A series of coincidences brought Amsterdam’s bike mayor to New York City. Elected the world’s first bike mayor in June 2016 as part of an initiative by Dutch NGO CycleSpace, Anna Luten has a duty to champion cyclists’ rights and raise their concerns to the municipalities. But before she could complete the first year of her bike mayorship, 29-year-old Anna Luten flew to New York City to research the urban situation and pour the passion and energy she nurtured back in the Netherlands to America’s most populated city.

Amsterdam’s bike mayor didn’t pick the Big Apple off the map; it was, in fact, when her husband got a job in the city that she jumped on the opportunity to take her bike uprising beyond her native Amsterdam. Now based in Manhattan, Luten is exploring how cyclists manoeuvre their relationships with both car drivers and municipalities in New York.

After just four weeks in New York, she observes that one thing that the city is missing is the normalization of riding bicycles. “People will be encouraged to ride bikes more often once the infrastructure gets better, and [it] won’t get better as long as nobody’s asking for it,” Luten tells progrss.

Before she moved to New York, she asked a Department of Health official at City Hall to discuss the city’s plans to improve New York’s infrastructure, only to find that they forgot to include cyclists in their surveys on how the infrastructure could better serve them.

Bike Mayor

Cycling in New York. Source: Cycle Love

Unlike cyclists in Amsterdam, who come from different social and economic classes, New Yorkers on bikes are often from the working class who basically can’t afford to invest in vehicles and gas. Adding to the struggle, New York cyclists, who are often deliverymen and women, are often obliged to make sudden movements to manoeuvre to different lanes without being hit by a vehicle. This creates a prejudice against them, deeming them irresponsible. Luten explains that this is mainly driven by the lack of infrastructure needed to embrace and protect cyclists of the city; the cyclists feel like they have to do this so they can be seen in order to not be run over and it works out for them.

Luten sees that most of the streets she’s been to in Manhattan are car-oriented, with very little or no consideration to pedestrians or cyclists, which plays a significant role in the enthusiasm and encouragement of the growing cyclist community in New York.

“You can often also see huge holes in the ground, which are very dangerous for cyclists and passersby. Municipalities must step in to do something about it,” Luten says. “I often see big spaces in the streets, ideal for cycling spots; municipalities should use this as an opportunity to use this simple structure of the city to pave ways for a better environment for cyclists,” she adds.

Luten has meetings and appointments scheduled with both government and civil society, which include more officials from City Hall and Citi Bike, among others.

Janette Sadik-Khan Bike Mayor

Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s transportation commissioner, in 2007. (Credit: Randy Harris)

Although the country’s first bike lane was painted in New York back in 1984, cyclists’ safety is still at risk, with dozens killed every year and hundreds seriously injured from road and car accidents.

There has long been a dispute between New York’s Police Department and cyclists. During a mass protest before the Republican National Convention in 2004, over 200 cyclists got arrested on charges of “disrupting traffic.” This was when cyclists first found themselves categorized as political activists when they were mere cyclists participating in “Critical Mass” – a monthly bike ride around Manhattan and an event that participants consider as a celebration.

In contrast, between 2007 and 2013, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation Janette Sadik-Khan launched the largest bike share program nationwide and directed the installation of more than 250 miles (402 kilometers) of bicycle lanes, turned parts of Broadway into pedestrian plazas and eliminated hundreds of parking spots across the city. Moreover, there still happens to be a presence of both governmental and civil efforts towards a more bike-oriented New York. Central Park and Prospect Park, among others, ban or restrict motor vehicles during certain hours to promote cycling for recreational purposes.

Aside from infrastructure and roadwork, Luten suggests municipalities work on integrating cycling in school programs, movies and theaters as a way to gradually blend the lifestyle into the culture, as happened in the Dutch example. “We grew up in Amsterdam getting used to cycling as everyone else did it, so we cycled to and from our school, then our day jobs and so on,” Luten explains. Given its traffic, the bike mayor describes the Dutch city as very peaceful and safe for bikers as well as pedestrians. “In Amsterdam, it is so bike-oriented that you won’t even feel like you need to wear a helmet. Unlike New York, there are more bikes than cars. Some streets are even confined to bikes only as it is so hard for cars to roam flexibly.” There are a total of 800,000 bicycles in Amsterdam compared to 263,000 cars; 63% of city dwellers ride bikes for their daily commutes.

Amsterdam’s flat, compact and densely populated nature coupled with its mostly moderate climate helps the city’s cyclists, but cycling is also popular and normalized culturally. However there is more to it. Gerrit Faber of the Fietsersbond, or Cyclists’ Union says that the investment in cycling infrastructure that began in the 1970s was due to the post-war boom in auto reliance that led to unacceptably high death rates for cyclists. In 1971, more than 3,000 people were killed by cars, 450 of which were children. The citizens of Amsterdam called it a day and decided to abandon cars and take their bikes instead. Today, the Dutch city is proud to be a home to 250 miles (400 kilometers) of bicycle lanes criss-crossing the city.

Bike Mayor

A mother cycling with her children in Amsterdam.

Before she landed in Manhattan, the bike mayor’s biggest challenge was how to inspire New York’s cycling and non-cycling communities to create a safer, greener and more sustainable urban community. From the stories she had heard, she didn’t expect there would be a growing cycling community ready for her guidance, but explains that she is impressed by the municipality’s progress, although they have a long way ahead.

Luten expects to stay based in Manhattan for a long while, but she doesn’t intend to shift her eyes from the global cycling movement she’s started. On the long run, she’s hoping she can appoint an impartial New Yorker to be New York’s first bike mayor to listen to everyone’s problems and become the vessel for the city’s cycling community’s needs.

After New York, Luten is also interested in the progress in Sydney, which celebrated its first bike mayor just one month ago. “There’s also Mexico City, the competition is still running and they will choose their bike mayor in a couple of weeks, so I’ll probably go there as well. For me, it is very interesting to see those once not so bike-friendly, but here they are willing to make the shift and ready to make the change,” she says.

There is so much to cycling than a mere sport or a mean of transportation. “A lot of people are walking with their phones on the streets, texting or reading something,” Luten observes on the streets of Manhattan. “When things change, and these people get on their bicycles, the detachment from technology will occur and the human aspect will rise again.”