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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Interesting post. But I think it identifies the problem and proposes the solution too narrowly. The root cause is a sheer number of people on the streets. Manhattan has much higher population density (and by extension number of people on the streets) then examples of bike-friendly cities.
Vast majority if not all office work can be done from home given an internet connection. Less people commuting daily would make it easier for those who can’t work remotely.
Instead of appeals to bicyclists to behave responsibly we should compel companies to bring less workers to offices.

Posted by melitele | Report as abusive

I drive in Manhattan, at 30mph, and the worst problem is taxis. How are you supposed to stop a giant piece of steel driving at high speeds with cheap brakes? The reality is you either kill people in your way or jump onto the curb killing even more people. I would love to see more speed enforcement for everyone’s benefit.

My second concern is bicycles. Your article explains it well. If I hit anything in my car or violate the rules, there is hell to pay, but nothing similar exists for bicycles. We don’t have bicycle tags or licenses and the police aren’t going to do anything, and probably don’t even know the rarely used citation codes.

Giving bicycles a lane between parked cars and the sidewalk seems to be a good answer. You have a large car barrier of protection and easy access to walk your bike on sidewalk or across the street. Maybe the crazy bicycle behavior can be explained by those without drivers licenses. I learned hand signaling to get my license, but many bicyclists are probably clueless. It may not be a bad idea to eventually have bicycle courses as a prerequisite to gaining road privileges, if the problems get worse.

It’s sad that it comes to this, but pedestrians probably need lines painted on the sidewalk or gates to coral them. Common sense just isn’t plentiful and people feel a sense of entitlement, even if it wins them a traumatic brain injury or permanent paralysis. As a kid I learned not to stand in the street waiting to cross, have cars really changed enough to invalidate such sage advice? Pedestrian crumple zones do little at high speeds and delivery trucks have those big steel grills anyway.

Posted by aht2 | Report as abusive

“But in stark contrast to motorists, nearly all of whom follow nearly all the rules”

Bwahahahahaha. That’s the funniest thing I’ve read this week.

So what you’re saying is that no motorists speed, ever. That no motorists tailgate. No motorists roll through stops. All motorists stop behind stop bars. No motorists open their doors into traffic. No motorists cut people off in traffic. Motorists always signal for everything. Motorists always pass cyclists at a safe distance.

Really, that’s nonsense.

Why do cyclists run stops and treat red lights as stop signs? For the same reasons motorists speed when they get the chance – it’s faster. Where I live, those are both civil infractions, motorists speed almost all the time, and many cyclists treat stops as yields and reds as stops. Both motorist and cyclists do it to get to their destination faster.

Both motorists and cyclists have decided the others are pointless to negotiate with, but the cyclists, at least, aren’t hypocrites about it.

And as for pedestrians, how many of them strictly keep as near as practicable to the right-hand side of the sidewalk? How many of them never walk more than two abreast? How many of them move to the side of the sidewalk when stopping? Who has a “me” mindset?

Posted by KJMClark | Report as abusive

I agree with much of what you’re saying, as an avid urban bicyclist (in SF, not NYC), but there’s a major point you’re not touching. Granted, this isn’t a pragmatic point, but it bears mentioning.

Cars are huge. Bicyclists right now are negotiating for a few feet of space, and it’s sad we have to do that. Car driving should be considered a luxury, especially in densely populated urban areas. Ultimately, most of the road rules exist to accommodate cars — for example, traffic lights. Without cars, we would not need these things at all. Given the myriad annoyances cars cause everyone else (noise, pollution, space consumption), it’s my feeling that every inconvenience should fall on drivers, not on bicyclists and pedestrians.

Posted by superflat | Report as abusive

I would like to add that a bike is not a motor vehicle, and so can not be considered like one. We are indeed fast pedestrians of sort, but we can’t get up to 60 mph on motorways, and when we start we burn energy from our own body, not from a forest which died millions of years ago. Which means that general traffic instructions are not meant for bicycles, alas. Even biking road planning is not always meant for bikers, in fact: it is often meant for removing bikes from the way of the cars. One example which springs to mind: yesterday, in my city of Montreal, I found a new bike lane on Remebrance avenue, going down from atop Mount-Royal. Fine, and a good idea. I follow it, to reach a point at which I MUST get down and walk beside my bike.

No public instance would ever ask any motorist to step down from a car and push it for a few meters.

That is why bikers don’t behave. Most of them do not roll on sidewalks, do not “salmon”, unless the alternative gets unpleasant. And sometimes, by design, it does.

And for the others… Well, I agree there is education to be made, on behaving.

Nicolas Cousineau
Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Posted by NCousineau | Report as abusive

Great piece!

The solution, I think, is ticketing. Quite simply, cyclists (especially delivery guys) salmon because there’s no likely penalty for doing so (except causing accidents, but that’s someone else’s problem). The way to get cyclists to follow the rules of the road is to launch a serious campaign to ticket those who don’t. Once it becomes common to be penalized for cycling the wrong way on a one-way street, people will stop doing it. Until it is, they won’t.

As for those who say all penalties should fall on drivers: New York, like all cities, exists because of truck delivery. We can have a city without cyclists, but we cannot have one without trucks.

Posted by ThatFuzzyB | Report as abusive

The definitive exposition of the “Bikes can and should behave much more like cars than pedestrians” position is given in John Forester’s Effective Cycling. I understand that Forester himself is such an over-the-top curmudgeon that he’s alienated almost every other cycling advocate, but most urban cyclists I’ve talked to actually do follow his advice. I credit Forester’s ideas with giving me the courage to try urban cycle commuting (in DC) in the first place. Forester argues that cyclists should act like other vehicles, because you don’t want to be where motorists aren’t expecting you to be. Further, since most crashes are the result of crossings and turnings, that bike lanes and bike paths exacerbate dangers. Where most cycling advocated differ from Forester is because, ironically, dangerous as they are, bike lanes and paths make cycling more attractive for new cyclists, and cycling as a whole becomes much safer when there are more cyclists around, because motorists become accustomed to them.

But Forester is definitely essential reading for all sides of cycling policy discussion. Myself, I still mostly agree with Forester, although I’ve come to realize that underneath all his well-reasoned discussion is the assumption that traffic engineering theory is the best way to organize the public spaces that are our streets, with all its vehicular throughput maximizing goals, and I’ve become quite convinced that this assumption is fundamentally misguided.

Posted by thmetcalf | Report as abusive

Interesting piece. I’m surprised that you don’t talk about the basic differences between bikes and motorized vehicles that one of your commenters brings up. For those differences alone, it’s worth cutting cyclists some slack and allowing them more leeway than motorists.

At the same time, I completely agree that cyclists need to follow some rules and that they should always yield to pedestrians. As a cyclist, I’ve lived in Spain, Japan and Dublin, Ireland. I worked as a bike messenger for 3 years in the latter city. Back then I was anal about following the rules of the road. I never cycled along the sidewalk or the wrong way up one-way streets. I was very obedient of traffic lights.

When I moved to Spain I then only needed to get from A to B on my bike. In Barcelona, the city council invested a lot of money in bike lanes. Unfortunately they put these on the pavements, not on the roads. So it’s clear that in Spain at least, cyclists are viewed as pedestrians, not as road users. These lanes are useless to anybody who cycles because it’s the most efficient way to get about a city. Anyone using them has to stop at every junction for cars turning right or left. Needless to say I used the road.

In Japan, where most people use bicycles to cycle from their homes to the train station to and from work, the rule “might makes right” applies. Cyclists use the pavement but will descend onto the road in order to go around pedestrians or cyclists coming the other way. When doing this, they never look behind to see if they are going to be descending into the path of anybody (usually me cycling along the road at a much greater speed). They use bells to alert pedestrians that they are approaching and pedestrians move out of the way when they hear them. Car drivers are mightier than cyclists and so cyclists never cross their path or get in their way. Japanese truck drivers are mightier than car drivers and like to push their weight around.

Each city is laid out differently and so how you as a cyclist negotiate your rights with motorists and pedestrians differs accordingly. What works for NYC, won’t necessarily work for a small city like Dublin and vice versa.

That said, I’m completely opposed to salmoners and people who cycle through road-crossing pedestrians as if they weren’t there. To me it’s about yielding, without necessarily obeying traffic lights and other road systems which are clearly there for motorists.

I’m very interested in why all of a sudden urban cyclists see fit to wear their ipods. We’ve had personal stereos since the 1980s yet nobody cycled with one on until the ipod came along. And people in the past wouldn’t have cited inconvenience as their reason not to wear one but rather the danger of it. Nowadays, because ipods are convenient to wear, convenience seems to trump danger. Psychologically it’s really interesting.

Posted by PGill | Report as abusive

I appreciate the attempt to think through a solution, but find Felix’s post overly simplistic and misguided in a lot of ways. I’ve bike commuted for several years in both Chicago and New York, and think that bikers do sometimes need to pay better attention to traffic lights and just have more consideration for drivers and pedestrians. But overall, I agree with LilBoxer above that bikers are not motorists or pedestrians, and need to be appreciated as a third category. The rules for motorists were not created for bikers, and the streets were not designed for biker traffic. If I literally follow the rules of the road it creates MORE danger in many circumstances. The example of Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago is a great one, but basically anytime there is a stop light drivers (though they express annoyance) do not actually want bikers to wait for it to turn green. It jams up the intersection and slows down the traffic, creating hazards for both bikers and motorists. For example, at one intersection in Brooklyn that has cops in the morning directing traffic and making sure no bikers leave before the light turns green, drivers become visibly annoyed when they have to go slowly through the intersection because of the mass of bikers (and sometimes end up doing dangerous things like trying to pass a bike within the lane), and for the bikers it’s less safe b/c you are forced to ride alongside the traffic, often inches away from a moving car. (A friend of a friend died in just this way in Chicago, when she fell off her bike and went under the wheels of a huge truck.)

Another point: why would I WANT to ride on the sidewalk? The only time I do that is when it’s impossible to ride on the street b/c of construction, buses/trucks stopped on the right side, or too swift traffic. It’s not that I think I’m a pedestrian, but that the streets are often unaccomodating to bikers: here, you (felix) make it seem like it’s a question of biker attitude rather than the practical problems biking in the city poses.

All in all, over the past 6 years I’ve learned that many of the issues between bikers and motorists, and bikers and pedestrians, have improved simply b/c people are more and more aware of bikers as separate from both categories. That’s how it should be. But continued improvement will happen not just when the city builds more bike lanes (which helps), but when people stop acting like assholes out there. Drivers need to stop honking, stop taking turns or opening doors without looking, stop revving up around bikers; Bikers need to stop acting like they have a god given right to run red lights and ride at racing speed on the streets, stop wearing headphones; and pedestrians just need to stop being clueless as to bike traffic and pay attention (the biggest problem) and get out of the way. For the most part, I do find NYC pretty accommodating (even the taxi drivers!) for biking, and am surprised at how safe I feel on the streets. Much less stressful than subway commuting.

Posted by festus800 | Report as abusive

Bike lanes, like pedestrian crosswalks, are a means of stealing rights from non-motorists and granting them to motorists. Under the auspices of safety, we take away the fundamental ability to walk on the public way, and funnel pedestrians into restricted “walking zones.” The assumption is that it is reasonable for a car to be traveling at 30mph through an urban area, and others must make accommodations. Perfectly ridiculous when you examine it, but that frog has already been boiled.

Imagine if most of the population went about waving loaded pistols, and our solution was to say: “Well, we can’t do anything about that, but if everyone will stay behind these protective walls, we should mostly be safe. And of course we can’t blame the gun wavers.”

Bike lanes create the idea that cyclists aren’t vehicles (which they are, by convention and by law), and that if they don’t have a lane of their own, they shouldn’t be on the road. This is a poisonous idea, because—as you state—if they aren’t vehicles, they will behave as “pedestrians.”

Posted by Lightsleeper | Report as abusive

I agree with most of what I’m reading here except for the issue of stop signs and traffic lights. I don’t think bikes should be treated exactly like cars by law because the traffic laws written for driver safety work against the safety and practicality of cycling. Idaho has a law that allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, later amended to allow cyclists to treat traffic lights as stop signs. For more information, check out the wonderful, explanatory video here: http://vimeo.com/4140910

Posted by onanov | Report as abusive

As a paraplegic for 34 years I have been pushed off of sidewalks and curbramps by bicyclists who care not a wit about the laws governing bicyclists. I recently returned from Fort Lauderdale, where although there were bike lanes everywhere, bicyclists rode on the sidewalks and two times they crashed into me, laughing withoug apologizing. Why do cities spend so much money on taking away valuable street space to build bide lanes if they are not used?

And why are bike racks built on sidewalks instead of on the street; it they are street vehicles legally, why take away from precious sidewalk space and make people in wheelchair and the blind have to manuever around them. Why design these racks so that they have to ride up on the wheelchair ramps to park their bikes. Why do bicyclists not stop for pedestrians and wheelchair users in intersections.

The police need to ticket all scofflaws of bikes and wipe that superior attitude off their faces. If you criticixe a bike user you are yelled at and pushed over the curb. I carry a stick with me now and will stick it in between the spokes of bikes users if they violate the laws and my space. I have given up complaining to city officials who could care less. And bikers constantly then play the victim card about how hard it is for them. Try a wheelchair for a few weeks. Selfish jerks most of them.

Posted by paraplegic | Report as abusive

This is the best discussion I’ve read of the reasons for bad bike and motorist behavior. I’d add a couple of other reasons based on my experience in a very environmentally conscious town where bicyclists believe they are the chosen. These include the belief on the part of some bicycles that they are so morally superior that they don’t need to follow the rules or common sense. Here are some idiotic behaviors I’ve encountered: a biker with a child trailer attached coming down a narrow mountain road at night at speed, wearing dark clothes and no lights and carrying his helmet on his bike bag or the mother teaching her preschooler to ride a bike in a bike lane on one of the busier streets in the city. At the same time, the police consider it beneath their dignity to enforce laws on lights, etc. The part that’s especially scary for me when I am bicycling is that a lot of motorists are so angered by stupid bicyclists that those of us who are trying to follow the rules are lumped in with the idiots and cars consider all of us to be illegitimate users of the roads. And please don’t bother to tell me that cars pay for the roads; like almost all bicyclists I also drive a car and there is no comparison between the wear and tear my car causes the road and the wear and tear from my bike.

Posted by ceilidth | Report as abusive

But what about Portland?

Posted by jilish_jahammas | Report as abusive

I agree that wrong-way riding, almost all sidewalk riding, and running lights is awful and should be ticketed. But if a light can’t detect and doesn’t change for cyclists, as they don’t in many places, they should go if there’s no one approaching.

Where I’ll disagree with you is on stop signs. I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a cyclist to slow down at stop signs and roll through slowly if no one is there. Most people don’t know that stop signs only became prevalent after cars became common. It’s harder to see out from them with their pillars and they can cause serious damage, necessitating stop signs and rights of way.

Posted by jhvu | Report as abusive

I haven’t read all the comments, but just wanted to say this. I’m very pro-bike in theory. I love how green and healthy it is, and my father is a hard-core biker-commuter – from park slope to chelsea every day. I wish it was an option for me. Heck, I even wish I could take the subway.

But I commute to work by car. I wish I didn’t have to, but I work on Long Island and it was a job requirement (literally dicated to me when I got the offer). The single most difficult (and longest) part of my commute is navigating downtown brooklyn to the bqe on-ramp. Now, this is difficult enough with just the other cars, which make it something of a death-defying feat every morning. Once you add bikers, however, it gets to a whole new level of nuts. If the cars are stopped or slowed (which is almost always), the bikers, who unfortunately have to circumvent double-parkers, etc., wind up weaving in and around all of the cars to get where they’re going faster, which is, if nothing else, insanely dangerous. They just seem to almost never stay in the actual bike lane. Like the lines are just suggestions. They also don’t seem to be aware (or care) about when we have to share space, like the right turn from Jay Street to Tillary Street. At that turn, the bike lane IS our turn lane – it’s the way it’s painted. But bikers don’t seem to know or care that cars have to cross into the bike lane to turn, and that we can’t turn when we have our turn light if they are hanging out in front of us waiting. It can’t be all our responsibility to make sure that turn is safe for everyone and that the traffic isn’t backed up. There needs to be some mutual respect.

The whole thing is dangerous and frustrating. As you pointed out, cars are often going slower than anyone else on the road, and the bikes just make it worse for us. Not to mention scary (add to the motorist’s fear of children darting out in front of them the fear of highly unpredictable biking habits and bikers’ lack of adherence to traffic rules). I’m not saying get rid of bikes, or even that it’s the biker’s fault every time. In fact I think most of it is due to the fact that we simply don’t have the biking infrastructure or mindset yet, and bikers are sometimes required to put themselves in positions that get in everyone’s way. I’m not even totally clear on the right of way rules with bikes. So I fully admit that the frustration on EVERYONE’S part is well-earned, and I hope we are able to find a way to work together.

But what I can’t stand is the pedistal that some bikers put themselves on, of holier-than-though victimhood rallying against the big bad polluting drivers. Maybe it’s defensivness due to all of the obnoxious drivers out there (which is most of them, I admit), but there seems to be an arrogance level, a self-rightousness that is what is really rubbing everyone the wrong way (and I’m not speaking to anyone here, since, as I’ve said, I didn’t read everything). Like, “we’re better than you because we bike.” Like I should feel guilty for being in my car and therefore have to yield right of way. But I’m not out to get you, and believe me, I wish I wasn’t driving too. I’m just trying to get to work.

Posted by Samira86 | Report as abusive

I think you’re a little biased and, frankly, naive, but I’m probably biased-leaning towards cyclists since I cycle everyday in SF, rain or shine.

One statement that makes me laugh is: “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.”

Seriously? What world do you live in?!

From running yellow/red lights, to not using turn signals, to opening car doors onto the streets, to speeding, to talking on the phone, auto drivers who are in a 3,000 pound or greater machine endanger lives on a daily basis with their careless behavior. How many people have been killed by a cyclist having to go on the sidewalk to protect themselves from aggressive auto drivers?

In the end, it’s so easy to point fingers and blame others for the problems with street safety. But in reality, it all boils down to each and every one of us following the laws and doing what is best for the community, not just the individual.

Stop pointing fingers and raising the ire of drivers/cyclists/pedestrians and actually instill the need for ALL OF US to take ownership and be considerate of each other and make the right decisions about street safety on a daily basis.

Also, ensure that your city makes intelligent decisions about street safety design, taking into account the entire use of a street and the need to make it more pedestrian friendly, public transportation friendly and cycling friendly. These are the users who are helping the environment as well as bringing a lively community into each neighborhood rather than just rushing through in your big polluting machine, and exhausting our natural resources in the process. Yes, I am biased :)



Posted by ErnieMcGray | Report as abusive

I enjoyed reading and appreciate your theory, but feel the need to point out something very important…New Yorkers have entitlement issues.  This is very evident in pedestrians disrespect for designated bike lanes, drivers disrespect of cyclists, trucks parking in bike lanes to unload (Rite Aid & McDonalds are consistent offenders), many cyclists disrespect of laws and a general intolerance for anyone getting in anyone elses way.  It’s shocking to see pedestrians step into newly painted (bright green) bike lanes without looking in any direction (including up), because their eyes are glued to a blackberry or phone!  It’s appalling the way delivery guys salmon at top speeds with no helmet and no regard for traffic or law abiding bikers.  FYI…a NYTimes article on Sunday noted there is legislation pending that would make a restaurant liable for their employees violations.  But, how do you enforce bike lanes with pedestrians?  How many violations are written for trucks parking in bike lanes, but perceived as a cost of doing business by large corporations?  When will taxi drivers stop pulling into bike lanes to pick up and disperse passengers?  AND…how do you express to other bikers, that it is incredibly unsafe to be texting or blackberrying while biking!  Seriously.  What is so urgent?   
Cyclists are welcome and respected in most cities around the world, together with pedestrians, autos, motorcycles, buses, taxis & trams.  I have lived and enjoyed biking in a few of these other flexible and tolerant cities.  Unfortunately and oddly, our melting pot of NYC falls far, far behind in terms of flexibility, tolerance and respect of others.  Cycling is an efficient, healthy and convenient way to get around and it’s my preferred mode of transportation.  But, I ride with an awareness of intolerance.  For the my own safety, I keep to segregated bike lanes, mostly 8th & 9th Ave and I obey traffic laws. While it may sound naive, it would be helpful and a lot less frustrating, if everyone just stuck to their designated areas and tolerated each other a little more. 

Posted by miagioia | Report as abusive

There is always hope for change, but just hoping isn’t what makes it happen

“A recent evening presented a sign that there’s hope for a friendlier future for all commuters. At dusk, a food deliveryman stopped at a red light on Madison Avenue, despite no approaching traffic in the cross street. He was smoking a cigarette—and wearing a helmet. His bicycle even had lights. When the traffic light turned green, he rode off.”


Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

Interesting article, and lots of great commentary. I’m another daily bike commuter in SF, rain or shine, year round.

I think there are two main categories of urban cyclist: fast ones who don’t want bike lanes, and slow ones who want bike lanes. I’m in the former category. I ride a bike because it’s healthy and it’s typically much faster to get places around downtown SF than any other mode of transport. I don’t follow every traffic law, but I follow most. I will slow to 5-10mph for stop signs, and stay stopped at most lights. A red light typically means I stop, look in the direction of traffic, and if it’s clear I continue. I always yield to pedestrians, and I generally avoid the bike lanes if there are other cyclists in them because my speed generally matches that of cars. The slower bikers in the bike lanes typically do not show any inclination to pay attention to passing cyclists.

I feel like this is a common-sense approach to urban cycling, even if I’m breaking some laws, but if I eff up I’m the one who gets hurt or killed (not someone else), so I’m pretty incentivised not to.

Posted by ubicomp | Report as abusive

“motorists, nearly all of whom follow nearly all the rules”

I had to stop reading at this point. What universe do you live in where nearly all motorists follow nearly all the rules, nearly all the time.

At any given intersection, I could sit down and issue a half dozen traffic tickets. EVERY SINGLE LIGHT CYCLE.

And that’s just illegal turns, rushing to push through the red, turning in front of pedestrians, etc. etc. etc.

Add in the constant speeding, the illegal parking, blocking of driveways, follow-to-close… You get the picture.

Nearly all motorists ignore the rules they find inconvenient ALL THE FREAKIN’ TIME.

Pulling out the “motorists follow the rules” line guarantees a loss in any argument, because it’s flat out wrong. Is this a good reason for cyclists to ignore the rules: of course not. But get off the holier-than-thou high horse and accept that it’s human nature to ignore rules when there’s few consequences, and this isn’t a reason to dislike cyclists in particular.

Posted by nc100 | Report as abusive

Cyclists are about one thing, creating havoc on the roads to service their egos. There is no complex answer to why cyclists are such a menace on the street. They are social rejects who are a bad hair day away from offing themselves. And as such they use their bikes to tie up traffic and keep people with jobs and families form getting where they need to go.

Posted by SpareTheRoad | Report as abusive

Great article! As someone who has done their fair share of being a cyclist, motorist, and pedestrian in NY, I think pedestrians could stand to hold themselves a lot more accountable. I personally have made it a point to always stay on the curb when waiting for lights (bc when you’re driving or biking, a narrow lane is a harrowing, frustrating lane), and I think that one act alone could diffuse a lot of road rage.

Also, how about some wrong way signs in bike lanes as a pre-emptive measure? I really think some people just aren’t aware and I think we should attempt to educate before we jump to penalize wrong way bikers. When I was in Seoul last year, every bike lane had wrong way painted in the lanes (facing the biking salmon), seemed very effective.

Posted by bangzy_ | Report as abusive

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