25 June 2009

The War on Bikes

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?


Conrad said...

Well said!

justin said...

Thanks so much for writing this, Brooks. Clear, commonsensical, points out the absurdity of that Brooklyn Paper editorial and all the other anti-bike lane screeds. And most importantly, nobody can accuse you of being a radical agenda-pushing fixed-gear Williamsburg hipster bike punk who hates babies, which is usually the be all end all of anti-bike commentary.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Me? I love babies!

Ed said...

I'm sorry, but I remember when something like this was tried in the 1980s. Didn't work. You have to physically separate the bike lanes from the cars, such as put in a concrete barrier, or else eventually drivers will ignore them and get away with it because the cops won't care.

Do it right, take out entire streets and avenues and reserve them for bikes and buses. And the city is not getting more "mass transit" friendly if it paints bike lanes on the streets while subway service declines (I know this is a state function) and drivers can turn corners over the speed limit while not slowing down while talking on cell phones and not worry about getting a ticket, or even hit and kill pedestrians with no one trying to track them down (this one is all Bloomberg).

Again, sorry for the screed. More people using bikes won't drive cars from the streets. Reduced auto usage, which will probably come anyway with higher gas prices, will drive more people to try to use bikes to commute. Everyone has this backwards.

Anonymous said...

Excellent. Bike lanes are also safer for runners...

JM said...

NYC streets are crowded, dangerous, and as you said, often blocked by delivery trucks and vans. Guess what? It's a big city with too many people per square mile. That's how it works. The idea that delivery trucks and millions of taxis, cars, other trucks, buses, etc. have to 'change' so a few thousand bike riders can 'feel' more secure (I've been riding these streets since '85, and believe me, they aren't) is so ludicrous it could only be written by....well, by the kind of person who lives in New York now who is making it everything this blog usually complains and cries about.

I ride a bike, and I think most of the bike lanes are stupid. This is an existing, working city, with strange and sometimes illogical-seeming behaviors and rules developed over decades---almost all of which make the city actually work. It is the dismantling of these that have turned the place into a playground for fratboys and girls, driven out the creative community, pushed out mom and pop businesses in favor of chains and ugly condos, and ripped the character of the city apart.

Like all of Bloomberg's ideas, it's an attempt to make NYC more like a genteel suburb or a quaint Eurocity that people from Kansas will feel more comfortable in.

I worry about the economy and what its coming further collapse will mean to me and people I care about. The one silver lining is that the people who are the gentrifying, blandifying force behind the transformation of NYC into a theme park will leave.

Sorry, I know you mean well, but you don't see when you're part of the problem you usually focus on. You want bike lanes and want everyone else to change to accommodate you? Great. Move to Amsterdam. Maybe New York just isn't for you--unless Bloomberg stays in charge forever.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

John M: I'm not sure how to respond to your comment, because I don't know what to say to a person how thinks bike lanes are stupid. I can't comprehend that stance. You may not think they're all they're cracked up to be. You may think they present problems to the working rubric of the city. Fine. But stupid?

I don't want everyone to work around bike lanes. I want room to be made for them, for them to get equal treatment.

And I'm not a frat boy, I'm not a blandifying force. You've mistaken this blog and its purpose.

JM said...

I understand quite well, Brooks. You want any relevant pre-existing behavior of the city to change to 'make room' for bike lanes. What you don't seem to understand is that, in many places, there simply may not be room for bike lanes. This is a consideration you may want to open your mind to.

Look, I'm not against bike lanes, but they've been way overdone and, yes, some of them are stupid--kind of like lawn chairs in Times Square.

I'm also all for biker safety, although to me, dodging potholes, cab doors and unaware drivers has always been part and parcel of what it means to bike here (a New York kind of attitude that's obviously not so common here anymore).

Like real estate development, if increased safety can be accomplished without messing up the functioning and distinctive fabric of the city, terrific. However, I think you're missing the fact that many NYC streets just aren't that safe for bikers and never have been or ever will be, due to the very nature of how the city works. And how the city works (or in some cases, doesn't work very well) is a large part of what makes New York New York.

I don't think you can pick and choose which pieces of the NYC 'ecosystem' you want to change and which you don't. They're all very interconnected and all play a part in the fading distinctiveness of the city. The drive for sudden and sweeping change is what got us where we are today. You may not think so, but the wholesale proliferation of bike lanes--regardless of their negative effect on pre-existing, workaday street uses--falls into that category.

Also, "where we are today" is a city where blogs like this one feel the need to exist, as "the vestiges of Old New York..are steamrolled under or threatened by the currently ruthless real estate market and the City Fathers' disregard for Gotham's historical and cultural fabric." Overdoing the bike lanes and expecting them to be universally respected is disregarding the cultural fabric of the city in the largest and most vital sense of the word culture. It goes against the established way the city works, demanding that it work differently, and do it NOW. It ranks with Giulliani's crackdown on jaywalkers, and makes just as many long-time New Yorkers shake their heads at the strange non-New Yorkness of it all...

Dan said...

Your if they don't follow the rules, why should we follow the rules argument makes me sick. Why should it be acceptable to do something just because other people do it?

Brooks of Sheffield said...

I'm not saying, Dan, that bikers shouldn't follow traffic laws simply because car drivers regularly don't. I'm asking: why are bikers being targeted for their offenses, while drivers are not. There's a double standard. I want everyone to follow the traffic laws. And I want everyone on wheels (bikes and cars and trucks) to have an equal right to the roads.

Ed said...

Don't think about bike lanes in Amsterdam. Think about putting bike lanes in Tokyo or Mexico City. Then you start to appreciate the problems with this idea.

And forget about the example of Beijing. Biking worked in China because few people drove cars. The government there is (wrongly) trying to people off bikes and into cars as fast as they can because, you know, that's progress.

I tend to agree with John M. Once you have a sufficient amount of auto traffic bikes aren't very feasible. If you want more people to bike, bike friendly measures have to come after you reduce the auto traffic. I think the recent focus on biking is a distraction from proposals that really could reduce auto use, and I sometimes wonder if that is deliberate.

One thing you could do is to start ticketing drivers more for traffic violations.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Do you guys honestly think that the car-dominated paradigm we currently live with is better than one in which bikes are part of the picture? I'm sorry, but doesn't that thinking seem kind of backward, given all the environmental and Green movements afoot right now, and the growing recognition of global warming? Don't you even want to try? Do you actually think things are just fine the way they are?

Kevin Walsh said...

Sorry Brooks, I'm a bicyclist myself but I've become disenchanted with Sadik-Khan's measures and long ago became unhappy with Transportation Alternatives and Streetsblog, which I see as a political groups with a pro-cycling patina.

I'm disgusted with doorers and dopey drivers who think it's the Indy 500 when the light changes, but I'm equally disgusted with bicyclists who blow through lights on the wrong side of the street. If you read Streetsblog comments, you'd think this sort of thing is a political right for bicyclists. They're green, after all.

A pox on both the drivers' and bicyclists' houses. I'll continue to be the bicyclist who obeys traffic lights and rides on the right [Streetsbloggers, I suppose that makes me a sucker]

Bloomie, rein in drivers and out of control bicyslists. Each has declared war on pedestrians.


Queens Crapper said...

Hey, I'm sure you know I am no fan of bike lanes for many of the reasons listed by other commenters. But there is another reason. I am someone who was run down by a biker while walking on the sidewalk. I don't mean I was at the curb or in a crosswalk, I mean I had just exited a Chinese restaurant, took a few steps and the next thing I knew, I had tire marks across the front of my shirt. I wasn't seriously hurt, but my hand was swollen for a week and I couldn't write, which I needed to do to make a living.

Why was this chap riding on the sidewalk? Probably because he realized that riding in the street is so damn dangerous. I can understand this.

I also was almost taken out by a biker trying to navigate between a bus and the curb when I was exiting the bus.

I have very rarely seen a car drive on the sidewalk, but I see bikers do it all the time. Cars and bikes do not mix and vehicles of any type and pedestrians do not mix. Taking lanes of road away from motorists to accommodate bikers neither makes it safe for bikers nor reduces traffic. Quite the contrary. Taking parking away affects merchants, shoppers and the disabled. And people riding bikes because Bloomberg or Sadik-Khan or Wiley Norvell says they should is not going to happen.

And I say this as someone who possesses a driver's license but hasn't driven since my road test and has never owned a car. I wish there were less cars in the City. But that's not what the City culture is, especially in the outer boroughs where getting things accomplished or getting home at a decent hour requires one.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Whoa. What can I say when two such august bloggers as Forgotten New York and Queens Crapper weigh in against my bike lane essay? Just respectfully disagree, I guess.

I see what you're saying, guys, and you say it well.

I agree that bikers have to start obeying the laws, should stop at lights and get off the sidewalk.

It's kind of a vicious circle, though. Bikers usually ride on the sidewalk because they don't feel safe on a bike-lane-free street. This makes people angry at bikers and, perversely, not want to give them bike lanes. But how are you going to get them off the sidewalk if bikes are given no place to go that is their own. Cars have roads, pedestrians have sidewalks. Bikes need a venue.

I don't agree that we have to surrender the city to bikes simply because that is "City culture." That culture can change. People rely on cars more than they need to, often out of laziness, or a disinclination to use mass transit, or walk.

Perhaps the answer to have cars and bikes learn together to be better citizens.

Kevin Walsh said...

I favor more bike-ONLY venues such as the Ocean Parkway bike path. Pedestrians are fenced off from bicyclists on the parkway. The Vanderbilt Motor Parkway in Queens also functions as a VG bike path.

But remember, painting a line down the middle of a path and marking one side for peds and one side for bicyclists isn't cutting it. This was done on the Brooklyn Bridge. The bike racers have taken command and it isn't safe to walk the BB anymore.

Similarly, the 12th Avenue Hudson River Park bike path is also ill-conceived. In the bike world, speed takes over. I've been almost run of the path by the racers because they demand room to move. Leisurely weekenders are in their way and they're not having it. I'll return to Ocean Parkway: the path is of sufficient width to allow both speeders and weekenders...


Queens Crapper said...

Ditto for the Queensboro Bridge. It's hard to enjoy your stroll over the span when you constantly have to look over your shoulder to make sure you don't get run over.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

I understand your points, QC and FNY, but I hope you understand that the forces who fight these bike paths are the same ones who support the reckless overdevelopment we all decry as ruining the character of the city. It's all about money and business, with no damns given about anything else.