The Empowering Path to Bicycle Commuting

Danyel Jones shares her motivations for getting back on a bike as an adult.

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Cycling in NYC

Photographer: Sam Polcer

What is the spark that inspires someone to get around by bicycle? For Danyel Jones, 42, of Brooklyn, NY, the wheels were set in motion by the combination of the bicycling boom in her city and the gentle persuasion of her partner of 10 years, Robert Heller, 40, who travels exclusively by bike.

Jones’ journey – from building confidence on the quiet side streets of her neighborhood to joining the stream of regular commuters crossing the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan – has brought her a deeper relationship with Heller and a personal sense of accomplishment and empowerment.

Jones returned to bicycling at a dynamic time in New York City’s history. Bicycle commuting was on the rise, and the City dramatically expanded the bike lane network and launched Citi Bike, the biggest bike share system in North America.

The improvements she noticed – from the bike parking corral that sprung up in front of a coffee shop in her old neighborhood to the addition of more painted lanes on the street – made an impression.

“Biking was changing in the city,” Jones said. “I felt like I was becoming part of the group.”

Jones’ thoughtful and reasoned approach offers a roadmap to getting back on a bike after a hiatus, overcoming the hesitancy to ride in traffic that is a key barrier for many, and finding a place among people who enjoy city bicycling.

The First Ride

Looking back, the seeds of an urban cycling lifestyle may have been planted in Jones’ youth in New Jersey. She clearly recalls her first ride at age eight. “I remember looking back and seeing my dad behind me, and I was riding!” said Jones.

At first, cycling was a path to adventure with the other kids in her quiet, wooded neighborhood in Franklin Township, NJ. Then, in her teen years, a 10-speed road bike offered a different kind of liberty – one from dependency on a car. “When we were teenagers in the suburbs and our parents were gone, the only way to get to Kmart was on a bike,” said Jones.

A bike lane along John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Somerset, NJ – a progressive feature for the late 1980s – proved to be both Jones’ conduit to the mall and her introduction to cycling infrastructure.

Walking New York

Jones moved to New York City in 1990 at age 18 and attended the Fashion Institute of Technology. There she majored in accessories design and reveled in the sense of independence that exploring her new home on foot and by public transportation gave her. “It was exciting to me to be a pedestrian in an urban setting.”

Jones is the first to admit that she was content with walking and taking transit for her early adult life. But by 2012, two influences converged to rekindle her interest in bicycling.

She observed that more people were riding bikes to work, and her partner Heller, who commuted regularly to Manhattan on a folding bike, made an increasingly influential case for the efficiency, freedom, and fun of traveling by bicycle.

“I was thinking, I’m dating a guy who does this,” Jones said. “I’ve got to get on the bike train.”

Cycling in NYC

Photo by Sam Polcer

Folding Bikes for Two

Soon Jones was easing her way back to two wheels on a folding bike, a birthday gift from Heller.

While she had no problems maintaining her balance, fear of riding in traffic and a lack of confidence while on a bicycle were hurdles she needed to conquer.

“It was nerve-racking just because of what New York City is,” said Jones of working up to riding on busy streets and avenues. She started conservatively, pedaling around Prospect Park in Brooklyn and then on side streets. Gradually, she began to build confidence by riding recreationally and for errands.

“It opened me up to things,” she said. “I felt more free. I could get places on time. I was doing something a little bit different than my friends and that was its own cool factor.”

To Jones, there was still a difference between riding to get a cup of coffee in the neighborhood and commuting, which required a different purpose and a longer ride.

She didn’t start commuting by bike to her job in sales at a Manhattan designer stone and tile showroom until spring of 2013, when her folder was stolen from her building. It was then that she bought a full-size bike.

Using Momentum Mag’s gear guide Jones researched and narrowed down her choices. Like many looking for their first bike, she said a trip to a bike shop felt somewhat intimidating. Jones chose a commuter shop in Brooklyn because someone she knew from her neighborhood had taken a job there. Jones purchased a Torker Graduate there.

She named her new bicycle “Grace”, after two women she considers to be strong role models. “She’s an extension of me,” said Jones of her midnight blue ride, which came with most of the features she needed for commuting.

One Bridge at a Time

For many urban bicycle riders, a bridge crossing marks a right of passage. After her hiatus, Jones’ first bridge trip was across the East River on the Manhattan Bridge, which connects Downtown Brooklyn with Lower Manhattan.

She was nervous, so she and Heller traveled the 6,855-foot (2,089-meter) length together in both directions, choosing a summer Saturday to avoid the weekday rush of commuters. A few days later, Jones set out on her own.

“When I crossed over, I heard the Rocky theme song,” she recalled with a laugh. “It’s so exciting when you get halfway over. Then you’re able to coast a bit. I was so proud. I had the biggest smile.”

Bike Lanes Build Confidence

Today, Jones commutes 7 miles (11 kilometers) to work each way, which takes about 45 minutes. She carries a change of clothes and beauty products in her pannier and freshens up in the office restroom. But she is not strict about cycling: If the weather is bad, she takes the train, still considering public transit one of the best amenities of urban living.

“I like to bookend my week,” said Jones. “Biking sets me up for a really good week, and it helps me finish out strong on Friday.”

From the Williamsburg Bridge, Jones can ride a good distance in the First Avenue protected bike lane on the way to her Flatiron District workplace, where she can park her bicycle indoors. “I like bike lanes because I’m conservative when it comes to certain things. I ride at my pace. I choose a bike lane when I can, and I feel more comfortable.”

Cycling in NYC

Photo by Sam Polcer

“When I’m riding on streets without demarcation, I’m more nervous,” said Jones. “But I know I belong there. So I keep myself visible.”

Finding Community in Cycling

Like others who have found joy in frequent biking, Jones has sought community among those who share her sensibility. She joined the New York City chapter of Black Girls Do Bike, which seeks to encourage more women of color to ride, and Transportation Alternatives, a bicycling and pedestrian advocacy organization.

As with everything else on her journey, Jones will continue to make a difference, mapping her route in a considered way and at her own pace. In the mean time, she strives to be a cheerful presence in the bike lanes.

“When I ride, I’m friendly and I make a point of smiling and acknowledging people,” said Jones. “Especially women. I’m always cheering on the chicks.”

2 Comments

  • Change the world. Saddle up and ride!

  • Nicole

    Thanks so much for posting this article! There’s so much here I can relate to — age, commuting distance, gender and ethnicity. I’ve been having a hard time getting back into the saddle consistently, but remember the feeling of riding as a child with joy (also in NJ!) and have been trying to reclaim that with my commute. I keep finding reasons that I “can’t”, but this has inspired me to give it a try again. For my health, for the planet and just for fun! Thank you.

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