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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.

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  • Paul J. Dougherty

    How can we get bicycle racks on city buses?

  • I’m not entirely sure if the idea was his originally, but Jan Gehl supports the idea of the bike lane between the sidewalk and parked cars in his new book Cities for People. The intention is honest. And the planners who acted on the advice are trying to make it easier for more people to bicycle.

    Obviously there are some problems with the new design. As mentioned in the video it seems to be on the wrong side of the street. Also it is far too small. At the same time it allows vehicles to easily park without worrying about bicyclists. And ideally the concept should work.

    The biggest problem may be that the idea is new. Pedestrians have not learn to respect the area. And cyclists may have to slow. I urge cyclists not to give up. We need you! We need to continue to fight the automobile. And it is true, the more bicycles on the road the easier it will be for more people to join.

  • Hey Adam. Interesting comment. What will be your new route up the East side of the city. I found some more reporting on issues with the lane. This post includes another video.–bike-lanes

    Apparently, delivery trucks are having a lot of issues with the physical separation (i.e. the bike lane) from storefronts.

  • Adam

    The 1st and 2nd Ave bike lanes are are a joke. I’ve been commuting from Maspeth, Queen to 1st/34th for years and I never had some many close ones as I did in the last few weeks. Cars turn left without looking, pedestrians and joggers are all over the bike lane, POLICE CARS and CON EDISON block the lane constantly not to mention trucks and cabs. It’s now very hard and unsafe to go around the obstacles: either swerve into the traffic or take the sidewalk.

    Starting next week I will stop using those lanes. The only problem with that is that now drivers feel bikes no longer belong in the traffic lanes, cops can ticket cyclists now for riding in main traffic lanes.

    Whoever designed those lanes meant well but was completely out of touch with reality. No pedestrians in NYC obey the law, if they see free space they will walk there regardless consequences. Jaywalking is out of control in NYC, cab drivers are out of control. Without strict enforcement and/or physical separation those new lanes endanger cyclists more than riding in regular traffic lanes.