More bikes means slower bikes

By Felix Salmon
September 23, 2010

Rachel Brown has a fantastic little 5-minute film about biking up First Avenue to work:

I love the way that she’s caught on camera all of the annoyances which drive bike commuters mad: the cars cutting across the bike lane to make left turns; the pedestrians blithely stepping out into the lane in front of you; the trucks using the lane as a parking spot; the taxis driving up it. And, of course, the Evil Bike Salmon.

At the same time, there’s more than a hint of tension, in this film, between relatively serious bike commuters, on the one hand, and slow hobbyists, on the other. And this tension, I think, is likely to get worse rather than better, even as the other problems might alleviate themselves somewhat as the number of cyclists in New York grows.

There’s safety in numbers, when it comes to cycling, and a similar phenomenon is likely to happen with regard to pedestrians and car drivers being increasingly conscious of bicyclists in their midst. Already, the First Avenue bike lane has reportedly cut injuries to all street users by 50%. But as the number of cyclists rises, the average speed of cyclists necessarily falls. Everybody thinks of northern European cities like Copenhagen as bicycling paradises — and they are. But if you’re biking around Copenhagen, you’re going to go a lot more slowly than if you’re biking the same distance in NYC.

A slow cyclist can cope with most of the dangers and obstructions that Brown complains about much more easily than a fast cyclist — and the fast cyclists, as Brown’s film shows, are now shunning the lane entirely, moving over to the right-hand side of the street, where they’re much less likely to get cut off by a car. (Cars often turn left off First Avenue, which runs up the east side of Manhattan, but much more rarely turn right.)

It’s going to be very interesting to see how fast cyclists cope with an influx of slower cyclists in Manhattan, as bike lanes continue to get built and average bike speeds continue to decline. I love to zoom down avenues at high speed, but I also love being safe. Maybe that means I’m just going to have to start going a little slower.

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