Manhattan Motorcycling: A Cautionary Tale

Motorcycles parked under Park Avenue viaduct

Motorcycles parked under Park Avenue viaduct.

I work in east Midtown, Manhattan, an area abundantly well served trains and buses. So four days a week I ride the train like everybody else. Or sometimes I catch the express bus to try to spice up the routine. On Fridays, I try to bicycle in for health and wellbeing as long as it isn’t raining or snowing.

Yesterday, I decided to ride to work on a motorcycle. What a huge mistake!

My problem wasn’t so much the actual ride, which was as you might expect a harrowing mixture of adrenaline-pumping forward motion punctuated by frustrating delays from brutal traffic congestion.  I took Lexington Avenue the entire way, a route that is slightly shorter than my bike commute. I made very good use, I thought, of a motorcycle’s ability to filter forward to the front of a row of cars at a red light, by low-speed, reasonably safe lane splitting as required by the circumstances. I probably passed scores of cars this way. Despite this, the motorcycle trip was four minutes slower than my typical bicycle trip which follows a longer route through Central Park.  Motorcycling took 42 minutes, although I’d allotted 35. I can only imaging how long it would take by four-wheeled vehicle without the ability to lane-split, which is a strong argument for congestion pricing.

Motorcycling in Manhattan rush hour traffic is a mentally invigorating experience. You’re constantly evaluating the traffic on all sides of you, what’s ahead, what’s behind, what’s likely to be ahead in the immediate future, how others are behaving. You’re looking at the official lights and signals, but also paying attention to body language of drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists. Buses are turning in and out. There are trucks all over the place. Weaving cabbies. In a fluid and dynamic environment, you are hyper-alert and alive.

And it puts you into the city in front of you in an incredibly immediate way. At 86th Street, I was amazed by the river of pedestrians swarming across Lexington Avenue and packing into the downtown-bound entrance.  It’s a perspective you don’t see when you’re already on the train. It was a vivid reminder of just how much the subway is the economic underpinning of the city.

It also affects the rest of your day. When you arrive at work by train or bus, you arrive in a state of basic tranquil complacency. Everything is normal and you’re relaxed and ready for the day. Sitting down at the desk after bicycling in, I feel energized and at the same time enveloped by a strange zen-like calm.

Sitting down after motorcycling in, I was jittery and frazzled! I immediately drank a thermos full of tea to calm down the nerves. Thanks, Dear!

Just for the fun of it, I’d motorcycle in again occasionally if that was the only downside. But it wasn’t. The problem was parking.

After I got the motorcycle two years ago, I rode it into work one day and parked in a garage for $17, which was an expenditure I found hard to justify. This time, I was going to avoid that fee. Ask any New York City motorcyclist how to park, and he or she will tell you to remove your license plate to park with virtual impunity on sidewalks, commercial zones, anywhere. As long as you’re relatively out of the way and not preventing actual cars and truck from parking, you should avoid a problem. Technically, removing the plate means you’re vehicle is “abandoned” and subject to tow, but in the real world that doesn’t happen unless it’s there for a long time and someone complains about it. But it is a practical matter: If they don’t have your plate number, they don’t have a means of ticketing you.

I’ve been watching the local streets around the office and seeing that other motorcyclists do exactly this every day and all year long: Parking at the curb for free by removing their license plates after parking. I’ve particularly admired one rider who parks a beautiful mint Kawasaki W650 all year long, even in winter.

There are a few spots that seem more popular than others, and I picked one where there are between one and six motorcycles on any given weekday, always with license plates removed of course. The location is shown in the photo at the top of this post: 45th Street just east of Vanderbilt Avenue, underneath the viaduct that carries Park Avenue southbound through the Grand Central area. My bike in the center of the photo, next to the confidently striding vested gentleman.

To give you a better view, below is a close-up of the parking situation from another angle. I selected a spot next to two other bikes, in the margin of asphalt between the crosswalk and the thick white line delineates where a driver is supposed to stop at a red light. My goal in selecting that spot was to avoid interfering with pedestrians and let commercial and delivery vehicles continue to access the curb space they need, as they are the sole authorized users of curbside parking in this area on weekdays.

Motorcycle parking at 45th Street

Motorcycles parked on East 45th Street. Mine is at left.

At last, I felt I’d found a way to avoid paying high garage fees, while still not interfering with the needs of my fellow New Yorkers.  Just to savor it, here’s one more shot of the parked bike. Mine is the red cruiser at right.

My motorcycle, parked

My motorcycle, parked next to two others.

I checked on the bike at lunch time around 1, and everything was fine.  Ahh, perfection.

Parking ticket

Parking ticket

But it didn’t last long. I went to get the bike after work, and found a parking ticket on it!

The agent ticketed me based on my Vehicle ID Number!

So in an effort to avoid paying $17 to a garage, I now owe the City $65.

I am going to pay the fine, of course. They caught me fair and square and the ticket is valid. I was definitely breaking the law.

In fact, I have to give the City some grudging respect for this one. They’ve neutralized the whole “pull the plate” trick, at least in my case.

All of this raises the question: How are all these other guys managing to pull it off? I may never know.

Maybe in addition to removing their plates, they’ve also scratched out their VINs. That seems like it could come back to haunt you when you decide to sell the bike. Maybe they got ticketed too, just this one time. When I found the ticket, the other bikes were already gone. Maybe they make so much money don’t care about getting some fines. That seems hard to imagine.

Who knows. Anyway, I’m not going to worry about those guys. I’m just going to keep taking the train to work as usual.

UPDATE April 30, 2013:

I now have no choice but to park the legitimate way, with one of these guys dangling off of my handlebars displaying a Muni-Meter receipt. Here’s a visual from Saturday while I was at the dentist.

Motorcycle parking with muni-meter receipt

Parking with Muni-Meter receipt displayed on handlebars.

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