• Health

New York City’s Bicycle Wars

7 minute read
Bryan Walsh

Paul Griffin is not an angry driver. Griffin — a private tutor who is, full disclosure, a friend of mine — meditates regularly, hosts a monthly Buddhist book club and is generally able to approach life with more serenity than anyone who regularly braves New York City’s madness-inducing traffic should be able to manage. But there’s one aspect of New York motoring that drives Griffin crazy: the growing number of bicyclists. “Many feel they own the streets; worse, they often break the law,” he says. “As a driver, I find many bikers annoying, entitled and dangerous.”

Once the province of aggro bike messengers and pressed-for-time deliverymen, cycling has gone mainstream in much of New York City. More than twice as many New Yorkers commuted to work by bike in 2011 than in 2006 — to nearly 20,000 — while the number of New Yorkers who ride their bike daily increased by more than 13% over just the past two years. And much of that two-wheeled growth is due to the surprisingly bike friendly policies of Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his aggressive transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. More than 290 miles of new bike lanes have been built since Bloomberg took over in 2002 — altogether there are more than 700 miles — including new routes physically separated from the streets in main arteries like Manhattan’s Ninth Avenue. “Between 2 and 2.5% of all vehicle miles traveled in the entire city of New York is by bike,” says Charles Komanoff, a New York-based transport analyst. “That’s five or six times what it was 30 years ago.”

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The bikeification of New York’s crowded streets will culminate this month when the Citi Bike share program launches. Modeled after similar bike share programs in Washington and Paris, the Citi Bike program will eventually feature up to 10,000 bicycles scattered at 600 stations around Manhattan and some parts of Brooklyn and Queens. For a modest fee, New Yorkers will be able to take out a bike at one station, cycle to another part of town and leave the bike at another station. Bike sharing has worked elsewhere — a recent survey estimated that the D.C. program reduced driving miles per year by nearly 5 million — and it will further encourage cycling in New York. As the full-time cyclist and part-time musician David Byrne wrote recently in the New York Times, “This system is not geared for leisurely rides… This is for getting around.”

And that is what has some New Yorkers — drivers and pedestrians alike — so annoyed. New York is almost certainly the most congested city in America, and even with an extensive public transit system, more than 600,000 cars crawl into lower Manhattan each day. Add millions of pedestrians — yes, unlike many Americans, New Yorkers regularly carry themselves along on their own two feet — and you have a daily war for scarce space on the streets and sidewalks. To the drivers and walkers who have long owned the city, any competition is unwelcome. The reliably right-wing New York Post labeled Bloomberg’s bike programs a “crazed campaign,” while community groups — even in usually progressive neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Park Slope — have risen up against some of the new bike lanes. Drivers like Griffin are frustrated by the unpredictability of cyclists, while pedestrians trade stories about getting buzzed by bikers who ride on the sidewalk or blast through red lights. A 2011 study found that more than 500 New York pedestrians a year make hospital trips after getting hit by bikes. “That’s probably an underestimate of the number of times this has happened,” says Bill Milczarski of New York’s Hunter College, who co-authored the study. “There could be dozens or scores of times when a pedestrian is crossing the street without looking and they get hit by a cyclist.”

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With the Citi Bike program likely to unleash thousands of new cyclists loose on New York’s streets, those safety concerns are only going to grow. Last month New York City Comptroller John Liu released a report warning that the bike share program could lead to more accidents, injuries and potentially lawsuits against the city. (In 2010, there were 368 crashes reported by bicyclists and 19 cyclists died — up from 286 injuries and 12 deaths in 2009.) Liu called for helmets to be made mandatory for all Citi Bike riders — and there are no such plans now — and stoked the fears that the new cyclists would be a danger to themselves and others. “In the rush to place ten thousand bicycles on our streets, City Hall may have pedaled past safety measures,” Liu said in a statement.

But look at the numbers more closely, and you’ll see that cyclists are much more threatened than threatening — even in New York. The number of people who’ve been killed in traffic accidents in New York has declined over the past decade, and the number of bikers is growing faster than the number of bike accidents. And despite the public perceptions of out of control cyclists, bikers are rarely at fault for accidents — especially with cars. A study by Monash University in Australia that looked at driver-cyclist collisions found that nearly 90% of cyclists had been traveling in a safe and legal manner just before the crashes, while vehicle drivers were at fault for more than 80% of the collisions, with the remaining collisions classified as no-fault.

A 2011 study of Barcelona’s bike-sharing program found a tiny increase in the risk of death from bicycle-related traffic accidents, but one that was more than balanced out by deaths that were prevented as a result of the health benefits of regular cycling. “There’s a big public health angle for encouraging more cycling in our cities,” says John Pucher, a professor of urban design at Rutgers University and the co-author of the forthcoming book City Cycling.

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Even dedicated cyclists like Pucher admit that some of their ilk can be maddeningly mercurial, blowing through intersections and ignoring traffic signs. But it should be pretty clear that a 20-lb. bike is considerably less dangerous than a half-ton car. “The majority of drivers do the right thing, but it only takes one who is not to end my life as a cyclist,” says Jeff Frings, a Milwaukee photographer and avid cyclist who blogs about his sometimes messy encounters with drivers.

Of course, it’s also possible that the Citi Bike share program could well make the streets safer for cyclists, simply by putting more of them on the streets. In cycling havens like Amsterdam — where 26% of daily trips are by bike — cyclists are so commonplace that drivers and pedestrians become accustomed to their presence, and give them the necessary space. (It also helps that Dutch children are taught safe cycling from an early age.) The more cyclists there are on the roads, the more they become part of traffic — instead of a resented exception. That in turn helps encourage the cyclists themselves to follow the rules, instead of acting like two-wheeled rebels. “In America you can feel like you’re not welcome, but in Amsterdam the system just accepts you as a cyclist there,” says Andy Clark, the president of the League of American Bicyclists. “You don’t feel like you’re outside the law.” If drivers, pedestrians and cyclists can all remain on the right side of the law, there should be room for all of them.

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