A unified theory of New York biking

By Felix Salmon
September 3, 2010

Most bikers in New York have their fair share of road rage. Commuting by bicycle in Manhattan has many things to be said for it, but it’s certainly not relaxing. And bicyclists as a group have surprisingly little public support. The question is, why? And I think I’ve worked out something approaching the Unified Theory of New York Biking:

Cyclists get no respect as road users. Instead, tragically, they’re treated like pedestrians.

Basically, people in New York — and I absolutely include the bicyclists themselves here, who are actually the worst offenders — start with the long-established interplay between pedestrians and motorists, and then layer on bicyclists as though the bike was a cool toy given to a suburban 13-year-old kid, rather than an efficient way of using the city’s streets as a way of getting from A to B.

Let’s take all the different permutations in order. To begin with, there’s the old bike-free status quo, where the possible interactions are pedestrian-pedestrian, pedestrian-motorist, or motorist-motorist. It’s worth thinking about these a bit, because they’re deeply ingrained in us, and they’re responsible for shaping the way we see everything else.

The pedestrian-pedestrian encounter is both chaotic and benign, just so long as you don’t work in the middle of Times Square. (Ahem.) People move slowly enough that they have lots of time to maneuver around each other as necessary, and most of the time, with the help of a little eye contact, large numbers of people are extremely good at walking with and around and across each other.

The motorist-motorist encounter, by contrast, is very highly choreographed, with lights and lanes and speed limits and indicator lights and even a dedicated corps of traffic police to enforce the rules. The rules aim to minimize car crashes, and again, as a general rule, they do a pretty good job.

Finally there’s the pedestrian-motorist encounter, which is based largely on asymmetry: motorists have nothing to fear from pedestrians, but pedestrians have everything to fear when it comes to getting hit by a car. At the same time, their respective spaces (sidewalk, roadway) are very clearly delineated, largely to minimize any need for the two to interact at all. When they do interact, pedestrians take advantage of the rules of the road: a red light, for instance, means that the cars have to stop, so pedestrians can cross against them. Pedestrians trust the motorists to follow the rules, and most of the time that’s what happens.

There are rules governing pedestrian behavior too, but they’re broadly ignored. Because they’re slow and harmless, pedestrians feel as though they have few responsibilities to others. So they’ll jaywalk, or cross in the middle of the block, or wait for the light to change while standing a couple of yards into the street, because they can. At the margin, a few motorists will be inconvenienced, but they have all the advantages of being in a car, so pedestrians feel it’s a fair trade-off.

The trouble all starts when you drop bicyclists into the mix. At that point, a whole new set of combinations comes into play, and as a city we haven’t worked out how to make them work. In other cities, especially in places like Copenhagen or Utrecht, bicycles are ubiquitous and everybody knows how to behave on and around them. But we’re not there yet.

Bikes can and should behave much more like cars than pedestrians. They should ride on the road, not the sidewalk. They should stop at lights, and pedestrians should be able to trust them to do so. They should use lights at night. And — of course, duh — they should ride in the right direction on one-way streets. None of this is a question of being polite; it’s the law. But in stark contrast to motorists, nearly all of whom follow nearly all the rules, most cyclists seem to treat the rules of the road as strictly optional. They’re still in the human-powered mindset of pedestrians, who feel pretty much completely unconstrained by rules.

The result is decidedly suboptimal for all concerned, but mostly for the bicyclists themselves. New York needs to make a collective quantum leap, from treating bicyclists like pedestrians to treating bicyclists like motorists. And unless and until it does, bike relations will continue to be marked by hostility and mistrust.

Consider the bicyclist-bicyclist encounter, first. Most of the time, bicyclists get on just fine with each other: we’re all riding along the street in the same direction, and if you need to do it, overtaking is pretty easy. You look behind to check for cars, you might announce a polite “on your left”, and off you go.

But all of that falls apart with the introduction of the evil bike salmon, which have reached pandemic proportions in New York, even on insanely busy avenues. If you’re riding the wrong way down the street, that’s always going to be dangerous for any bicyclists coming towards you. Sometimes, it’s downright lethal. I bike up Sixth Avenue to work, which nominally has a bike lane running up its left-hand side, but like all bike lanes this one is often filled with large opaque trucks. So I need to look behind me, merge into traffic, and skirt around the truck. All of which is no big deal, just so long as I don’t run headlong into a suicidal bike salmon coming the other way, who of course I couldn’t see in advance because the truck was in the way.

Or any other corner works much the same way: a friend of mine got some pretty nasty injuries when he turned a corner on a bike only to see a bike salmon of the delivery-boy subspecies barreling towards him. He slammed on his brakes, went over the handlebars, and the bike salmon went merrily on his way.

What justifies bike salmoning? Nothing. But what explains it is that bicyclists are in the pedestrian mindset: rules don’t apply to them. Yes, having a one-way system means you’ll sometimes have to go a couple of blocks out of your way, but cars do that automatically, and most of the time they’re going slower than the bikes. And none of this, of course, explains those delivery guys, who only bike the wrong way down the street. That’s just perverse.

Recently I saw a mother in her late 20s, riding down Avenue A with her toddler in a bike seat on the back. The mother wasn’t wearing a helmet, but she was wearing iPod headphones. And she was salmoning, which actually takes some doing on a two-way street like Avenue A: she was riding north, but on the west, southbound, side of the road. And she did this for a few blocks.

Now think of the message that mother was sending to any cars travelling south on Avenue A. It’s unambiguous: “I act like a pedestrian, I follow no rules, I don’t care about you, and you just have to navigate around me.”

Every bike salmon constitutes an utterly gratuitous confrontation and escalation in the war between bicyclists and motorists. Whenever a motorist encounters a bicyclist riding towards them on the street, that only serves to confirm in their mind that bicyclists aren’t proper road users, aren’t worthy of their respect, and certainly can’t be trusted to play by the same rules that govern cars. Bicyclists are an obstacle, an inconvenience — something which really shouldn’t be on the road at all.

As a result, drivers don’t treat cyclists as legitimate users of the road, even when they’re going in the right direction. Instead, they treat us as they would treat pedestrians. I’ve had a taxi driver scream at me for biking the right way down the street, because there wasn’t enough room for him to overtake and he wanted to get to the red light at the end of the block a few seconds faster. Once we were both stopped at the red light, he explained in a very forthright New York manner that he had every right to drive as fast as he wanted on the roads, and I had no right to be on the road at all.

I had much the same experience today — this is the one which prompted this entire blog entry. I was riding down 43rd Street to Reuters on the right-hand side of the street, passing cars waiting for the light to change at Broadway. Suddenly, a man threw open the rear door of one of those cars, right in my path; I slammed on the brakes and came to a halt, thankfully unharmed, just as he was getting out of his car. He didn’t apologize, so I smiled — I’ve learned that any sign of anger is counterproductive in these situations — and said that it’s always a good idea to look first, before opening a car door into the street.

His response was both nonsensical and illuminating: he informed me in a very haughty manner that I shouldn’t have been biking on the street in the first place. Confused, I looked around: did he mean that there was a bike lane I should have been using instead? No, there wasn’t. So I asked him what he meant, and he ignored me, rushing into 1500 Broadway.

What I think he meant, if he could articulate it — which clearly he couldn’t — was that bicyclists aren’t legitimate road users, and we shouldn’t be getting in the way of cars, or, for that matter, in the way of people exiting cars. No one worries about dooring pedestrians: for one thing, pedestrians don’t have the requisite velocity, and for another thing they’re not meant to be in the road in the first place. And bicyclists, in this guy’s mind, belong in the same category as pedestrians, not the same category as cars. (If there were enough room on the right for a car to pass by, you can be sure he’d look first before opening that door.)

You see that mindset all the time, with cars — especially when it comes to blinking. They’ll indicate for the benefit of other cars, but never for the benefit of bicyclists: if you’re switching into a new car lane, then you’ll blink, but if you’re going to turn across a bike lane, you won’t. All too often, they’ll commandeer bike lanes for themselves, turning them into de facto left-turn lanes. If it’s on the road, it’s for cars. And, of course, if they’re not using the bike lane to drive in, they’re using it to park in.

And while cars are reasonably polite, even in Manhattan, when it comes to cutting off other cars, they seem to have many fewer compunctions when it comes to bicyclists: they’re 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.

Pedestrians can also navigate obstacles in the street, like those big metal plates or nasty potholes, a lot more easily than bicyclists can. We like very much to travel in a straight line when possible. But you should never assume, if you’re zooming along in a car, that the bicyclist you’re overtaking is going to remain in a perfectly straight line and that you can therefore overtake with only a few inches to spare. Any number of things can cause us to swerve unexpectedly — but drivers, at least in New York, often don’t remember that, or think that way.

If relations between motorists and bicyclists are bad, though, they’re nothing when it comes to relations between bicyclists and pedestrians. That relationship is positively poisonous, precisely because both sides are thinking of bikers as being more like pedestrians than like cars.

Why do bicyclists ride on the sidewalk? Because they think they’re pedestrians. And in doing so they infuriate the real pedestrians, who deserve the sidewalk to themselves. And while the majority of bicyclists don’t ride on the sidewalk, most of them do happily sit right in the middle of the pedestrian crosswalk. 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. In doing so, they can get in the way of dozens of people just trying to walk across the street — and indeed even get directly in the way of fellow bicyclists coming up a bike lane towards them. Bicyclists always seem to forget how long their bikes are: they block off a lot of space, if you’re trying to cross past them.

Armed with their pedestrian mindset, bicyclists are convinced that they can cut easily through people crossing the street, just as they could if they were walking. They’re wrong, of course, but there’s no culture of giving way to pedestrians, because they feel even more defenseless than the pedestrians when it comes to the rough streets of New York City. And potential victims find it very hard to stop and think of themselves as being too aggressive.

Meanwhile, the obliviousness on the other side is utterly exasperating for any cyclist. I was riding down 44th Street recently and saw a guy wanting to cross the street mid-block. He looked at me, we made eye contact — and then he stepped out, right into my path! The point is, he was looking for cars, not for bikes. He saw me, but he didn’t think of me as a vehicle he shouldn’t step in front of; instead, he thought of me as a pedestrian who could get past him no problem.

While pedestrians are worried about cars running them over, and tend not to step out in front of them, they have no such compunctions when it comes to bikes, or bike lanes. Bike over the Manhattan bridge at any time, day or night, and you’ll find pedestrians walking happily on the north side, which is for bikes only, rather than on the much nicer pedestrian-only south side. I like to think that they simply have no idea of how much trouble they cause cyclists: the idea that they do know, and choose to walk in the bike lane regardless, is just too demoralizing to contemplate.

And the situation in some bike lanes — especially the one running down Broadway north and south of Times Square — is much, much worse, to the point at which the bike lane is actually unusable by bicycles. It’s painted green, and it’s set off from the street by a pedestrian zone, which means there’s no car danger at all, and which also means that pedestrians feel free to wander across it at will. And they never look first to see if a bike is coming. The bike lane essentially becomes an extension of the pedestrian zone, and the bikes are forced to use the road, defeating the whole point of building a bike lane in the first place.

One part is particularly bad: bikes are meant to be able to get down Broadway between 35th St and 33rd St, even though cars can’t. But no one seems to have told the pedestrians, who happily plonk chairs down in the middle of the narrow bike path between 34th and 33rd. It’s by far the shortest way for me to get home from work, but I always go well out of my way to take 9th Avenue instead: navigating the pedestrians on Broadway is just too hard.

Again, the problem here is mindset. The pedestrians are in a pedestrian mindset, where they can wander happily wherever they like, especially when there aren’t any cars to worry about. It simply never occurs to them that they might be getting in the way of bicyclists — even when they’re standing right in the middle of a bike lane. If cars use bike lanes as left-turn lanes, pedestrians use them as staging areas, places to stand while they’re waiting for the light to change.

Pedestrians intuitively understand that bike lanes are relatively safe from cars, and therefore feel safe stepping out into them without looking first. And that can be extremely dangerous, both for themselves and for cyclists: a friend of mine died after a pedestrian stepped out in front of him when he was riding his bike.

Bicyclists aren’t like pedestrians: we’re much faster, we can’t stop quickly, we can’t navigate as adroitly, and it takes a lot of effort to slow down and speed up again, compared to the effort expended in just moving at a constant velocity. We’re a danger to pedestrians, but they’re a danger to us, too. And cars, of course, are a danger to both of us.

As New York becomes an increasingly bike-friendly city, it’s going to have to how learn to deal with these new encounters: bike-bike, bike-car, bike-ped. Other cities have managed it; we can too. But for the time being, bicyclists are being thought of in the “pedestrian” bucket. And that’s causing a great deal of harm.

Update: Some great comments below. One thing is worth clarifying: I’m certainly not saying that bikes should behave exactly like cars, which would include not overtaking cars in their own lane. In fact, under New York State law it’s illegal for bikes to behave exactly like cars: if you’re on a road without a bike lane, you have to stay to the right of the road and let cars overtake you if possible. Overtaking  within a single lane of traffic isn’t just sensible, it’s the law!

Also, Caleb Crain found some pertinent statistics in Jeff Mapes’s book Pedaling Revolution:

According to Mapes, a 1996 study by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center found that “as many as a third of all bike accidents involved simply riding against the flow of traffic,” and a 2003–2004 Orlando, Florida, study found that “nearly two-thirds [of bike accidents] involved riding on the sidewalk or another unsafe choice by the cyclist.”

Update 2: After an interesting back-and-forth with Ledbury22 in the comments, he introduced himself to me as we were standing in line at the hardware store this afternoon. His problem is with “lane splitting”: when bikes create their own mini-lane between cars and the sidewalk. It’s built into New York law, which requires that bikes create just such a mini-lane on the right-hand side of the road even when there aren’t any slow or stationary cars, so that faster cars can create their own, much bigger, mini-lane, and overtake them. And it turns out that Ledbury dislikes this not from the perspective of a car driver, as I had assumed, but rather that of a pedestrian.

The problem, as it turns out, is a common one: pedestrian wants to cross a street where cars aren’t moving: they’re waiting at a light, or stuck in a jam. So walks out into the road in the middle of the block, without looking, and gets whacked by a bicyclist. Pedestrian’s fault, clearly — but when you’ve just been hit by a bicycle, you’re liable to start blaming bicycles for increasing the danger quotient on the roads even when you are the person at fault.

There’s really only one answer for this: pedestrians need to get used to the idea of looking for bikes just as they look for cars. This is one are where improved bicyclist behavior can’t help. Even increased bike lanes wouldn’t help much, since in my experience the kind of pedestrians who step out into the road without looking are even more likely to step out into a bike lane without looking.

Update 3: Bike Snob responds! And I agree with everything he says. His conclusion:

Salmon makes many excellent points, but I was dismayed to see he fell into the same trap (or, in his case, net) as most other people who try to address this issue, which is to suppose that drivers and cyclists and pedestrians are somehow “different,” or that their nature is somehow determined by their vehicle. Excluding for the moment the fact that many people are pedestrians and cyclists and drivers at various points in the day, a considerate person is a considerate person and an idiot is an idiot, and both will behave as such regardless of how they are propelling themselves at any given moment.

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