The Ninth Avenue bike lane in Chelsea is separated from traffic. This treatment is reserved for high-speed corridors. — Photo by Seth Holladay for NYC Bike Maps

While subway and bus commutes — at least for the rest of the city — are about to get longer and more crowded, at least one mode of transportation is getting easier. New York City’s Dept. of Transportation (DOT) reports that bicycle commuting has more than tripled in the past decade as bike-friendly improvements have been made to roads. Bike commuters and advocates mostly agree, but hope for even more improvements in the future.

The DOT’s Sustainable Streets Index allows it to gauge the efficiency of all the city’s transportation systems. The data collected inform the agency’s bicycle policy and indicate where improvements can be made. In 2009, the DOT celebrated the designation of 200 more miles of bike lanes in three years, including 4.9 miles of lanes separated from car traffic, with a major focus on connecting the lane network to the four East River bridges. There are now a total of 420 miles of bike lanes in the city, and over 600 signs direct cyclists to the bridges.

But the numbers aren’t quite cut-and-dried. The DOT admits the difficulty in reporting accurate numbers, due to inconsistent data collection. It also defines “commuting” as any trip of some distance taken regularly, not just trips to work. Short bike rides to work, say, in the same neighborhood, would not be counted; regular trips across town to band practice could be.

There are more data for those who bike in or out of midtown: the city has annually done a 12-hour count of cyclists in the area since 1985 called the Bicycle Screenline Count [pdf]. Some data, mostly from the Avenues, were dropped to account for messengers and food deliverymen. As other bicycle-friendly paths, like the Manhattan Bridge and the Hudson River Greenway, have opened in the interim, more surface routes were dropped from the data count, which now mostly focuses on bridges. Starting in 2007, the Screenline Count was taken three times a year; it is now taken 10 times.

Based on the data, the DOT created an index, using the year 2000 as a baseline. Interestingly, the index was slightly higher in 1995 than 2000, but that may point to differences in data collection. Since 2000, however, the index shows a marked increase in bike commuting. The DOT credits their safety improvements for the rise, and overall, cyclists seem to agree.

Web marketer James White, 24, bikes to work in the South Bronx from his Bushwick apartment two to three times a week.

“On a good day, I can make the trip in a little under an hour,” said White, noting it takes longer to ride the subway. “I’ve only lived in NYC for a year so I can’t tell you much about how bike commuting has or hasn’t improved, but I’m generally pretty happy with what the city has done.”

Matthew Reed, 36, has biked to work in midtown for over 6 years from various neighborhoods in the boroughs. While he agrees there is an overall safety improvement for cyclists in the city, in his opinion the safety gains on streets without a separate bike lane are marginal. He finds the best improvement in the bridge approaches.

“The Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges stand out, with the Manhattan getting the best improvements — still my favorite bridge to ride over,” Reed said.

BushwickBK’s Art Editor Stephen Truax, 24, has ridden his bike to various jobs in downtown Manhattan for the last two years. He, too, finds it faster than the subway, and feels the marked bike lanes do increase safety, but that they have drawbacks. “Unfortunately, because they are so new, they are treated as free space for swinging doors, loading docks, double parking, etc.,” he said.

Transportation Alternatives (TA), an organization that aims to reduce the dominance of the automobile on the city’s streets, has been working for decades to improve the city’s bicycle accommodations. Communications Director Wiley Norvell, a North Brooklyn resident, explained that the DOT’s count isn’t meant to be exact, but to denote a trend. TA uses the DOT’s data, which Norvell says is the best among US cities, and adds in census and survey information to extrapolate a larger picture of bicycle use in New York. The organization says that 110,000 New Yorkers ride a bike to work every day.

Norvell credits the new bike lanes for the increase in commuter cycling. “It’s clearly because of the bike lanes,” he said. “The quality and quantity of bike lanes in New York City has improved faster than any other city in the country. New York’s designs are being copied all over.”

As drivers begin to incorporate the new bike lanes into their understanding of the road, affirmed Norvell, bike commuting will become even safer.

In the future, Norvell said his organization would like to see more separate bike lanes on higher-speed corridors like the avenues in Manhattan and Flatbush and Altantic Avenues in Brooklyn. He couldn’t say if any of Bushwick’s thoroughfares might get the treatment.

“Most city streets don’t need physically separate lanes,” he said. As with pedestrians, “they work well with shared markings.”

And indeed a better shared road experience maybe possible. Reed, the long-term commuter, described himself as once being an “aggro cyclist” — in one incident, he put dents in a charter bus with his u-lock — but that riding became an easier and safer prospect once he learned to coexist with the car.

“After a while I started to realize I just needed to calm down and maybe ride a little slower,” he said. “As a result I find I have far fewer incidents and have reached a sort of happy medium where I respect the motor vehicle and they respect me.”

To “adopt” a bike lane, see Transportation Alternatives for information. Find tips and resources for biking to work on Bike New York’s web site. Local bike lane info is available on the Bushwick Bike Map.