NYC Road Rules - Improvement Week


By Matthew Cain

NYC bike lane. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Every mile traveled on New York’s streets brings new dangers. More New Yorkers are killed in traffic than are killed by guns. In 2008 alone, 10,973 pedestrians were hit by cars — more than one each hour.

Our roads, and the laws that govern them, are not designed for the varied modes of transportation that New Yorkers use. The thousand pounds of metal that encase drivers protects them from too many of the consequences of their mistakes. Without an engine, bikers can’t be expected to start and stop with vehicular traffic, but their wheels mean they shouldn’t compete with pedestrians, either. Sidewalks are pedestrians’ domain, but even the sidewalk is strewn with obstacles.

New mayor Bill de Blasio and his team say that they’re committed to making our streets safer. Polly Trottenberg, the new commissioner of the Department of Transportation, has pledged to work toward Vision Zero and create a city with no traffic fatalities. It’s an ambitious but achievable goal, and our city will be better and stronger when all New Yorkers can travel safely.

Even before reaching Vision Zero, we can improve safety if we all agree on a few simple ground rules. Most of the recommendations below ask travelers to be a little more conscious of how they use the roads. But a few changes to the rules – and their enforcement – can make New York’s streets safer and more convenient for everyone.


Drivers, let’s face it. You’ve got to change the most to make the streets safer. Since the only thing that really puts you in physical danger is another driver, this seems fair.

Slow the fuck down.

The speed limit in New York City, with a very few exceptions, is 30. A pedestrian hit by a car going 30mph has an 80 percent chance of surviving. Just 10 miles an hour faster, that rate drops to 30 percent. Don’t speed.

Still, 30mph is too fast in many neighborhoods. The City Council last year considered a bill to lower most speed limits to 20mph, but it would have needed approval from Albany. The bill was tabled before the end of the year, but many council members are still focused on lowering as many speed limits as possible. The survival rate for pedestrians struck by a car at 20mph? 98 percent.


Cars are big, bikes and pedestrians are small. Shortly after I moved to New York, I was stopped at a red light when a firetruck – without lights or siren – took a left turn into my lane and crushed my bike. The driver’s excuse was, “You must have been in my blind spot.”

Look, it takes a half a second to take an extra look at every intersection. Do it. There’s a lot of paperwork involved with hitting a cyclist or pedestrian. You’re really saving yourself time.

Chill out.

Traffic in New York sucks. Even if you give yourself plenty of time, you’ll probably wind up being late from time to time. When you’re running late, you get frustrated, and when you’re driving frustrated, it’s easy to think reckless maneuvers are a good idea. They’re not.

If you pass that slow car, you’ll save yourself a few seconds. Great. But darting from lane to lane increases your chances of hitting a biker or pedestrian. It’s not worth it.

Plus, when was the last time somebody was actually pissed at you because you were three minutes late? Chill.


Depending on how you look at them, bikers are the “most important danger in the city” for helping improve everything from traffic density to air quality. Admittedly, I fall firmly in the latter camp, but even I’ll admit many bikers in this city take unnecessary risks that make it easy for drivers to stereotype all of us. Bikers, if we use more common sense, and the city redesigns traffic rules to address some of the ways we’re different from cars, everyone will be safer and happier.

Yield to red lights (safely).

The reason bikers run so many red lights is that they rely on momentum to keep going. It takes a lot of effort to get going after a stop, especially up hill. Plus, those first few wobbly seconds of getting up to speed make it unsafe for cyclists and drivers to start together on a green light. City law should recognize this and allow cyclists to pass through red lights when and where safe.

That said, don’t give drivers a reason to hate you. Yielding to red lights means that as you approach an intersection if you see that there is someone whose right of way would be “stolen” if you entered the intersection, don’t. Stealing someone else’s right of way is a perfect way to set someone off or worse: risk your life. If you pull up to a light as it turns red, stop and wait for the traffic to pass – don’t just dart through, even if you’re pretty sure you’ll be safe. Pedestrians in your path? Give them space.

Personally, when I come to a red light, I ask myself if I’d jaywalk with a stroller full of young children. If yes, go for it – safely. Until the city actually recognizes this practice and its merits, running a red could still land a biker with a $270 fine. So, be aware of your surroundings, but if you don’t see any cops, run the light.

No salmoning.

Before breeding, salmon swim against the current for many miles. Then they die. Sometimes they’re eaten by bears, sometimes they successfully spawn, but in almost all cases, they die. Don’t be a salmon.

There’s almost never a reason to ride the wrong way on a one-way street for more than a block. There’s usually a parallel street going in your direction just a block in either direction. Many of those parallel streets also have bike lanes, but even if they don’t, you’re safer (and pissing off fewer other people) if you’re going with the flow of traffic.

There is one exception: Need to get to the other end of a one-way without doing a loop around the neighborhood? If you’re going less than a block, it’s fine. But seriously, any more than that is annoying and unsafe.

Wear a helmet when you can.

Helmets save lives. You’re always safer when you’re wearing one. Whenever possible, wear a damn helmet.

Besides protecting your skull from unwanted blunt-force trauma, helmets show drivers and others that you’re taking your own safety seriously. Boston Globe columnist Doug Most explained after a fatal crash in 2010, “Drivers will be less inclined to be angry at you if they think you actually care about safety. A helmetless rider is an arrogant rider.”

But even I’ll admit, I don’t carry my helmet with me at all times. And an unexpected CitiBike trip usually becomes a helmetless CitiBike trip. That’s fine, but when you’re riding without a helmet, don’t take any chances. Obey the letter of the law. Don’t ask for trouble.

Stay off sidewalks. Always.

Sidewalks are for walking. Bikes don’t belong there.

Bikers, look at it this way. Your enemy is the reckless driver. Pedestrians are a natural ally. Don’t do anything to piss them off.


Too often, pedestrians are just minding their own business when a car jumps the curb and wreaks havoc. Pedestrians aren’t safe in crosswalks or on sidewalks.

Most of the danger isn’t the pedestrians’ fault. But still, a few simple changes can keep everyone safer.

Jaywalk safely.

Jaywalking is a New York tradition. I’m not here to tell anyone not to jaywalk. But don’t cross in front of stopped cars that just got a green light. They’ll honk at you, and they’ll be justified.

Make sure you look before you step into the street (or bike path). Can you make it to the other side before the next vehicle passes? Walk boldly, my friend. Do you think you’ll have to run? Wait for the cars to pass, then go when you can walk all the way. It’s not jayrunning, after all.

Respect bikers.

We all want a city where we can travel safely, without being hit by a car. No pedestrian in New York has been killed by a cyclist since 2009, but a collision between a pedestrian and a bike will still hurt both people involved. Nobody wants that. Give cyclists the bike lane, and they’ll give you the sidewalk.

As always, look before you going into the street. On a snowy night last month, I had to slam on the brakes of a CitiBike after a pedestrian stepped into 2nd Avenue’s protected bike lane without looking, right in front of me. The bike skidded in the snow, and I landed on my ass, but I didn’t hit him. My only advice before riding off was, “Next time, maybe you should look before you jump into the bike lane.”


We’re all in this together. There are a few things we can all do that will make a big difference.

Don’t be a dick. Take the headphones out. Drink responsibly. Slow down and enjoy the view.