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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The same thing occurred to me this morning: The streets and bike lanes of Washington, DC, at rush hour are no place to ride fast. Commuting by bike will continue to be one of the most enjoyable parts of my workday, but I’ll try to reserve sprints and fast training rides for the region’s long bike paths and hilly country roads.

Posted by MikeKingfisher | Report as abusive

So now it’s not just equitable treatment for cyclists, but equitable treatment for _fast_ cyclists? Bike commuters may find that a less compelling rallying cry among the rest of us.

For one thing, it’s a false distinction: when I commuted by bicycle, I did so at a relatively leisurely pace. Partly this was because I was never the most athletic person, even back in college, but mostly it was because I couldn’t shower and change clothes where I was going. In summer, in slacks, you simply can’t crank like a daredevil messenger. But that makes me less “serious” about getting to work? Then too, you’re telling me it’s annoying how traffic and delivery trucks cramp your style and slow you down….in MANHATTAN? Good luck selling that one.

I appreciate, and I’m on board, with the substance of much of this video. But tone matters, man. Most of us aren’t cyclists, and we’ve all seen enough cyclists being reckless jerks to turn sour on the whole business very quickly. If this starts boiling down to cyclists want to do 25 rather than 12 in their dedicated lanes…you may not have a winner here.

Posted by ckbryant | Report as abusive

I have no sympathy for bikers shown in the video. You need to STOP for pedestrians crossing a crosswalk. You need to STOP at red lights. Just because you are on a bike does not mean traffic rules don’t apply and you have automatic right of way. It’s the often blatant disregard of traffic rules by some bikers which is a problem. If you weave through traffic as shown in the video and get in an accident, it’s your own fault.

Posted by uwtisch | Report as abusive

There will be a learning curve for the protected lanes and they are not meant for bike speeds of over 12 – 14 mph. Most riders are at or below these speeds and will be comfortable and safer in the protected lanes. At higher speeds riders will be better off in traffic or bus lanes. What is needed is and is lacking is education and enforcement. Both a sorely needed. Pedestrians need to know not to use the lanes and to look before entering, riders going the wrong way need to be stopped and ticketed. Drivers and vehicles using the bike lanes need to be ticketed. My wife commutes daily to lower Manhattan and rides under 14 mph, the lanes will be a safer option for her. For many who are afraid to bike, particularly on the avenues, the protected lanes provide an option. I ride very early mornings up 1st Ave. to Central Park for laps. I ride in the traffic lanes when traffic has surged past me, when traffic is catching me I jump into the protected lane and slow a bit. I don’t expect to ride fast after 8am. Having riden in the Netherlands and Germany (I keep a bike over there) I can tell you that most of the riding is done at slower speeds, but most of the people ride, and that’s a good thing.

Posted by cycleartNY | Report as abusive

I live in Groningen, Netherlands and bike everywhere everyday and can attest that this is not a problem here. Fast cyclists don’t have to cope with the slow ones, there’s no commuter vs. hobbyist tension, or anything of the sort. This debate seems purely an artifact of a non-cycling culture: no one writes blog posts about slow hobbyist auto drivers getting the way of fast “serious” drivers in the US, because driving is just how everyone gets around. Same with cycling here, it’s just how you get around, nothing else. Some people have real road bikes and suits (the only people who wear helmets, btw) but don’t get annoyed by the regular bikers, because the roads are for the regular bikers: transit is the point, not speed.

Posted by natanner | Report as abusive

…and by the way, _awesome_ red light action at about 3:40. I love how she drops into that slow-motion-peril-vision to underline the menace to cyclists that is posed by pedestrians CROSSING WITH THE SIGNAL IN A CROSSWALK. Jerks. Don’t they know that she’s a “serious” commuter?

Posted by ckbryant | Report as abusive

With these separated lanes, I think the problem is that you’ve now taken some of the widest roadways in the city, the North/South avenues, and given bike commuters barely enough space for one bike to squeeze by another. And that’s without the obstacles and hazards that frequently pop into to bike lane. Forget the messengers and spandexers; even a slow-moving bike commuter may need to pass another even slower bike commuter now and then. These lanes barely give even the most law-abiding of riders the space to do so.

Imagine if the DOT took the three or four lanes of car traffic on some of the big avenues and reduced it to just one lane, with no room for cars to pass, no room to swerve to avoid jaywalking pedestrians and no room to get around double-parked trucks. There would be an outrage.

Perhaps the rule for bike lanes should be similar to how our grid for automobiles is laid out. The city should create single lanes on East/West streets and double or triple lanes for riders on North/South avenues.

It also seems short-sighted of the city to create these narrow separated lanes. Biking is only bound to increase as more riding begets more riding and the lanes, as built, will quickly become inadequate even if everyone agreed to stay at 10 mph.

Posted by D_Go | Report as abusive

I agree with the post above from the Netherlands. I bought a bike in Groningen that I keep in Germany and when you ride there you just fit in. I ride road, but in the towns I ride like everyone else. And everyone seems to get where they need to as do I. When it is safe to do it, I ride fast, when it is not safe to ride fast I ride slower. This should be part of a cyclist skill set. And if you are skilled enough to ride in the traffic then that is fine (though in the Netherlands this doesn’t seem to be done and I don’t do it over there). But don’t ride the wrong direction, don’t speed through traffic lights and stop signs and, for heaven sake, get lights for night driving.

Posted by cycleartNY | Report as abusive

By the way, the 1st and 2nd Ave. lanes are wide enough for street cleaners, garbage trucks and emergency vehicles, so they do provide plenty of room for bikes IF the lane is not full of: pedestrians, pallets, cars, trucks, dollies, Con-Ed vans, and UPS. Again, there needs to be some very active enforcement/education for a while to get the lanes off to a good start.

Posted by cycleartNY | Report as abusive

CycleartNY is dead on. I’ve ridden these paths multiple times at rush hour, and they support up to 15 MPH bike traffic safely. That’s faster than the subway, and plenty fast for many, probably most “serious” bike communters.

Folks who want to ride more like 20 MPH can ride with the motor vehicle traffic, although they should not ride illegally in the bus lane as the video seems to suggest they consider doing. But these faster riders certainly shouldn’t expect to be free from all the same things found on a bike path–slow cyclists, pedestrians, counterflow riders–OR from double-parked and dangerously operated motor vehicles and opening car doors, which you find only occasionally in a bike path.

These bike paths have been in place just a couple of months. It’s a little early to declare them unsuitable for “serious commuters.”

Posted by BicyclesOnly | Report as abusive