Essential Advice for City Riding, Navigating the Used Bike Market, and Boosting Your Confidence on Two Wheels
Located in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bike Plant is a bicycle-obsessed shop. The store specializes in repairs but also offers new bicycles, classes on repairing and riding a bike, and even a repair fund to help offset repair costs for those who can’t afford it. Owner Robin Graven-Milne explains, “We’re trying to keep bikes on the road that are already there and get them back on the road if they have been languishing in someone’s basement for years.”
With years of experience in repairs and a team full of city cyclists, Robin spoke to Bluedot Living Brooklyn to offer advice on getting started with bicycling in New York City. The number one skill that Bike Plant employees teach customers? How to start and stop a bike (safely) in traffic. “Just come to the shop and I will literally teach you,” Robin said, “because this is a really good way to feel more comfortable while you’re riding and feel like you have more control over your bike which is a big key to feeling safe.” Bike Plant even put out a helpful YouTube video to demonstrate for those who can’t make it to the shop in person.
Before anyone can be concerned with starting and stopping, they need a bicycle. “A used bike is definitely a good option,” Robin stated. However, buying a used bicycle whether off of Facebook Marketplace or at a store requires some research. “It is similar to buying a used car,” she said, “the more research you can do in advance, and the more you can understand how a bike works as a system, the less likely you are to buy a used bike that ends up needing a lot of extensive work.” To mitigate any scams or bad deals, Robin suggests offering to meet the person selling their used bike at a bike shop and ask the shop to assess the bike for you. That way, “You can understand that maybe the bike needs a little bit of work but has good bones, or it needs a new back wheel (which is a really expensive part) and you may choose to wait for a different bike.” (An Instagram account associated with Bike Plant, @coolbikesfromcraigslist, highlights Craigslist listings that have been initially vetted by Bike Plant.) If you want to forego a visit to a bike shop, Bike Plant has a used bicycle buying guide on their website as well.
Robin laughed, “I’ve thought about this so much, I really want people to get bikes.”
Once people have gotten a bicycle, the next step is riding it — a daunting prospect in a city like New York. Robin, who originally is from Vancouver, Canada, found New York streets scary. A friend offered her some good advice: “Just start small, go around the block a couple of times, figure out what you’re doing, and go from there.” Although it sometimes takes a few tries, “If you can start with really small trips you’ll realize how convenient cycling is. You can leave whenever you want, you’re not waiting for a train, it’s very affordable compared to most transportation, and it’s not that scary once you find your routes.”
The next step is to learn how to ride in traffic. “Riding your bike as a kid is not the same thing as operating a vehicle in traffic with pedestrians, cars, busses, other cyclists, e-bikes, and mopeds,” Robin explained. Cyclists need to be cognizant of traffic signals similar to the way drivers do. Street signs and some traffic lights will indicate rules specific to bicycles, which means that fines are also specific to bicycles. Bicycles are not allowed to ride on sidewalks or run red lights, and if caught may be fined.
As soon as you hop on a bicycle in Brooklyn, a whole world of opportunity opens up to you. While Robin mostly commutes, she explained, “If I’m on the subway, I feel like I’m missing everything between point A and point B. But if I’m riding my bike, I have the ability to stop anywhere I want.” In New York, with so many hidden gems, this proves an invaluable opportunity. Robin’s favorite way to cycle in the city is to find Open Streets. “I will always go out of my way to bike along the 34th Ave Open Street in Jackson Heights because it’s just so nice.” Open Streets are a great, and safe, place to practice getting comfortable on a bike. Mostly pedestrian, “Everyone is hanging out, eating at restaurants, kicking it, or sitting on the median.”
To take full advantage of the freedom of a bicycle, you may need a bike lock. “A lot of people don’t factor in the cost of security when they’re looking for a bike,” Robin said. “I would say this is a very good place to allot a good chunk of your budget.” There are a few different types of locks — U-locks, wheel locks, cable locks — and also some locking systems, such as the triangle locking system. How much should it cost? Robin suggests “A full bike security system that would really make me feel like my bike won’t get tampered with or stolen might cost you around $200 but you can always take that to your next bike.”
Many cyclists in New York wear a helmet, but many more don’t. “A lot of people wear helmets because they’re scared of drivers,” Robin observed. “Helmet manufacturers have actually said that they don’t design helmets for crashes between drivers and cyclists.” Wearing a helmet could lead to a false sense of security, but their benefits are not to be ignored. Helmets can play a crucial role in protecting your head during a fall or a crash. But Robin’s point remains: the best way to keep people safe is to design safer streets. “Prioritizing the more vulnerable road users is what leads to safety for everyone, not really helmet usage,” Robin stressed. Only children under the age of 14 are required by law to wear a helmet, so for the majority of cyclists in New York, wearing a helmet is a personal choice. “It’s a fancy foam hat, but it has saved many people’s lives. Get one that feels comfortable and you’ll actually wear it if this is important to you.”
When it comes to road safety, “Riding a bicycle at a moderate speed isn’t dangerous, but the design of our roads is dangerous.” On the bright side, many advocacy groups are working hard to upgrade bicycle safety and infrastructure in New York City. The important thing is to get on a bicycle. “Our job is to get out there and use [that infrastructure] so that the city knows that once this infrastructure is here we are going to utilize it.”
“Even if you just hop on a CitiBike and ride around I think that’s a great thing to do,” Robin concluded.