New York: Boris bikes get a Manhattan transfer

Nikhil Kumar braves the city's manic streets to put the new bicycle-hire scheme to the test

City-dwellers around the world love to moan about taxi drivers. But since moving to New York in October, I've had no reason to complain about the local cabbies. This could simply be because I've lived here for less than a year and have used cabs sparingly. Nevertheless, when I have hailed a ride, I've found the drivers friendly and attentive, and not once – not even in hindsight after learning the routes – have I felt short-changed.

Last week, however, for a couple of hours on an otherwise unremarkable afternoon, the largely friendly faces that I'd encountered behind the wheels suddenly began to look strangely sinister. When they turned corners, I detected a fiendish glow in their eyes. Up around Columbus Circle, where traffic coming down from the Upper West Side hits the Midtown rush, I felt as if they were driving too fast, being too rash.

I was, in other words, on one of the cobalt-blue Citi Bikes that form part of New York's new bike-share scheme (citibikenyc.com). I hadn't cycled in a big city for more years than I can recall and I soon remembered why I'd resisted doing so, despite the obvious savings in train and taxi fares (and yes, that thing about getting in shape, too). Although I was exercising a great deal more caution than Joseph Gordon-Levitt's fast-pedalling bike courier did in last year's Premium Rush film, it swiftly became clear that the drivers of Gotham weren't keen on sharing the roads with me.

Now, everyone will tell you how pleasurable it is to bicycle in Central Park – and it is. A network of bike lanes runs through the park and a dedicated path runs along its west side. Beyond the park, however, you need to research available bike lanes beforehand, because the network remains skeletal. Deviating from the lanes leaves you competing with the traffic for space – and taxi drivers, in particular, weren't keen on giving way. One forced me off my bike as he turned a corner near 42nd Street.

In fact, bicyclists are probably best served by staying clear of Midtown during the morning and the evening rush. In places without bike lanes, there are just too many cars on the road, and it's better to switch to the far west or the far east side of Manhattan. In Brooklyn, the scheme currently covers a relatively small patch – popular areas such as Cobble Hill or Park Slope aren't yet on the map, although you can bike up Brooklyn Heights, near the water and to Williamsburg – but it will expand in time.

The scheme has been labelled "Mike's Bikes" after Mayor Bloomberg, by parts of the press here, but most New Yorkers seem intent on calling it Citi Bikes, after the sponsor Citibank. It has been in the works for a while and was delayed as a result of software glitches. And that was before it was pushed back again following Hurricane Sandy.

Bikes finally began to roll off the stands at the end of last month, although some teething problems were obvious when I arrived at my nearest stand: a man at the payment kiosk was struggling to purchase a day pass and the system kept rejecting his credit card.

These relatively minor bugs will I'm sure be dealt with in time. A more pressing issue became apparent when I returned my bike to a stand near Times Square later in the afternoon. A cyclist had just arrived to deposit his bike after riding around for half an hour. As with similar schemes throughout the world, daily and weekly pass holders must bring their bikes back to a stand within 30 minutes. They may then switch to another bike to continue their journey by generating a new code. Failure to return a bike within half an hour triggers overtime fees: after the initial 30 minutes, bikers are on the hook for $4 for the next half hour, $9 for the one after that and then $12 for every half hour thereafter. For annual members, who pay about $100, each trip is limited to 45 minutes and penalty charges are lower.

If a bike is not properly docked at a stand, it could, after 24 hours, trigger a charge of $1,000, as the system then considers it stolen. A sensible precaution on the face of it – except when the stands don't work properly. And that's what happened to the poor, panting soul next to me who was attempting to return his bike on Thursday. He kept ramming it back in the dock without success.

Alex, a biker who had just docked hers in Midtown, told me: "For me, the bigger problem was finding somewhere to park." She'd been to two other stands before arriving at one near Times Square. Both were out of order.

The bikes themselves, though, are well designed. As with the London scheme, they are heavier than you might wish – but that's probably a good thing, as it keeps the speed in check. They come with three gears and are easy to manoeuvre. Perhaps the biggest issue for the occasional rider is the lack of provision for helmets. There is no rule barring riders from doing away with headgear, but why anyone would wish to do so on Manhattan's streets is beyond me.

Ultimately, New York is no Copenhagen or Berlin. Getting more people to pedal to work, or to use the bikes as way of seeing the city, is a good idea in principle. But New York still lacks the infrastructure to make the system work as it should. Until that changes, exercise a good deal of caution, especially when you see a bright yellow sedan in the corner of your eyes.

City cycles: The good and the bad

Paris

The Vélib' scheme is now properly bedded in, with visitors able to access bikes for a couple of euros a day. Provision for cyclists is excellent and gradually improving still further – though the bike "contraflow" along Rue de Rivoli, beside the Louvre, is not always respected by gridlocked motorists.

Istanbul

Even when Turkey's largest city is fully peaceful, almost no one cycles in Istanbul: the street network is awkward and badly maintained and the traffic terrible. The best tactic: cycling the wrong way down one-way streets, so you can look all the motorists in the eye. Thankfully, I left town before I was arrested or, more likely, flattened.

Amsterdam

The Dutch pioneered bike-sharing with the "White Bikes" project in the Seventies – but it very quickly turned into bike-stealing. Today you can readily rent a bike, for example from Mike's Bikes (mikesbiketoursamsterdam.com). The cobbles of the compact city centre impose their own speed limit. Simon Calder

Montreal

For half the year, bikes are best in Montreal. Winter snows mean that the Canadian city's Bixi scheme – which was launched in 2009 and became the template for London's Boris Bikes a year later – runs only between April and November. However, with 350km of bike lanes, plus the chance to cycle laps of the Gilles-Villeneuve F1 circuit, I found it well worth saddling up. Users are charged C$5 a day.

St Petersburg

I have done few things scarier than biking, helmetless, down St Petersburg's Nevsky Prospekt. A shame, because the city is flat and full of gracious squares that should encourage cycling in summer. Nevertheless, it's hard to disagree with Lonely Planet's view: "Pothole-riddled roads and lunatic drivers unaccustomed to cyclists make it a dangerous proposition." Ben Ross

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