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Braking Away

The New York Times: Braking Away

By CHRIS RASCHKA
Published: May 1, 2010

TEN years ago, riding a bicycle through the streets of New York was still considered outlandish behavior at best, and possibly insane. At the time, I viewed this with chagrin, but also complacency. I biked everywhere.

Like a goat in a cattle drive, I was jostled by a delivery van on Ninth Avenue, went over my handlebars because of an out-of-town driver on Seventh, and was casually bumped into by a limousine driver on Sixth who stopped and got out to see if I had damaged his side-view mirror, while I lay unattended on the sidewalk.

But in the last few years, bicycling has become an accepted and much safer way to get around the city. Bike lanes abound, putting cars, trucks and vans at least a couple of feet farther from me. On the many paths along the rivers I can find breezy quiet and truly fresh air.

Perhaps looking for a new challenge, I’ve been attempting something unexpected in New York City bike-riding behavior: I stop for red lights.

The reasons for this are not as obvious as you might think. While it is true that my running of red lights in the past has led to one big traffic ticket and one court summons, fear of retribution is not the main thing.

Nor is concern for my own safety the primary reason. My legal record notwithstanding, I’ve never been a hell-bent rider. Certainly, I didn’t want to hit anyone. And, yes, I believe a bike-friendly city deserves friendlier bikers — but these, too, are ancillary reasons.

No, for me, the real reason for stopping at red lights — seriously, not even right on red! — is simply to see if it can be done.

Frankly, it is not easy. In the old days, reds meant merely coasting for a second, looking left or right and charging through. If I lingered even a moment too long waiting for the Midtown traffic to clear, I was sure to receive the scorn of New York’s bike messengers. One even gleefully shouted, as he passed me by, “Amateur!”

Now, forget about it — I might as well be an alien. First of all, I am the only one. I have never seen another bicyclist waiting at a red light simply because it was red. Children ride past me and snicker. Bankers, with their suit-legs neatly clipped, pedal by on their folding bikes and cast silent derision my way. Even gray-haired matrons whiz past me, the sprockets of their three-speeds clicking out a steady refrain — an accusation, really: chump chump chumpety chump chump chumpety chump chump.

These are trying moments — especially at the little red light on the Hudson River bike path at 39th Street, which, for no apparent reason, lasts for half a minute too long, an eon in bike time.

Still, there are compensations. Cab drivers roll down their windows to chat, inevitably remarking, “You are the only one, the only one.” Moms with strollers seem to like me, and sometimes tell me so. The sight of police officers no longer makes me wince. Relaxed on my saddle, one foot on the curb, arms folded across my chest, I can enjoy just being still for a moment. I can appreciate angles of buildings never noticed before, or vistas down avenues like dreamscapes.

And then the light turns green and I ride off again.

Chris Raschka is the author and illustrator of the forthcoming children’s book “Little Black Crow.”