Give up your Car, if You're a millionaire.
NY Times article
New York Region, November 8th, 2005
Proselytizer for Pedaling Acts on His Words
by Andrew Jacobs
Michael de Jong wants you to take your bike to the plane.
It might seem like a loopy proposition, but Mr. de Jong, a Dutch-born millionaire, real estate developer and cycling maniac, is on a worldwide crusade to get industrialized man out of his car and onto the saddle seat. One prong of that mission is to convince otherwise sensible people that taking two wheels to the airport and back is less daunting than it seems. Cyclists, after all, never get stuck on the Van Wyck Expressway, and they do not have to lug their baggage quite as far as they would if they took the subway to the AirTrain.
As part of his pedal-power mission, Mr. de Jong promotes a 100-day bike race across Africa, sponsors bike ownership in the developing world and invents whimsical biking accouterments, among them a traffic-parting air horn and a tent that overnight travelers can suspend from the trees.
"Imagine how much better the world would be if more people rode bicycles," he said with the dead-on earnestness of someone who regularly cycles from Cairo to Johannesburg and Paris to Geneva.
But Mr. de Jong does more than take absurdly long cycling trips across large continents. Since 1995, when he gave up driving after a devastating car accident, he has used his custom-built folding bicycle to get to and from airports in 30 cities around the world, including New Delhi, London, Lagos and Rio de Janeiro. Once he finds the most sensible route, he posts it on the Internet for others to follow. In most cases, he said, biking from the airport to a city center is faster than traveling by car or taking public transportation.
Last month he arrived in New York to chart the best path from Kennedy and La Guardia Airports and somehow persuaded this reporter to join him on his odyssey.
It was, for the most part, a fairly breezy journey - that is, if one overlooks the homicidal drivers and the plumes of exhaust. But perhaps most startling was that the rides, done at a comfortable pace, were accomplished in no more time than it would take by train, or by car during rush hour, which for Kennedy Airport, at least, tends to be all the time.
From the Empire State Building to La Guardia, the trip took 25 minutes. From Terminal One at Kennedy to City Hall, it was just under an hour, including bathroom breaks and a critical stop at Junior's in Downtown Brooklyn. The routes were plotted with maps, and a hand-held global positioning device helped guide the way.
As for baggage, Mr. de Jong has a pair of sacks that he can clip to the sides of his beat-up bike; they have enough space for essential items one would take on an average weeklong vacation. Unless you are taking your bike with you, a decent lock is required to tether your transportation to a pole or fence at the airport. As for other essential gear, like helmets, he goes without.
"If I want to die, that should be my choice," said Mr. de Jong, 40, a swashbuckling vegetarian who intends to remain a lifelong bachelor. The most daunting part of each journey involved navigating the narrow airport loop roads, which were clearly not designed with cyclists in mind.
Along the way, there were plenty of tire-swallowing drainage grates and the occasional obstacle course of hubcaps, broken glass and squashed rodents. For the most part, though, the routes went through a vibrant landscape of immigrant enclaves, the gentrifying precincts of East New York and Bedford-Stuyvesant and the endless tracts of modest attached houses.
The path to La Guardia, through sections of Astoria and Jackson Heights, was far more pleasant than the trip from Kennedy, which was dominated by the sanitation depots of Jamaica, the industrialized swaths of South Ozone Park and a dreary blur of car repair shops on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. The reward for such unsightliness was the tree-shaded brownstones of Fort Greene and an exhilarating final push over the Brooklyn Bridge.
Mr. de Jong is not easily ruffled. When the operator of a cargo van leaned on his horn to protest the slowpokes in his way, Mr. de Jong smiled. "I think people who don't like bicycles behave that way because they don't feel free inside," he said. "Cyclists represent freedom."
Not all New Yorkers were so impatient. Any time he stopped to consult his map, strangers would amble up to offer assistance. "I'm amazed how friendly New Yorkers are," said Mr. de Jong, who has homes in Toronto, Amsterdam and Belize, where he owns a beachfront, eco-friendly resort.
The scion of a Dutch art-dealing family that was instrumental in promoting Impressionist painters, Mr. de Jong eventually carved out his own niche as a New Age adventurer and entrepreneur. He nearly succeeded in becoming Africa's first bike manufacturer, but balked when his negotiating partner, the son of Kenya's president, demanded a bribe, he said.
The biking bug struck him early. By the time he was in high school, he was riding 10 miles each way to school, no big deal in flat, bike-happy Holland. But Mr. de Jong became a vehement cycling advocate a decade ago, when the car he was driving in Barbados was struck head-on by a bus. The accident left his girlfriend paralyzed, put another friend in a coma for five months, and left him with a dozen broken bones. Once recovered, he sold his cars and vowed never to drive again.
Biking on one of his seven bicycles is also therapeutic for Mr. de Jong, who cannot sit for very long and walks with some difficulty. "The only time I don't feel pain is when I'm riding," he said, showing off some of his scars. His latest project, an eight-day race through the jungles and mountains of Belize, begins in January
Last week, on his way to La Guardia, Mr. de Jong extolled the virtues of pedal-power as he flew past motorists stuck in afternoon gridlock. The advantages were apparent for all to see, but there was one small drawback.
As he arrived at the check-in counter, having stashed his bicycle in a roll-on suitcase, Mr. de Jong was emitting the sweaty funk of, well, a long-distance cyclist. Mr. de Jong smiled and shrugged when the subject was raised. "It doesn't bother me," he said just before boarding his plane. "Let's hope it doesn't bother the guy sitting next to me."