By VERENA DOBNIK
NEW YORK — In a metropolis known for its aggressive traffic, noise and fumes, cyclists crisscross New York City on two wheels while dodging cars, trucks, cabs, pedestrians — and even other bikers tearing around with no hands on the bar.
Despite the dangers, biking is New York City’s “fastest growing mode of transportation,” says City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who herself bikes to work in lower Manhattan, about a mile from her Greenwich Village home.
The number of cyclists has jumped by 80 percent in the past decade — to 185,000 among the more than 8 million city denizens.
City officials say they’ve worked to make the city more biker friendly. They note the hundreds of miles of marked bike paths created in recent years, safety awareness campaigns and handouts of free helmets to unprotected cyclists.
Over that time, bicycle accidents have fallen more than 40 percent.
“A lot of people consider it an act of bravery to get on a bike in New York City,” Sadik-Khan says. “But we’ve created a biking network that affords more security for bicyclists — a safer and healthier way to get around.”
Still, the big city presents daunting safety problems for its thriving cycling population.
Barbara Ross remembers being “doored” in Manhattan — a car door suddenly flying open on a city street as her bicycle crashed into it.
When she commutes to work from her Lower East Side apartment to the World Financial Center, construction sometimes blocks the bike lane and forces her into traffic while cars zoom by, inches away.
“I just hold my breath,” she says.
Maura Tobias, a bookkeeper for a Quaker organization cautiously pedaling a rusting Schwinn mountain bike, says she and her boyfriend have commuted to work on bicycles every day — except in blizzards.
“But I avoid big cross-town streets like this as much as possible because of the buses and the big trucks,” she says as she heads through a busy intersection at Park Avenue and East 23rd Street.
The city is dotted with eerie reminders to beware: junker “ghost bikes” painted white and decked with flowers to memorialize cyclists at the spots where they died.
There’s one on Manhattan’s West Side, where Dr. Carl Nacht, a physician, was hit by a careless police tow truck in 2006 while cycling home with his wife on the landscaped greenway that runs along the Hudson River from the top of Manhattan to the harbor downtown.
But statistics show that cycling accidents are falling steadily as the biking population rises.
Advocates say there’s safety in numbers.
“It’s like a snowball effect,” says Noah Budnick, a senior policy adviser for the Transportation Alternatives advocacy group. “The more cyclists there are on the street, the more drivers are aware of them and are looking out for them.”
Between 2000 and 2008, 177 cyclists were killed in accidents, at a steady rate of about 15 to 20 a year. The cycling deaths mirror the national rate of 2.7 bike deaths per million people a year.
Accidents have fallen dramatically, by about 44 percent since 1996 and by 18 percent since 2000, when 3,563 bicycling injuries were reported, compared with 2,916 in 2008, according to the city’s Department of Transportation.
The city now has 420 miles of marked bike lanes and paths along the streets in all five boroughs — half of those created in the past three years. Another 200 miles are off the street, including Central Park and other green oases like the Hudson River path.
Three specially designed street lanes are separated from moving traffic by parked cars, which Sadik-Khan calls “a wall of steel.” Two are on Manhattan’s far West Side and the third snakes downtown through the city’s Soho, Little Italy and Chinatown.
“They’re heavenly lanes,” says Tobias, but dangerous in another way. “It’s so ideal you can go into a dream state and not pay attention.”
Even on the waterfront bike path, she is alert to racing bikers suddenly hot on the trail of slower riders unless they get out of the way. “I stay all the way on the right side, like a car driver going in the slow lane.”
In general, however, a bicycle in New York is often “the fastest way to get around,” says Sadik-Khan.
The bottom line, cyclists say: Ride everywhere and keep your eyes open.
The city has spent $1.5 million for an advertising campaign called LOOK, reminding drivers and bikers to watch out for each other. And in the past three years, 23,000 free helmets have been distributed; they’re required for children, bike messengers and delivery people.
The city also has increased parking spots to accommodate the bike boom. Wheels can be stored for free in 20 municipal parking shelters built where bus stops used to be and on more than 6,000 bike racks, including nine artsy designs by David Byrne fabricated by his famed gallery, PaceWildenstein.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed the only law of its kind in the country this month that requires commercial building owners to allow bikes to be stored inside.
But most New York cyclists are fiercely independent — or even rebellious.
On the last Friday of each month, a sea of cyclists calling itself Critical Mass rolls through Manhattan, claiming their right to safe urban riding and sometimes getting in the way of normal traffic patterns.
Says Ross, a telecommunications worker and volunteer for the Time’s Up! environmental group: “Riding in a group is how I got over my fear.”