverted onto local roads for a few blocks.


Short signposted diversion through West Harlem

The route was soon back beside the river. As I continued north the Hudson River became something of a gorge, with the mansion blocks of Upper Manhattan rising high above me on the top of a cliff.

Back on the Hudson Valley Greenway. Pedestrians on the left, bikes and people with webbed feet on the right

After a few more miles the George Washington Bridge appeared. This connects Manhattan with New Jersey and its proximity meant that I was approaching the northern end of the island.

Approaching the George Washington Bridge, with the forests of New Jersey on the other side

Passing under the George Washington Bridge

The riverside cycle path doesn't go all the way to the tip of Manhattan, so the final half mile to my most northerly point was on local roads. There was little traffic and the main challenge was some surprisingly steep streets. Fortunately my bike had a triple-chainset and plenty of low gears.

After a short time I reached a busy and congested street which led north to a bridge over the Harlem River. This is the river which makes Manhattan an island rather than a peninsula. The road over the bridge was, rather incongruously, Broadway.

The most northerly point of the ride and almost the most northerly point in Manhattan, the bridge which takes Broadway over the Harlem River

This was a noisy, traffic-choked place so I quickly moved on back south. Still on streets, I discovered that the northern tip of Manhattan was a humdrum industrial area, and I found myself cycling past a depot of dozens of city refuse vehicles. Despite this it was quite interesting to be cycling on normal city streets and having an opportunity to mix with the notorious New York traffic. In the event, I had no problems, mainly because the streets are so wide that it was easy to stay out of the way of cars for most of the time. After while I turned east back to the river and found the start of the cycleway which leads south along the east side of Manhattan.

Heading south along the Harlem River on the east side of Manhattan, approaching the Washington Bridge at 181st Street and the Cross-Bronx Expressway beyond. Not many cyclists about this far north!

Unfortunately there was a three-mile gap in the riverside path to the east of Harlem, so I had to make a long excursion through city streets once more, this time though central Harlem. Again, this was fairly straightforward, with cycle lanes much of the way. However, whilst riding east along E 120th Street, which is one-way, I didn't immediately notice that there was an on-road cycle lane was on the left side of the street rather. This seemed totally counter-intuitive for a one-way street in a country where vehicles travel on the right. I crossed over to use it and found myself riding into the path of oncoming cyclists who were (not surprisingly) treating it as a contraflow. I stopped and checked the road markings and confirmed that I was indeed going in the correct direction and carried on.

Before long I was back on the bank of the Harlem River and heading south once more.

Other cyclists appear - we must be getting back to the south end of Manhattan

The quality of the cycle path improved and more and more other cyclists appeared. However when I reached the United Nations the cycle path ended and we were dumped back onto city streets for several blocks. Again, I was bemused to find that 2nd Avenue, which is one-way southbound, had a (very wide) cycle lane on the left side of the road. Again, after a few blocks I could turn back towards the river and return to traffic-free cycling once more along the Harlem River which, after a while, became the East River.

The East River Esplanade, looking back north towards the Empire State Building

I was now approaching Lower Manhattan and I knew that my journey was approaching its end. Around the southern tip of the island the cycle path became rather difficult to follow, with the superb wide path periodically disappearing and dumping you onto the road, or even the pavement, for short distances before beginning once more. Nevertheless it was mostly a case of following all the other cyclists, south to Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan and then back north along the Hudson River to Pier 42 near 42nd Street. I arrived back at the bike rental point four hours after I had left, having cycled a very satisfying 31 miles.

Back on the west side, the final leg back north along the Hudson Valley Greenway. This is supposedly the busiest bike path in the USA, and I can believe it

View this GPS track on a larger map


  1. very interesting - thanks for sharing!

  2. Great to read about your 'intrepid' US cycling. Pity you didn't have time for a quick circuit of Central Park too!