The Future of Bike Lanes in NYC: Will the Motorist-Cyclist War Ever End?By: Jennifer Ganeles, Christopher Pringle, and Naomi W
On January 1, 2014, thousands of people gathered in the frigidweather to watch the inauguration of Mayor Bill de Blasio at City Hall. After a total of twelve years under the administration of Michael Bloomberg, New York’s most powerful politicians and celebrities stood alongside supporters in anticipation as de Blasio promised to “march toward a fairer, more just, more progressive place.” The day was a memorable one, as it marked the beginning of a new era for New York City.
While the crowd focused attentively on its new mayor, on the sidelines stood a refined-looking woman, bundled up in a warm furry hat and a heavy red scarf. She looked no different than the rest of the thousands of people who were gathered at City Hall that day, except this woman was wearing a ‘Vision Zero’ tag attached to her coat. Her name was Polly Trottenberg, and she would soon be replacing Janette Sadik-Khan as the new Department of Transportation Commissioner.
The New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) has several responsibilities, including the maintenance of city streets and the authorization of bus services and street construction permits. As the official overseer of all transportation-related matters, the DOT also advocates for transportation safety issues – most notably, the promotion of pedestrian and bicycle safety through the implementation of bike lanes and plazas.
After only three months in office, it is difficult to predict what this new administration will mean for the future of bike lanes in New York City, and what it will mean for the cyclists and motorists that battle over their implementation. Trottenberg is a big advocate of “Vision Zero,” a road traffic safety project with the aim to bring the number of traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero. In an attempt to realize that goal, Trottenberg will be following in Sadik-Khan’s footsteps when it comes to the expansion of bike lanes.
“This administration is going to be committed to expanding the use of bikes,” she told reporters during a press conference, which was later broadcasted by. “And we’re going to take a look also at pedestrian plazas — but we’re going to make sure that we do it in a respectful way, working closely with the communities and stakeholders that care.”
There is no doubt that Trottenberg has high hopes in putting the de Blasio campaign’s street safety promises into action, but will all parties – pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists – be pleased with the outcome?
Cycling as a Health Benefit
Cycling has gained much popularity in recent years in the United States. Lately, positive press for cycling has been about, praising cycling as a healthy alternative to driving or public transit. Biking has appeal to everyone because it can be done by almost everyone.
Cycling for transportation as well as for recreation is an easy way to incorporate exercise into a daily routine. Many people cannot find time within their busy weeks to include exercise in their schedules, so riding a bike to work provides a great opportunity. Aside from providing exercise, it is also a great way to save money on transportation as well as save the environment. Instead of having to buy gas and pay tolls, cyclists have to pay nothing to ride their bikes to their destinations. This allows those who switch to biking to save transportation money. Cycling also puts fewer cars on the road and reduces emissions from motor vehicles. With less cars on the road, the air can be cleaner and healthier for all.
The Origins of the Motorist-Cyclist War in NYC
New York City developed the country’s first bike path in 1894 and has, more recently, been at the forefront of a national trend to increase bicycling as a safe and viable mode of transportation. As early as the late nineteenth century, bicycles were extremely popular in the city, prompting “master builder,” Robert Moses, to include bike paths in his parkway projects. However, when the Ford Model T entered the transportation scene in 1908, the city transformed into a place of competing ideas surrounding urban travel. New York City has since served as a battleground between motorists and cyclists, as well as pedestrians.
As more and more people were able to afford cars in the 1930s, bicycling eventually declined while bike paths fell into disrepair.But bicycling has resurged in recent years – as well as the conflicts that come along with it – thanks to the Bloomberg administration and former Department of Transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.
Many people believed that former commissioner Sadik-Khan had successfully “ushered in a golden age for bicyclists, pedestrians and environmentalists,”
There was so much backlash, in fact, that the city immediately began to remove a 2.35-mile bike lane along Father Capodanno Boulevard in Staten Island. In 2009, bike lanes along Bedford and Kent Avenues in Williamsburg were also removed after several months of protest from the Hadisic community. Unhappy about the influx of immodestly dressed female cyclists, several Satmar Jews blocked traffic as an objection to the Kent Avenue bike lane. Others, including local businessmen, disputed the lane because it removed essential parking space for delivery trucks and customers. Bike lanes along Prospect Park West were also protested against vehemently. Not only was a lawsuit filed against the city for implementing the bike lane, media coverage of the case had been predominantly anti-bike. In a New Yorker article discussing the Prospect Park West lawsuit, journalist John Cassidy calls the Bloomberg bike-lane policy “a
“I think it’s become exaggerated in the press,” says Streetsblog editor Ben Fried. “We have pretty solid public opinion data that shows that in general New Yorkers support the expansion of the bike network.”
The City’s Response to Motorist-Cyclist Tensions
The city has responded to the opponents of bike lanes over the years, often at the expense of cyclists. In 2011, the New York Police Department began to severely crack down on cyclists who go through red lights, ride the wrong way on streets, or pedal on sidewalks. Approximately 50,000 tickets were issued to bicyclists in that year alone. While the NYPD has been trying to enforce the rules of the road as best as it can, some cyclists have criticized the ridiculously high expectations that have been put on them by police officers.
“Often there are obstructions that keep you from properly riding in the bike lane,” says Casey Neistat, a cyclist who voices his displeasure over unjust ticketing in this viral YouTube video. While Casey was ticketed for not riding his bike in the bike lane, an automobile was double parked in a bus lane nearby and no police officer, he points out, bothered to give him a ticket.
Creating a fair environment without double standards is essential in relieving tensions between cyclists and motorists. However, balancing the needs and desires of both motorists and cyclists has proven to be a challenging task for any city administration, even one as accomplished as Bloomberg’s. Because Trottenberg promises to follow in a similar path to her predecessor, there is no doubt that she will be met with the same issues that the Bloomberg administration has had to face over the last decade.
“One of the lessons learned,” said former commissioner Sadik-Khan in her exit interview with WNYC, “is there’s never enough input. There’s never enough outreach…I mean the streets are really theirs.”
At this point in time, we can only speculate as to how the new Department of Transportation commissioner will handle such a demanding task. It will only become more difficult as tensions between cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists continue to grow in the city of New York.
Motorists in Conflict with Cyclists
While shifting through blog posts, opinion articles, and forum posts, it is not uncommon for cyclists to be referred to as “cockroaches of the road” or “cockroaches on wheels” when described by motorists. Motorists in New York City are finding that bikes are more like obstacles that they must overcome than their peers on the road.
On a cloudy afternoon, we interviewed three motorists walking through Cunningham Park on their experience with cyclists and the amount of respect they give in New York City.
“You know, they’re just doing what they want to do on the roads. They’re not really following the rules.” says Paul Steward, 51-year-old Queens resident. “Sometimes they follow the rules, sometimes they don’t so you have to be careful.
“They don’t [respect motorists]. They wanna to be in the lane, they in the lane. If they don’t wanna to be in the lane, they’re cutting through the cars. They’re not really following the rules. If one of them get hit, then they wanna get upset.
“I think there should be some bike lanes, designated bike areas but not continuous routes throughout the whole city.”
21-year-old Meagan Reed, another Queens resident, agrees: “I don’t think they should have a lane for their selves, but it has been very hard trying to drive with them in the streets. They have the opportunity to dip and dive out the lanes and we don’t. It’s dangerous. They have to find something else to do because having them on the road is not really helping anybody.” She continues, “I don’t feel they respect motor vehicles at all.”
Cyclists often wonder why motorists express so much aggression towards them but a post from an online discussion board about bike safety on the balloon-juice forum has an interesting take on the subject. Rather than immediately dismissing drivers as just being jerk, the user argues there may be a justifiable fear behind the anger:
“I drive on roads (in semi-rural NJ) where there are a lot of bicyclists. I used to be one of them, until it got to be more dangerous than I was comfortable with.
“As a driver, cyclists *scare* me, they make me tense and wary, because I know how easy it would be for me to hurt them. I think there are a huge number of Americans whose reaction to being afraid, *especially* in their cars, is rage. They can’t acknowledge that they’re afraid, so they channel it into anger.”
Although 24-year-old Bronx resident, Valerie Grant, who was also walking through Cunningham Park, is not as anti-cyclists as the previous New York City motorists, she also fears having bikers on the road.
“Streets need specific bike lanes for cyclists so they’re not driving in the middle of the road because some streets don’t. So it’s kind of annoying if you don’t want to hit them. “ she laughs. “I think they might be trying to respect the rules of the road but I feel like they’re not as aware as they could be of what’s going on around them so they do things that are potentially dangerous. I always feel like I’m going to hit them.
“New York City is really busy so I would say it might not be safe for them because everyone drives really crazy. Even though it’s beneficial [if] they have a designated area and they’re not in the middle of the street, cars are not going to drive that safe. I don’t know. Maybe [bike lanes] would help.”
A lot of times accidents occur when one or both parties fail to yield the right of way. The City of Minneapolis investigated almost 3,000 crashes that took place within a 10-year span, and found that cyclists were responsible, or at least held accountable for 60% of the accidents. The study also revealed that, in addition to the failure of yielding the right of way, disregard for traffic signals and cyclists’ unpredictable behavior were also frequent causes of collision.
In response to the statistic the city posted on their website, Minnesota resident Steve Hoffman says, “I see too many cyclists blow through stop signs, turn without signaling, and even wobbling back and forth over the lane markers while talking on cell phones. As a driver I try to be alert, but sometimes bad cycling practices can defeat the most cautious driver.”
Another prominent factor in cyclist- motorist crashes is visibility and there is this worry that bikers don’t make their presence known well enough. According to a study conducted by Queensland University of Technology, it is consistently found that drivers often do not notice cyclists until it is too late to avoid a collision; studies from the University of Helsinki in 2004, and the London School of Health and Tropical Medicine in 1998 produced similar results. 48% of the cyclists in the Queensland study reported having been involved in a crash or near miss with a driver. On the other hand, only 27% of drivers reported having had a crash or a near miss with a bicycle. Drivers were also found four times more likely than cyclists to report that visibility was a factor in the incident.
In the cases of the motorists above, they all found cycling to be detrimental on some level. Regardless of whether or not they believed cyclists were deserving of their own space, many motorists, like New York City motorists above, still do not consider bikes to be vehicles. Why is this and how does it affect the perception of cyclist by motorists?
Reuters blogger, Felix Salmon, describes his experience as a cyclist in New York City and comes to the conclusion that motorists don’t see bikes as vehicles because a number of cyclists don’t behave like vehicles.
In his opinion, every time a cyclist blatantly disregards the rules of the road — riding against traffic, cutting through cars, swerving in and out of lanes, etc. — it confirms to the motorists that bikes are unserious vehicles on the same-level as pedestrians, and continue to treat them as so.
“When it comes to bicyclists [, motorist are] perfectly happy to zoom past me and then pull over to the curb right in front of me, forcing me to brake hard and try to maneuver around them. After all, they can do that with pedestrians, and no one minds.” Salmon says.
Some cyclists themselves ride on the sidewalk or stop in the middle of pedestrian crosswalks, amplifying their pedestrian image.
He adds, “There’s no culture in New York of bicyclists giving way to pedestrians, and of stopping behind the crosswalk where they’re meant to stop. Instead, when they want to cross the street they do exactly what they do when they’re walking, and go as far as they possibly can without being run over by traffic.”
Also, the lack of distracted driving laws for cyclists make motorists see them as even more like a pedestrian. According to New York City law, cyclists are not penalized for riding while talking on a cell phone. Though some deem this is only harmful to the cyclists themselves, others feel that this indiscretion can hurt those driving around them.
In a study conducted by the University of Groningen, twenty-five participants were asked to complete a track with both a handheld and hands-free phone set, and it was found in both cases that cyclists experienced an increased reaction time, and a decreased auditory perception and travel speed.
Though the previous study only surveys a small sample, another study by Arizona State University shows how these findings affect cycler performance. In this study, 1306 cyclists were observed at an intersection and of the 984 cyclists who were not performing secondary tasks (such as using cell phones, headphones, smoking, etc.), only 18% of them got in the way of another person. On the contrary, of the 376 cyclists who were performing secondary tasks, 48% of them forced another person to evade.
Also, in response to a Toronto Star Newspaper article that calls attention to a similar problem in Canada, a user writes that he “was in a head-on collision with another bike when a cyclist decided to travel on the wrong side of the road, in the wrong direction, while talking on a phone.”
Though this was an accident with another bike, it’s easy to understand why motorist wouldn’t cyclists to be distracted.
Another user, this time a motorist, responded, “Distracted cyclists that cut through intersections and don’t pay attention to traffic jeopardize more than just their own safety. They think their actions don’t affect anyone else.”
Bikers who ride carelessly reinforce the negative stigma associated with bikes; as long as there are cyclists who don’t conduct themselves as vehicles, cyclists will continue to be generalized as obstacles that drivers must overcome.
Cyclists in Conflict with Motorists
As the presence of cyclists and bike lanes increase, there is also the increase of contact between motorists and pedestrians. To cyclists, it feels as though motorists and pedestrians have no respect for them. “They don’t like to wait, they honk their horns,” said one cyclist we interviewed in Central park when asked about his experience with motorists. In many areas where there are bike lanes, cyclists have to navigate numerous obstacles just to get through them. Traveling through an area where bike lanes exist, it is easy to see why cyclists can become frustrated with those around them.
A frequent offense noted by cyclists is the misuse of bike lanes. Under the Bloomberg administration, the New York City government website posted a document explaining the rules for cyclists, vehicles, and pedestrians regarding bikes. One of the first warnings of the document is, “Motorists: Do not double-park in a bicycle lane.” According to the New York City Traffic Regulations [Section 4-08(e), (1)], obstructing a bike lane is illegal and violators are subject to a fine.
Although there are clearly stated laws on the obstruction of bicycle lanes, many motorists still ignore them. Numerous blogs have even emerged in opposition to the disrespect of bike lanes in New York City. Sadly, one party that has been documented as repeat offenders is New York City Police Department vehicles and other city government automobiles. One blog that has emerged is the blog, “Cops in Bike Lanes.” This blog posts images of police cars double-parked in bike lanes, an offense that happens all too frequently. Page after page, there are pictures of police cars blocking bike lanes, even when there is available parking (copsinbikelanes.tumblr.com).
“It’s a terrible example for every other driver when a cop car blocks a lane,” says the founder of “Cops in Bike Lanes” in an interview with AM New York. When people see officers of such high power in the city parking in bike lanes, it becomes a casual occurrence and is therefore copied by others.
As previously mentioned, there is tension between cops and cyclists due to the issuing of tickets. To many cyclists, it seems as though they are targeted by police. Incredible examples of cyclists being targeted exist, one of the most outrageous, a woman wearing a skirt given a ticket for “being a distraction to drivers.” In 2011, a cyclist named Casey Neistat was given a ticket for riding outside of a bike lane on a rainy day. “Bike lanes are not always the safest place to be,” said Neistat in a video he posted on YoutTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqJDf7IB4HI).
Frequently, motorists will use the bike lanes as makeshift turn lanes, completely ignoring the need of the lane for cyclists. In addition to this, cars speed up and pull over right in front of bikes, inconsiderate of the fact that there are cyclists riding right behind them. The main reason for this disrespect is the mindset it seems that drivers have about bicyclists: they think that they are pedestrians.
Motorists treat cyclists as if they are just pedestrians with an added accessory of a bike. They treat the cyclist the same way they would treat the pedestrian, pulling over where and when they please, and assuming full control over all parts of the road.
“Bicyclists aren’t like pedestrians,” says New York city cyclist, Felix Salmon in his Reuters article, “A Unified Theory of New York Biking” (http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2010/09/03/a-unified-theory-of-new-york-biking/).
“We’re much faster, we can’t stop quickly.” When cars pull over in front of walking pedestrians, they can stop walking immediately, but that’s a lot more difficult for cyclists riding at a high velocity.
Cyclists in Conflict With Pedestrians
Bicyclists do not only have issues with those behind the wheel, but also those on foot. Pedestrians cause cyclists just as many problems as motorists do. A main offense committed by the pedestrians is the pedestrians walking in the bike lanes, the same issue cyclists have with cars.
“Do not stand or walk in a bike lane,” it clearly states in Section 4-08(e), (1) of the New York City Traffic Regulations. Some pedestrians believe that they are allowed to walk in the street and are completely unaware of laws in place to prevent them from obstructing the lanes. Pedestrians, in a way, also tread the cyclists as pedestrians, or even as if they don’t exist. The main issue is that pedestrians don’t treat cyclists the same way they treat cars. When a pedestrian crosses the street, they will look both directions before crossing. When a pedestrian begins to enter a bike lane, however, they tend not to care or even think to look if there is a bike coming. Cyclists are outraged by this form of disrespect and are even afraid. There can be serious injuries caused to both cyclist and pedestrian in the case of an incident. Even in the parks where there are bike lanes, pedestrians walk in the lanes. “The worst experience I’ve had, honestly… is with pedestrians that are walking in the bike paths in the park,” said a cyclist we interviewed who was riding through Central Park on his way to the George Washington Bridge. “They’ll make a big group and they don’t realize that they’re walking over a little bicycle symbol. Bike riders are trying to pass and go through there quickly… It can make it dangerous.”
For the pedestrians, cyclists are just as much of an issue. Some pedestrians feel that many bicyclists don’t follow the rules. “They don’t stop for pedestrians when they should,” says one man when asked about why he had a problem with cyclists. “They blow stop signs and red lights.”
Many pedestrians look at cyclists as individuals who believe they can bend the rules whenever and however they like. There’s a sense of immunity and invincibility cyclists get from being on a bike.
The End of Cyclist-Motorist Tensions
“Cyclists are the other,” says Streetsblog editor, Ben Fried. “They’re like these foreign beings – they’re not people or New Yorkers, they’re cyclists.”
If history is any indication, cyclists and motorists have a way to go before they can resolve the tensions between them. “Not only do we need to continue to expand infrastructure for each mode (more separated bicycle lanes, sidewalks and freight mobility improvements), we need to move away from the polarized mentality of cars versus bikes,” argues Crosscut columnist Knute Berger. “There should be no ‘war’ on anything.”
According to Caroline Samponaro, director of Bicycle Advocacy at Transportation Alternatives, the issues surrounding the implementation of bike lanes and the increase of cyclists in the city are due to a natural resistance towards change. Conflict and friction will always ensue when something as dear as asphalt undergoes drastic change.
“At first you say, ‘oh, I’m going to lose a parking spot’ and then over time you realize that the return you are getting is a safer street, it’s a street that is more pleasant to walk on,” Samponaro says. “This transition has huge returns to the public and the adjustment period is one that a city grows out of.”