You love your bike, you ride almost every day. And you work a real job in Manhattan. But the rents in New York are ridiculous! And just last week you got two $80 tickets when you were trying to get your workout in Central Park.
So where to live if you are a cyclist?
Fort Lee, NJ.
Yes, do not overlook this gem for the cycling set.
Rule number one, always live where there is space and minimal traffic, enough routes to shake boredom and routine, a decent number of fellow cyclists to ride with, and moderate housing costs.
Yes, the answer is this unofficial sixth borough of New York, right across the George Washington Bridge, and at the mouth of the best cycling routes near New York City.
We know Fort Lee is fast becoming the next bicycle capitol of the Northeast because this summer we spotted a teen hipster on a fixie cruising up the block and a middle-aged man commuting on a folder. Woah! Progress!
This is what will send you over the line: You can commute to the city about 200 days a year, weather permitting.
Access to the GWB pathway is from 6 am to 12 midnight, the only slight bugaboo.
But NJ Transit bus drivers have been known to allow people with bicycles onto their buses during non-commuting hours or emergencies, even though there are no bicycle allowances on their buses.
On days when you don’t want to commute by bicycle you can take any of the buses that run every five minutes from both sides, in Manhattan at the 177th St. Port Authority Bus station until 1:30 AM, and from the South Bridge Plaza stop, until about 1 AM. Service restarts at 5 AM on both sides of the Hudson River. (Between 1:30 AM and 5 AM you’ll have to take a very expensive taxi.)
The price to come across by bus is $2, but recently a court decision allowed commuters to pick up passengers on South Bridge Plaza and take them across for free, allowing the driver to receive a car pooler’s discount –$2 to cross instead of $12 using their EZPass.
The other critical factor in making Fort Lee so desirable for cyclists is that after 9/11, the Port Authority of NY and NJ which regulates the GWB, began closing the south ped/ bike path from midnight to 6 AM every morning.
This meant that if you lived in Manhattan and tried to do your ride in New Jersey before work, it was no longer possible to cross the bridge early enough to get to work by 9 AM.
Workouts on River Road provide cyclists with 7 miles of uninterrupted hilly terrain, ending in a 1-mile climb to Alpine. The return can be done back into the park, or on Route 9W. By adding a small jaunt north to State Line, you can get a 1.5 hour workout before heading off to work.
The option of riding in New Jersey is becoming more and more desirable when the alternative is a crowded Central Park filled with runners, dog walkers, and compulsive ticket-giving by the city’s police department.
Now residents have easy access to the Hudson River Drive (more commonly known as River Road,) thanks to the Port Authority and Mayor Mark Sokolich as well as bicycle advocate Ted Semegran who worked together to build the new pathway several years ago.
Tim Hall, director of the New Jersey group of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission was also instrumental in getting the long-sought after bike-ped path built.
But as with all things, the town has its pluses and minuses.
The first plus is of course that when you live in Fort Lee, you sit at the mouth of several bike routes northwards.
The second big plus is the fact that 99 percent of the outbound bicycle traffic from New York flows across the GWB, then up Hudson Terrace.
Much of those cyclists stop at Strictly Bicycles, the shop owned by Nelson and Joanna Gutierrez. When they moved from a small, out of the way location on Main Street to Hudson Terrace, they became a magnet for social interaction. So ride pick-ups can be easy here.
Add to that, Captain Tim Ford, who is both a member of the Police Dept., and an avid cyclist, who adds some thought to the Fort Lee Police Department’s treatment of cyclists.
It was partly because of Ford, and Strictly, that recently the town held its first ever Tour de Fort Lee, a criterium bike race last Sunday.
Craig Weinstein, a local lawyer and cyclist and his wife Renee made up a large part of the mostly unseen work that helped bring the NY-NJ Ironman to Fort Lee this past summer.
The event drew thousands of competitors and onlookers, and was a major commercial and crowd-pleasing success despite the high costs that the organizers cited as a reason not to return.
Then of course there is the local newspaper columnist John “Road Warrior” Cichowski whose insightful reports on traffic and cycling safety keep the town’s leadership on their toes.
Not to mention, yours truly Cyclists International who will come right out and print the truth about bike safety in the area.
Mayor Sokolich who replaced the long-running previous Mayor Jack Alter (who died in 2007 after serving as Mayor for 15 years) is a much more modern version, running the town with a less small-town atmosphere that previously fostered insider deals.
His style is to encourage change, and to finally get off the ground crucial new commercial and residential development close to the Palisades Park and the main areas of downtown.
Previously failed developments for the areas close to the GWB were stagnated in endless lawsuits and bore the tinge of corruption.
Under Sololich’s watch this summer, the Fort Lee Planning Board approved the Fort Lee Redevelopment Associates (FLRA)’s site plan for the East parcel of the long-vacant Redevelopment Area 5. The Plan, which the board approved unanimously, includes two 47-story towers with 902
luxury residential units, a 1.7-acre public park, a restaurant and a small movie theater.
The second half of the $1-billion development of the area will include 175,000 square feet of retail, 477 residential units, and a 475 room hotel.
Though neither of these projects have been embraced with open arms by all the residents of Fort Lee, the land that lay unused for years was a waste and an eyesore.
Housing in Fort Lee in general is more affordable that in the city, with rents for one-bedroom units averaging between $1,200 and $2,500 a month, and two-bedrooms range between $1,600 and $3,600, depending on the type of building, including two family homes.
If you prefer to buy a condo or coop prices are far more affordable than in Manhattan and even Brooklyn, averaging from about $175,000 for a one-bedroom, and slightly more for two bedrooms.
Coops prices in Fort Lee are even lower, and a nice one bedroom unit can be purchased for under $100,000.
Some areas like Coytesville, which refers to the older name of the area about 6 blocks north of the bridge, are tidy, quiet
One and two-family houses here have 2 and 3-bedroom rentals starting at $1,850.
Sokolich has also finally redesigned the town’s Internet site, making it a go-to news site for things happening in the town, including the Horror Night Film Festival, and a study by the state Department of Transportation on easing car and pedestrian access between Edgewater and Fort Lee.
Largely influenced by the 38 percent estimated 2011 Asian population–versus 4% in the rest of New Jersey–shopping is geared towards mostly the 24 percent Korean residents.
The new H-Mart offers low-cost vegetables and fruits, and some inspiration in how to cook Asian style for non-Asian residents.
Many of the stores along the town’s main street are Korean, some with Korean only signs, but the atmosphere is welcoming, and for the curious and friendly.
An outdoor summer farmer’s market in the southern section close to the Jack Alter Community Center offers fresh fruits and vegetables, and plenty of other food shopping options abound, such as the family-run Cafasso’s Fairway, also in southern Fort Lee which has a sizable prepared food counter, an endless array of fruits and vegetables, cheeses, deli meats, and baked goods.
If you choose to live near the GWB it is possible to do so and not own a car: The H-Mart, an A&P, and three major
drugstores are all within walking distance, and the town has at least three car rental agencies close to the bridge.
The rental companies including Enterprise have strategically placed themselves close to New York City, so people traveling to Manhattan from anywhere in the world can enjoy lower prices and easier parking.
If you want to cross-train or just swim and spin in the winter, the Jewish Community Center is just two towns away, accessible either by bicycle or car in Tenafly, NJ.
The family-style center is more akin to a high-end country club, with an indoor Olympic-sized pool that was just converted to saltwater, and an outdoor pool that comes as close to paradise for a triathlete as any training venue can.
Prices for single memberships start at around $109 a month. Religious affiliation is not a prerequisite for joining.
Another gym but without a pool but with a more spin-oriented, weight-lifting atmosphere is The Gym in Englewood, NJ. But because of it’s location just off Route 4, it is an unpleasant bicycle ride from the center of Fort Lee, requiring the use of heavily trafficked roads, and a steep climb back to Fort Lee.
Fort Lee’s history is a tad unknown to most New Yorkers: The biggest secret is that Fort Lee was home to the first major U.S. film studios before Hollywood became the preferred option for big picture production.
Many of the films were made off the Palisades cliffs in Fort Lee, thus the origin of the term “Cliffhangers,” to describe films with edgy action scenes. Producers included Selznick, and Goldwyn Pictures. The Fort Lee Film Commission even has some outtakes from silent films shot in the town on their website.
Fort Lee and the cliffs facing the Hudson River were also home to the Palisades Amusement Park which was closed in 1971.
Originally a Trolley Park built in 1898, the Amusement Park attracted so many attendees in the 1960’s–mostly of another demographic group that the town’s population didn’t want to deal with–that the town eventually seized the land under eminent domain.
The park was closed and the land was sold for over $12 M. In its place tall residential buildings were erected.
But the town is not without its detractions. The biggest landlord in the area, Patco Realty, who owns a chunk of accessible rental buildings, fails to keep up with repairs, and his apartments are far from soundproof.
Their buildings suffer from constant occupant complaints and the occasional fire that renders residents homeless in the middle of winter (such as the one last February at his Plaza Gardens location.)
The town seems to take the bad landlords in stride and legal protections are paltry compared to the strenuous protections New York tenants receive, perhaps because there are few options left for renters in the town.
Yet many cyclists have chosen to live there because the rentals are close to the mouth of their many cycling jaunts.
There are some other minuses.
As of July 2012, 36 people were struck by automobiles in the boro of Fort Lee, and about 22 people have been killed by cars in North Jersey–Bergen and Passaic Counties, most of them pedestrians.
This summer an elderly woman was struck by a man in a parking lot, and she died from head injuries.
NorthJersey.com reported that Fort Lee was home to one of the most dangerous intersections in Bergen and Passaic counties, Lemoine Avenue and Bridge Plaza North, the location of 15 crashes and 12 injuries between 2008 and 2011.
Many of the roads around Fort Lee were designed to take drivers on and off the heavily used Route 95 highway, and the
other highways that begin and end here lend to more crashes, such as Route 46, Rte. 4 which leads directly west mostly to shopping malls and other Bergen County neighborhoods, and the Palisades Parkway which begins here.
Perhaps for reasons of practicality, little or no thought was given to traffic calming, lifestyle design, pedestrian safety, or bicycle safety.
Drivers speed with impunity through residential areas, and seem to have missed that important section of driver’s ed where you are supposed to stop at an intersection, especially when pedestrians are present.
Strip malls are shamelessly car centric and offer little or no pedestrian or cycling support, such as walkway access and bicycle parking.
Add to the lifestyle dangers, many of the parks in Fort Lee seem to be mere oversights rather than carefully tended gardens for people to use.
In particular the area’s real gem park, Palisades Park which has 7 miles of reduced car traffic roadway alongside the Hudson River, is accessible only by three roads, one at the southernmost tip of River Road in Fort Lee, another from Palisades Ave. (Dyckman) in Englewood Cliffs north of Fort Lee, and a third at the end of the 7-mile road, in Alpine, NJ.
None of those roads are central to Fort Lee.
There is only one foot path from Fort Lee that takes pedestrians over the Palisades Parkway down to the park, but it is relatively unknown and unused.
A long, steep, stone-cut path without hand guards leads down to the park from the heights, and is not suitable for young children or elderly.
A pathway alongside the Parkway good for running is however untended and noisy with car traffic from the adjacent parkway. This past summer, two people died falling from the Cliffs, and last summer a 16-year-old Fort Lee High School student fell to his death after losing his foothold.
Pedestrian access to Palisades Park is otherwise largely cut off by the Palisades Parkway (highway,) and remains to be a challenge for the town and the park commission which is short of capital improvement funds.
Because the Palisades Interstate Park Commission also owns two other parks in Fort Lee, though maintained by the borough, the parks rarely see any improvements aimed at human use.
Which brings us to the biggest problem facing Fort Lee: ironically, it is not bicycle-friendly. There are no bike
lanes, roadways are built for cars, traffic calming design such as green meridians is non-existent, and it is scary to ride on most of the streets in the town.
This is partly the residents’ fault: Several years ago it was rumored the townspeople shut down a measure to build a small bike lane from the middle school in the south, to the elementary school near Main St., to preserve parking spaces and driving areas, a real throw-back decision.
The town badly needs to step in to the 21st century of traffic calming and lifestyle improvements, but remains heavily reliant on automobile traffic.
Students at the local High School on 9W are dropped off every morning by an endless column of parents (and sometimes students) driving from less than a mile to less than 3 miles to get to school.
Though residents boast that their children are getting a top education at this highly ranked high school they don’t demonstrate an understanding of the harmful effects that their driving has on the environment.
Sadly wild animals like deer and wild turkey or rabbits who make it across the walkway from the Palisades Park don’t live long in this motorist-dominant town.
And though the town’s leadership have made small improvements in lifestyle and infrastructure design, such as the pathway down to River Road, and bringing the Ironman and the Tour de Fort Lee to the town, they have not responded to requests for road redesigns, to participate at the yearly New Jersey bicycle conference, and other lifestyle improvement overtures.
The two developments that were approved this summer failed to take into consideration pedestrian and bicycling-related improvements.
Residents and Fort Lee planning board members opined loudly at the planning meetings about impending traffic problems, but were resistant to ideas about creating a bicycle and pedestrian friendly infrastructure that could ease that issue.
Frankly, if we were running this town, we’d have tried to get federal and state assistance long ago to redesign Route 9w and Lemoine Ave. by adding traffic calming meridians and bike lanes; would have covered over huge sections of the entry-way to the George Washington Bridge with Highline-style parks between MacKay and Center Avenues; redesigned and reopened parks at the end of Center Avenue and in Coytesville to be more dog and people friendly utilizing public-private partnerships, and would
have placed much more emphasis on developing affordable rental housing.
A major campaign against unsafe driving while emphasizing the beneficial effects of walking and bike riding to school and work would have also been a priority.
And we would have encouraged the bulk of the Asian population to vote in local elections to create a more representational local governing body.
Finally we would increase the mayor’s salary from its part-time status to a full time, well-paid job so he or she could dedicate their time to running the town.
Still, we believe Fort Lee is one of the better places to live if you own a bicycle. And with more cyclists moving to the area either as renters or home owners, we expect the bicycle and pedestrian-friendly nature of the town to improve.
For more info about moving to Fort Lee, see this article from the NY Times.