I have a driver's license. But I don't own a car. I wouldn't want to in New York. It would be a nuisance six ways til Sunday, to myself and the City. But I own a bicycle, and, when not on a bus or the subway, it is my main "wheeled" way of getting around town.
And so, I notice when a new bike lane appears. And I also take notice of the reaction to them. These, in many cases, have been extreme.
To me, the new emphasis on getting around by bike has been one of the few things the Bloomberg administration has gotten right. But the communities on which the new bike lanes have been "inflicted"—even liberal ones like Park Slope—appear to universally loathe them. Stick-in-the-mud non-bikers hate then on Kent Avenue in Williamsburg. They hate them on Grand Street in Little Italy.That is, if you believe the press, which seems to chase after a few loud voices and give them full play.
The battle is usually one of bicyclist (and the civic bureaucracy that aids them) versus merchant, though sometimes its pits parking-spot-losing car owners against bikers. Bike lanes take out about a yard-wide chunk of the road—a section usually used by the delivery trucks that service shops and stores. And so the merchants complain: these lanes are an inconvenience, they're bad for business. They also argue they could make is hard for ambulances and fire trucks to get through.
I understand that. It must be annoying for those store owners and truck drivers. But just a minute. Why are double-parkers suddenly victims all of a sudden. We all deal with double-parked trucks making deliveries? They back up traffic. They create congestion. They care about no one! And I've seen many a parked truck block the path of a fire engine or ambulance for minutes on end, far more often than I've seen a bike do the same truck. (Actually, I've never seen a bike do that.)
And, yet, news reports instruct us that we are to feel bad about them, and despise the bike riders, who do none of the above, road-clogging things, and only want to get from one place to another. No bike lane has every killed a business, and none ever will. The bike lanes help everyone in the city, decreasing congestion and air and noise pollution. The double-parked trucks contribute only to the stores they serve. They aren't going way—I know that. They bring goods to the City, goods that people need. But they're the ones who have to find a way to work around the lanes, not vice versa. The lungs of the City are more important that the balance sheet at one shop.
Recently, some students at Hunter College with nothing better to do conducted a study that revealed "a large number of cyclists routinely disobey many traffic laws." They compiled 5,275 observations of riders at 45 randomly generated intersections across Midtown from First to 10th Avenues and 14th to 59th Streets, and discovered such whopping truths as: 37% of the cyclists observed blew through red lights; and only 29.8% of the riders wore helmets.
I don't dispute any of this. Nor did it surprise me. (It surprised no one, actually.) But what sort of weird double standard is going on here? The study seems to be operating under the unspoken implication that cars are obeying laws, while bikes get away with murder. But, you know what? Cars sometimes run red lights. Cabs regularly do. Drivers don't wear safety belts a lot of the time, and also talk on cell phones constantly, endangering other drivers and pedestrians. So, what the study is telling us, really, is that bike riders can be as bad as car drivers when it comes to being scofflaws.
But the study also leaves out this important fact. If I get hit by a bike that isn't obeying traffics law (and I have), I probably won't die. A car? My chances aren't as good.
Yet, press organs that picked up this story gleefully took swipes at the biking community. The media—which is run, by and large, by rich white men who don't have a terribly progressive way of looking at things—seems to have a standing grudge against the bike lanes. Look at this obviously biased editorial that appeared June 18 in the Brooklyn Paper.
The Paper (the editorial is unsigned) states "in virtually every case, the lanes offer a false sense of security to bicyclists, motorists and pedestrians. Yes, accidents are down, but no amount of paint can protect a cyclist from a collision with a menacing automobile or save a pedestrian from the two-wheeler who speeds through a red light."
A fine piece of sophistry. I'm sorry, but, as a bicyclist, the lanes do give me a sense of security. Not total security—nothing delivers that. But I feel a hell of a lot more safe than if there were no bike lane at all. Also, if I am insecure in the bike lane, that has more to do with the behavior of the motorists around me. If you want the bike lanes to work, it's them you should be talking to. They need to adjust, not the bikers. Yet, this editorial is pointed at the bike-lane advocates.
The editorial goes on to say: "We do believe that the Department of Transportation’s bike program has played an important role in reducing accidents and encouraging bicycling. But too many bike lanes have been laid down without sufficient understanding of how the lanes will conflict with existing conditions."
The faulty premise here is that those "existing conditions" should continue to exist, when the whole point of the Green, environmental, pro-bike movement is that things have to change. A City that continues to rely completely on cars and trucks will be dead in the water in a couple decades.
The editorial then ends with a "common-sense quiz," which one should take laying out a bike lane:
• Does the road have heavy traffic?
• Does the lane fail to get bikers safely to key destinations?
• Is there a lot of through- or two-way traffic that will conflict with the bike lane?
• Is it a busy pedestrian area?
If the answers are “yes” to all of these questions, a bike lane is clearly not appropriate in that location.
Let's follow the illogic, shall we? A bike lane doesn't belong on roads with heavy traffic, right? But it shouldn't exist if it doesn't get a bike to a "key destination." Well, duh, guys—it's the roads with heavy traffic that go to key destinations. If you put a bike lane on a road with light traffic, you're not sending that bike to a key desination. Furthermore, pedestrians are everywhere in New York, so that nixes more streets.
Lets take the north-south roads my neighborhood of Carroll Gardens as an example and see where, using this test, it is appropriate to put a bike lane.
Columbia Street? Lot of through traffic there, heading to Fairway and IKEA. Also two-way traffic. So, no. Hicks Street? Heavy traffic heading to the BQE, plus a lot of pedestrians. So, no. Henry Street? Lots of pedestrians traveling back and forth across the BQE bridges; very residential. And it doesn't lead you to any huge destinations. Again, no. Clinton Street (where there already is a bike lane)? Again, lots of foot traffic, and through traffic; it's a big lane for cabs returning to Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge. Negative. Court Street or Smith Street? No. Major shopping thoroughfares. Cars, trucks, people, through traffic. Everything! What about Hoyt Street? Hm. Maybe Hoyt. Not much going on there. But it goes nowhere! So, scratch that.
Ladies and gentleman: the quiz that allows no bike lanes!
Call me a radical, but I think bikes should be allowed to go anywhere a car is. People in cars need to get everywhere and anywhere, right? It's just assumed that that's their right. Well, so do bikers. They're citizens and workers and family members just the same as drivers. They're not out on some endless, frivolous joy ride. Most bikers you see are going somewhere specific for a specific reason. Why should they live segregated lives, when the gas-guzzling, smog-creating, pedestrian-endangering metal dinosaurs are given free run of the City?