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More on Bike Culture: Criticism of NYC’s First Avenue Bike Lane

Via the Infrastructurist, we came across this video on the daily commute in Manhattan’s new First Avenue bike lane. The video is another window into cyclist culture, which we wrote about yesterday, and it reinforces the need for design that takes into account as many people as possible while ensuring users are well-informed about how to use alternative forms of transportation and city infrastructure.

One biker clad with a messenger bag, sunglasses and bike gloves says, “It’s First Ave; everyone peels left,” wondering why the city chose to build the bike lane on the left side of a one-way road that moves north. Another commenter said this is because there’s a major hospital in approach mid-town.

Also, the bikers in the video complain about speed in the bike lane. While it’s important bikers know the rules, it’s also important to realize that urban bike riding is about multi-use urban space that provides benefits to as many people as possible. Bike lanes make people feel safer and, therefore, encourage even more people to ride their bikes. A commenter on the YouTube video said:

As one of the interview subjects note[s], there are different kinds of cyclists. If you’re older and don’t bike all that fast or you use a bike to carry groceries or to take young children to school in the morning, then these protected bike lanes are great and make it so that it is finally feasible to bike on 1st and 2nd Avenues. If, however, you are clipped in to your pedals like the narrator of this film and you want to rip to Midtown — then, sure, ride with the cars. No one is stopping you.

Still, the lane elicits other concerns. Cyclists note that trucks and other objects still block the bike lane. And the fact that the lane is positioned between a sidewalk on its left and parked cars on the right makes it is easy for a biker to feel “trapped” if something or someone blocks the lane. However, if bikers reduce their speed, these factors should not be a problem. Afterall, city biking is largely about maneuvering among a number of obstacles.  Laws prohibit cars from moving above 30 miles per hour, and a recent groundbreaking New York City Department of Transportation study recommends testing 20 mile-per-hour speed limits in neighborhoods to improve safety for pedestrians.

Brown, the producer of the video, sums up, “the reality was that the bike lane was slower and more dangerous than First Avenue ever was before.”

But what’s significant is the tension she captures: walkers, fast bikers, casual bikers, cars, and the necessary street activity that takes place along store fronts. New York is a city of such diverse street activity that compromise is required.

A Reuters article thinks the lane is a positive change:

There’s safety in numbers, when it comes to cycling, and a similar phenomenon is likely to happen with regard to pedestrians and car drivers being increasingly conscious of bicyclists in their midst. Already, the First Avenue bike lane has reportedly cut injuries to all street users by 50%.

The article states that as the number of cyclists rises, the average speed of cycling falls.  We couldn’t find any statistics directly supporting the claim, though one article from 1992 said that American cyclists travel at twice the speed of Dutch cyclists because our cities are less dense (congested New York City, however, is the exception.) Nevertheless, the film suggests there is a split in the types of people who move around in cities on two wheels: there are those who bike for leisure and those who bike for speed. It’s probably true that extremely fast riders are going to have to deal with increasingly crowded bike lanes and thus slower cyclists, but the lanes are certainly safer than riding alongside traffic, no matter how ubiquitous bike commuting becomes.