Opinion

Felix Salmon

A unified theory of New York biking

Felix Salmon
Sep 3, 2010 07:06 UTC

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.

COMMENT

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

Bicycling paradise of the day

Felix Salmon
Oct 15, 2009 15:52 UTC

Copenhagen:

The morning and afternoon commute in Copenhagen is a spectacle involving tens of thousands of cyclists roaring down dedicated lanes in tight packs, past cars moving at half the speed, if at all…

Traffic lights that were once co-ordinated for car speeds were adjusted to cater to the pace of the average cyclist, allowing them to travel long distances without ever getting a red light. To increase safety, stop lines for cars are five metres behind those for bikes. Cyclists get a green light up to 12 seconds ahead of cars to help increase their visibility.

In the winter months, bike ridership drops off 20 per cent. Still, an armada of plows is ready to clear bike lanes when snow flies. They get priority over routes for cars.

How do other cities get there from here? Slowly. You don’t do everything at once, but instead just add things incrementally, until you reach the point at which cyclists outnumber car drivers. Lots of attitudes need to be changed, including those of today’s cyclists, who, in car-centered cities, tend to be highly aggressive. And attitudes change slowly. But it can — and should — be done.

(Via Florida)

COMMENT

This is a piece of heart-warming news for all cyclists in the world! It also indicates a few important points, first of all, a differentiated traffic light system that is coordinated for cyclists is helpful and achievable. Second, the attitudes of today’s cyclists need to be moderated for their aggressiveness. Third, there is a recognition that all these changes need time.

http://www.dotbike.com/

Posted by simonwheeler | Report as abusive

Bicycle accident datapoint of the day

Felix Salmon
Oct 9, 2009 16:47 UTC

In the UK, men account for 72% of bike journeys, 84% of fatalities, and 81% of recorded injuries. That makes a certain amount of sense: men tend to be more aggressive cyclists, and that means their chances of having an accident rise.

But there’s a twist when it comes to truck-cyclist collisions in particular:

This year, seven of the eight people killed by lorries in London have been women…

There are no national figures but there’s little reason to think it is any different.

In this particular case, it seems, aggression helps, and timidity can be fatal:

In 2007, an internal report for Transport for London concluded women cyclists are far more likely to be killed by lorries because, unlike men, they tend to obey red lights and wait at junctions in the driver’s blind spot.

This means that if the lorry turns left, the driver cannot see the cyclist as the vehicle cuts across the bike’s path.

The report said that male cyclists are generally quicker getting away from a red light – or, indeed, jump red lights – and so get out of the danger area…

Marian Louise Noonan, 32, from south London, is a confessed kerb-hugger, and that leaves her feeling quite vulnerable on the roads, unlike her husband.

“He cycles much more aggressively and is aware of all the traffic around him. He cycles as if someone is going to hit him and makes sure he is in a safe position,” she says.

“I’m much more nervous of my cycling ability, I’m frightened people might hit me, which means I don’t cycle in a positive manner.”

The main problem is the attitude of other drivers, she says, as they make her feel like she does not belong on the road.

She also feels reluctant to put herself at the front of the traffic at red lights, which is the safest place for cyclists to be.

My experience from cycling in New York is that men are more likely than women to run red lights, much more likely to run red lights by weaving through flowing traffic, and much more likely to “bike salmon” up the street against traffic. All of these things are, needless to say, dangerous. On the other hand, women are less likely than men to wear helmets, and they’re also more likely than men to be riding significantly slower than traffic. Those traits I think make them more likely to get hit by a truck, and more likely to be killed if that happens.

The optimal combination for bikers — which I see in the UK much more than in NYC — is to be both law-abiding and aggressive. Don’t be shy about riding in the middle of the road if it’s not safe to ride on the edges, and certainly don’t be shy about driving faster than traffic, because that’s safer than having traffic drive faster than you. But obey red lights, stop behind the line and not halfway into the street, and be conscious about not getting in the way of pedestrians. Maybe, in some utopian future, they might eventually start being conscious of not getting in the way of cyclists, especially in dedicated bike lanes.

COMMENT

The problem for all riders, drivers and cyclists usually comes when their speed is much faster or much slower than those around them. Women may know cycling slower may not necessarily make them safer, but they are also conscious that they dare not be too fast as that will be perceived as even more dangerous.

Regards,
Simon Wheeler

http://www.dotbike.com/

Posted by simonwheeler | Report as abusive

Dangerous hybrid datapoint of the day

Felix Salmon
Sep 29, 2009 15:50 UTC

These tables come from a study organized by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and they’re sobering: they show that hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) are in some times twice as likely to be involved in pedestrian and bicyclist crashes as their internal combustion engine (ICE) counterparts.

The first table shows 1.2% of hybrids being involved in low-speed crashes with pedestrians, twice the rate of old-fashioned cars; the second table shows 0.6% of hybrids crashing with bicyclists, again twice the rate of noisier cars.

pedestrians.tiff

bikes.tiff

The reason, of course, is that the hybrids are so quiet: bikers and pedestrians use car noises to help them work out which cars are moving and which aren’t. That’s why hybrid manufacturers are now talking about adding vroomtones. Sounds like a good idea!

(HT: Voiland, via Weisenthal)

COMMENT

PS my email is yowza1@myway.com

Posted by Patrick Sullivan | Report as abusive

The economics of second-hand bikes

Felix Salmon
Aug 19, 2009 16:02 UTC

If Robin Goldstein went to the trouble of collecting 700 datapoints off Craigslist for a single blog entry, I thought the least I could do was turn it into a pretty scatterchart for him:

carbike.png

What we’re looking at here is the average price of a used car in each metro area, on the x-axis, against the average price of a used bike, on the y-axis. As Goldstein says:

Not one city fell out of line in the inverse order. Where cars were selling for the most, bikes were selling for the least; where cars were selling for the least, bikes were selling for the most; and so on, inversely, in between.

The really weird thing is that the cities with the most bikes, like Portland, also have the most expensive bikes:

I know this is sort of quaint, but the last time I bought a bike, I think I spent $35 and it wasn’t hot. It was a road bike; it had 18 speeds, I think; it squeaked; and it served my needs (biking from my house to school every day) perfectly well…

The guy in the store asked me how much I wanted to spend…

He had something super-cheap for me, an old road bike that they’d fixed up. It wasn’t exactly my size, but it would do. It was a 1991 model, a Trek, I think. It was in good working condition, it had some newer components, and it came with a warranty. I could have it, he said, for $475.

I’m with Robin: this makes no sense. You can buy a really nice new bike for less than that — and new bikes cost the same no matter where in the country you buy them. They also have brand-new components, and component technology has been improving a lot of late. The only real problem with a new bike is that it’s a bit more attractive to thieves.

Still, the second-hand bike dealers are clearly on to a good thing, and there does seem to be an implicit understanding among them that they’re not going to compete on price. So this state of affairs might well last indefinitely.

COMMENT

A long time ago, houses and cars define the wealth of a person, but no more; bicycles also demand its share of the rich cake, but truly the price of a second hand bike depends on what’s on it than its age.

Posted by simonwheeler | Report as abusive

Bringing my bike into my building

Felix Salmon
Jul 30, 2009 21:23 UTC

The good news is that the bikes-in-buildings law passed yesterday, by 46 votes to 1, and will come into effect in 120 days’ time: Ben Fried calls this “the biggest legislative victory ever achieved by bicycle advocates in New York City”.

But does this mean my battle is won? Not necessarily. Before the building needs to open up its freight elevator to my bike, my employer — Thomson Reuters — needs to file with the landlord a formal “request for bicycle access”:

The tenant or subtenant of a building to which this article is applicable may request in writing, on a form provided by the department of transportation, that the owner, lessee, manager or other person who controls such building complete a bicycle access plan in accordance with section 28-504.3. Such request shall be sent to the owner, lessee, manager or other person who controls such building by certified mail, return receipt requested, and a copy of the request shall be filed with the department of transportation.

You can guess what happens after that — suffice to say that it’s a very bureaucratic process. But in any case I now need to work out who at Thomson Reuters is even authorized to file such a request. And then I need to work out how to get them to file it. And then I need to whom to talk to about finding an out-of-the-way corner of the 18th floor which I could use to store my bike during the day. My guess is that a best-case scenario has me happily wheeling my bike in to my office at roughly the same time that New York temperatures drop well below freezing. Ah well.

COMMENT

Felix, be bold: Fill out, sign, and send the Bicycle Request for Access yourself.

Posted by Alan | Report as abusive

Pedestrians in bike lanes

Felix Salmon
Jul 10, 2009 17:08 UTC

lane.jpg

Laura Conaway asks why pedestrians walk in bike lanes, and reprints the photo above, which might well have been taken on Broadway, just south of 42nd Street. I know that stretch well — I bike down it on my way from work — and in general I stick to the road-for-cars, rather than risking life and limb on the bike-path-for-bikes.

This is a badly designed bike path, because of the location of the pedestrian zone you can see on the left hand side of the photo. There’s the sidewalk, and then the green bike path, and then the brown pedestrian zone, and then the black car lanes. When Broadway is bustling with foot traffic, it’s only natural for pedestrians to move back and forth between their two zones, especially during times when bike traffic is light.

But more generally I think it’s just that pedestrians were taught the rules of walking on streets by recourse to fear: look both ways, lest you get run over by a car. The natural corollary to such thinking is that if there’s no danger of getting run over by a car, there’s no need to look out for traffic. (If and when pedestrians do see me biking down the lane, they’re generally good enough to stay out of my way; the much bigger problem is the oblivious pedestrians, often listening to their iPods, who have no idea I’m there, and never stop to look.)

There’s also the natural impatience and pushiness of New Yorkers, who have a natural tendency to use bike lanes as a staging point in their rush to cross the street. No one in New York waits patiently on the sidewalk for the lights to change; instead, they inch forward on the road as far as they can without walking straight into the path of cars. They don’t worry about getting into the path of bikes, though, and if they see a bike coming, they generally stay put, since they couldn’t possibly step backwards. And if they’re crossing mid-block, which they often do, they generally take one step out from between parked cars before looking for traffic, since they know any car driving down the road won’t drive that close to the parked cars. (Bikes, again, they just don’t think about.)

Bicyclists, I have to say, are just as bad, if not worse: at intersections they never stop where they’re meant to, and instead stop either (a) right in the middle of the pedestrian crosswalk, or (b) right in the middle of the cross-street’s bike lane. (And don’t even get me started on the “bike salmon” who ride the wrong way down the block and seem to think that all bike lanes are two-way streets.) Although bikers get very mad at motorists, the fact is that car drivers are much more law-abiding than either bicyclists or pedestrians, and tend not to feel that the rules don’t apply to them. I’ve even noticed an increasing number of car drivers who seem to know the difference between a bike lane and a left-turn lane.

In northern Europe, everybody tends to be much better behaved. I think that’s learned: as the number of cyclists in a city rises, two things happen. Firstly drivers and pedestrians become more conscious of the fact that a cyclist is likely to be on the road. And secondly there’s an increasing number of what you might call non-brave cyclists, who don’t consider biking to be some kind of urban warfare and who are more likely, at the margin, to simply follow the rules of the road which they know so well from driving cars. Eventually their good behavior rubs off onto the more reckless.

Ultimately I think it all comes down to a combination of visibility and civility. As bikes and bikers become more visible, everybody else will be more conscious of them. And as they feel more noticed and less victimized, they will start to behave more responsibly to other road users, on foot and in cars. Who will then start to reciprocate even more. The problem is this takes years; it doesn’t happen overnight. And in the meantime there will be nasty bike-pedestrian collisions, some of them unspeakably tragic. My friend Josh Phillips died in 2006 after hitting a pedestrian on his bike. The pedestrian wasn’t malicious, just oblivious. But that’s no solace to Josh’s family and friends.

Update: Walking back from lunch, I noticed this scene on 41st and Broadway. You can shout as loud as you like, this obstacle won’t get out of the way. And as a result you can see two bicyclists having to detour into the pedestrian zone.

bike.jpg

COMMENT

Another useless blog and useless blogger, new media is crap.

Posted by Terry | Report as abusive

What’s the price-quality correlation for bicycles?

Felix Salmon
Jul 9, 2009 22:03 UTC

Although I’m generally a fan of credit unions, and I’m certainly a fan of bicycling, I’m not at all a fan of this new bike-loan product:

* Rates as low as 7.50% APR*
* 12-month term
* Borrow up to $2,500
* 100% financing of bike plus accessories

One of the best things about bikes is that they’re cheap. Yes, it’s easy to spend $2,500 on a bike if you put your mind to it — or much more even than that. But the only people buying $2,500 bikes should be people who can easily afford to pay cash for them: no one should be taking out a loan for that kind of luxury.

With any luck Eric Matthies will weigh in on this question on his blog — he knows much more about biking than I do. But my gut feeling is that the price-quality correlation when it comes to bicycles is pretty low, and that much of the time it’s actually negative. (What you gain in terms of lower weight — which is generally what you’re paying the big bucks for — you often more than lose on the functionality front.) If Portland credit unions want to encourage daily bicycling, I don’t think that a $2,500 racing bike is exactly what the doctor ordered.

I’ve spent the past day in San Diego (that’s why blogging’s been light) and my mode of transport while I was here was a rented Bianchi Cortina — a very nice bike which retails at $429. My feeling is that $400 is pretty much the maximum sensible price for a new bike for anybody who needs to borrow money to buy one. Maybe make it $500 with the accessories (helmet, lock, lights) included. But $2,500 is just silly.

Update: Eric Dewey from the credit union offering the loan pops up in the comments to say that the high limit was put in place as a sign of support for Portland’s custom bike builders. Which is nice. But I still like to think that we’re moving towards a world where people only buy a custom bike after they have the money to do so.

COMMENT

Brad Ford as it right. There is very little correlation between price and quality above some threshold. Carbon fiber road bike frames will cost you more than $2500, but is this better then a $250 aluminum commuter frame? Depends on whether you’re racing on the roads of France right now or slogging through muddy streets on your way to work. Is a carbon fiber Mercedes McLaren SLR better than a Caddy Escalade? Depends whether your commute looks more like Le Mans or Paris-Dakar.

Posted by James Davies | Report as abusive
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