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The Complexities of a Biking Transition and the New York City Backlash
New York City's new-ish First Avenue bike lane.

New York City's new-ish First Avenue bike lane.

On November 22 and November 23, 2010, The New York Times gave biking in New York City significant coverage in print.

The paper wrote about the city’s plans for a cross-borough bike share system. And then a day later how the transformation of the 200 miles of city streets in the past few years to accommodate bike lanes has resulted in a heated “backlash.”

We’ve been writing about and support New York City’s successful bike initiatives and EMBARQ, the producer of this blog, released a video on the bike- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure spearheaded by New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. The City is instituting mass transit expansion, including bus rapid transit and policies for more healthful and livable communities to bring a balance in modal usage, improve quality of life and ultimately diminish the dominance of personal vehicles on the City’s streets.

Yet, according to the Times article, business owners and drivers in Manhattan have erupted in discontent over the eliminated parking spaces and difficulty of making deliveries caused by new bike lanes on Columbus Avenue. And in Staten Island, lanes were removed on Capodanno Boulevard to “better meet Staten Island’s unique transportation issues.”

Perhaps, as Streetsblog’s Ben Fried points out, the article overstates the tension between bike lane supporters and detractors, pitting one group against the other without giving the issues their due explanation. The New York Times reporter J. David Goodman is inconsistent in his explanation of the conflict. First he states, “the opposition to the city’s agenda on bicycles has far less organization and passion than the bicycling advocates, but it is gaining increased attention.” Taking on a different tone, later in the article he says that surging bike ridership has spurred “simmering cultural conflict between competing notions of urban transportation.” Fried calls out Goodman’s poorly researched examples of “dissent” to bike lanes like an anti-bike lane rally in the Lower East Side he chose not to cover in Streetsblog because it “drew more reporters than bike lane opponents.”

Rather than pointing to conflict, Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President, more accurately described the complicated issues as New York surges ahead with infrastructure changes. Stringer says it’s a lack of education and attention to safety that causes a misuse of the lanes. “We’ve got seniors who think bike lanes are walkways. We’ve got police cars using bike lanes as a quick way around town.” He continues, “We’ve got taxi cabs pulling up so close to the bike lanes that a passenger gets out and actually doors a cyclist.”

And then there are the cyclists who hop onto sidewalks, ride against traffic and cruise at dangerous speeds. For those riders, NYC DOT has a campaign called “Don’t be a Jerk” that it released along with a set of cycling rules.

A New York City DOT posted promoting safety in bike lanes.

A New York City DOT posted promoting safety in bike lanes. Photo by scottmontreal.

One commenter on TheCityFix described his concerns:

For all its candy coated political correctness & college town nostalgic dreams, cycling in Manhattan’s over-congested streets is dangerous & often out of control. Not the least of which it is unregulated, unenforced & totally uninsured . . . NYC cyclists rarely use bike lanes, ride in any direction they please, yell at pedestrians to get out of the way and basically are on power trips with no regard for anyone. There is even an ever growing, non-gender specific, macho cyclist subculture that promotes bikes without brakes & gears…

And indeed some bikers who want to ride fast even oppose the lanes. We found a video by a biker who said the new First Avenue lanes are dangerous because she wasn’t able to go fast enough.

In the wake of all this, the City Council will hold a hearing on bicycling on December 9th to address the needs of cyclists and other road users as well as how NYC DOT has worked with community boards to review large-scale road changes. And police are cracking down on biking traffic violations. (Bikers must follow the same rules, markings and traffic signals as motorists.)

Demarcated bike lanes as well as protected lanes that move the car-parking lane away from the curb have improved safety for bikers and shifted the paradigm of what a sustainable and livable city is. More people are biking than before and the City is finding more of an equilibrium between cyclists, pedestrians, mass transit riders and cars on the streets. Traffic calming measures makes streets safer and more usable for walkers and riders and clears up space for expanded surface transit. Although injuries and fatalities increased for riders in 2010 compared to 2009, daily biker ridership has increased dramatically, meaning rates of injuries are dramatically on the decline.

New York is a city of such diverse street activity that compromise is required. Even though a subset of biking culture is about breaking the rules, bike lanes and city streets must accommodate all types of mobility.

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  • The Truth is Out there

  • Thanks, Jon for pointing my error out. I made the appropriate change.

  • Shemp

    Bike lanes in New York are not “just paint on pavement.” The new-design lanes are protected by moving the car-parking lane away from the curb, as your top photo shows.

  • Justin

    Sure, there’s a subset of bikers who embrace the outlaw image of urban cycling, and it certainly doesn’t help when newspapers quote bike messengers are representatives of the cycling community. But there’s an equally large subset of drivers who go out of their way to drive as aggressively as possible. I also read today in the New Yorker a quote from a cab driver who says he can’t possibly obey speed limits without upsetting his passengers. (I realize citing cab drivers as representative of motorists is just as bad as citing bike messengers are representatives of cyclists, but maybe that’s part of my point). I’m not trying to say one is worse than the other (though cars kill about a hundred times as many pedestrians as bikes do), but as the comment below my initial one notes, there isn’t actually a whole lot of meaningful enforcement of traffic violations by cars, either.

    It’s truly unfortunate that the original commenter’s wife was seriously injured by a cyclist, but that doesn’t give him the right to paint ALL New York City cyclists with the same brush, and use that as justification to attack a bike share plan, or bike lanes, or whatever new cycling infrastructure is proposed. Your post is not saying that, of course, and I totally agree that education and enforcement are entirely necessary. But just as I’ve never seen a cyclist ticketed for riding the wrong way in a bike lane (which, as a cyclist–had you guess that I ride a bike most days?–is incredibly annoying and dangerous), I also haven’t seen any drivers ticketed for blocking a bike lane, which is also extremely dangerous.

    In the end, we agree on the substance of the issue entirely. I just find comments like the one I originally responded to all to common, and deeply frustrating as a law-abiding cyclist who is doing my best to NOT die on the road.

  • Justin,

    Thanks for your comment. I thought this reader made a good point. I want to highlight first hand opinions on the blog as much as possible. I think you make a good point that reveals the tension between different modal users and how highlighting stereotypes or what the fringe thinks is counterproductive, but in the article I call this type of a biking a “subset of biking culture” and indeed it is.

    However, unlike driving, as biking expands, there’s very little education and enforcement of biking rules. And I think people who have concerns don’t think the solution is necessarily to eliminate lanes, it’s to find a way of biking and biking safely that’s appropriate for the density and multiple uses of New York City streets.

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  • Justin

    Comments like the one quoted from your other recent post are terribly unhelpful, though, because the logic completely breaks down when applied to any other mode of transportation. Consider:

    “All NYC drivers break traffic rules, run red lights, routinely exceed speed limits, block traffic and yell at pedestrians and cyclists to get out of the way. There is even a subculture of macho, non-gender specific drivers who illegally modify their exhaust systems and suspension and tint their windows to look cool (to other drivers). Ergo, we should just accept that cars are never going to work in Manhattan and remove the roads.”

    “All NYC pedestrians cross streets without looking while listening to iPods and texting. They walk in the middle of the street and bike lanes, and there’s a non-gender specific subset of pedestrian who wear completely impractical footwear that makes it impossible for them to move quickly enough. They also yell at drivers and cyclists to get out of the way. Ergo, pedestrians and Manhattan just don’t go together and we should rip up the sidewalks.”

    There are people who break rules amongst users of all modes of New York City transportation. Only with cyclists is the proposed solution to eliminate their infrastructure and maybe ban them altogether.

  • Jonathan

    Even though motor vehicle drivers with suspended licenses frequently get behind the wheel and kill people, I never hear anyone suggesting that automobile use should be sharply curtailed in congested cities like New York. Blaming the many law-abiding cyclists (or drivers) for the misdeeds of the few is poor public policy.