Bike Lanes and Balance- Bike Week

Photo courtesy of Spencer Thomas.

An Editorial

In any city with a population of several million, disagreements are inevitably as numerous as the city is diverse and sometimes people just have to learn how to handle the variety of others surrounding them.

One such adjustment New York City made in recent years, given Mayor Bloomberg’s affinity for bikes, is the inclusion of bike lanes within the city’s busiest streets. Within the six years since the Mayor announced plans to re-draw the city streetscape, 255 miles of bike lanes have been paved. Along with this development came apprehension about the effects and actual demand for these changes. Some politicians are already promoting initiatives to cut back these lanes once Bloomberg’s mayoral term is up.

Photo courtesy of Steiner Studios.

New York City, arguably one of the most progressive cities in the world, obviously has a lot to offer bicyclists, but many feel that a functional biking system modeled after European cities is simply not realistic. Despite positive statistics, they contend that New York might just be too New York for bike lanes.

“According to the DOT’s Pedestrian Safety Study and the most recent Sustainable Streets Index, streets with bike lanes have about 40 percent fewer crashes ending in death or serious injury, and that’s for all street users: drivers and pedestrians included,” says the website Transportation Alternative. “For example, after a parking-protected bike lane was installed on Manhattan’s Ninth Avenue, all traffic-related injuries dropped 50 percent. Injuries to pedestrians dropped 29 percent and injuries to cyclists dropped 57 percent.”

The New York Times also recently conducted a poll of 1,026 people, finding that 66 percent of those polled felt bike lanes were a good idea while 27 percent disagreed and seven percent had no opinion.

In spite of such compelling evidence, many dissidents who find bikers aggressive and view these changes as unnecessary think that the expansion of the bike lanes impedes traffic and might make the city more dangerous.

The rebuttal is also a tired argument: Bikers feel pedestrians don’t pay attention enough, cars are out to get them, police distribution of tickets is unfair, and the NYPD does not does investigate fatal bike accidents enough.

Pedestrians walking in bike lane. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On the other hand, some non-bikers feel that people on bikes are dangerous, aggressive assholes that fly through the city like reckless cowboys of the street.

“Cyclists in New York always complain about how dangerous the cars are…bikes are far more a menace than cars,” says Will Leitch in a Premium Rush review provokingly titled “First, Kill All the Cyclists”. “I’ve never seen a car drive down the wrong side of the street, brazenly run every red light, or just pop up on the sidewalk whenever the driver feels like it. I see a bicyclist do this every 10 seconds. And cars haven’t ruined the Brooklyn Bridge either.”

No one is right.

As someone who has biked several cities (Boston, Berlin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Budapest, etc.) both as a commuter and a tourist for the past six years, I can sympathize with both parties.

Just last month I was over at my cousin’s house. She recently had a baby and recanted a story of unintentional daydreaming that resulted in a misstep toward the bike lane. A cyclist sped by her, scared the crap out of her, and then let fly a series of expletives in her direction.

This example is common in the city and embodies the real truth of the situation as neither the driver nor the cyclist was wholly at fault. Poor Julie wasn’t paying attention, but that’s certainly not a crime. The cyclist was probably going too fast, but that is also his or her right within the bike lane. Their reaction was perhaps not the nicest one, but at the same time, Julie’s misstep could have resulted in a serious accident for both of them.

Anyone who bikes in New York knows it can be scary. I ride to work every day from Bushwick to Chelsea and have come to expect the unexpected. I have close calls all the time, but this is a risk I willingly take to exercise, save money, and be mobile before and after my desk job. I’ve been doored several times and have run into pedestrians that stepped in front of me, but I am surprised to say I’ve never been hit by a car. If I did get hit though, of course I would be upset and distraught, but I would also think “it’s about time.” Pedestrians complain of biker’s aggression, but it is overwhelming to deal with all the obstacles on a commute when a whole list of objects both animate and inanimate could kill you while riding in this city.

At the same time, I find being the proverbial crazed asshole to be unacceptable in almost all circumstances.

New York will never be a biking metropolis like Copenhagen or Amsterdam, and it would be delusional to ever think so, but the main difference I found between those cities and America’s melting pot is a sense of mutual understanding and trust. Tension between bikers and non-bikers simply is not prevalent in Europe.

Bikers need to understand that people are not obstacles and pedestrians need to understand that bikers are people too. Both sides are vulnerable.

I run red lights, sure, but only if no one else that truly has the right-of-way is there. I will stop for a pedestrian if they have the walk light, but, on the same accord, I expect pedestrians to stop for me when they do not have the right-of-way. When they do this, I always say thank you. The other morning I stopped for a woman crossing the street; she said thank you and it made my day.

What really needs to be found is common courtesy, altruism, and an understanding that might perhaps be out of reach for a city so large.

The fact of the matter is that in moving to New York, you are accepting a whole slew of risks and possibilities intertwined with such a vast community. Theft, crime, crowds — these are all things you swallow for the good of what the city has to offer. This vibrant, diverse atmosphere is what makes New York so exciting; you could get shot being near the Empire State Building or walk upon a pillow fight in Washington Square. Anything could happen, just be aware of your surroundings and try to be nice to your neighbor.