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The Four Fails Of Bicycling in a Big City, Plus: The Win Made of Fail

2011 July 20

Some background: about a year ago, I threatened to be a more avid cyclist, a commuter. However, thanks to a pretty bad winter and a workplace that doesn’t really support cycling, I waved the white flag and continued my abusive relationship with the subway system of New York City, only using the bicycle sparingly. It was in an almost less conducive atmosphere, this particularly humid New York City summer, though, that I actually developed the habit of repeatedly going biking. Every other day, for more miles than I thought I’d be able to do, I get on the bicycle and scale the west side of Manhattan, from Houston Street to under the George Washington Bridge. Along the way, though, I’ve witnessed, and been a party to, many of the problems that come with the privilege of cycling in an already congested environment.

Yes, it is a privilege. The opportunity to ride a bicycle around a metropolitan area is not a right. It is a luxury, in fact. It demands not only the cost of the rental, upkeep, or purchase of a bicycle (a sturdy pair of wheels connected by gears and a seat can start at around $400), but a bit of safety and sanity as well. Anecdotal evidence supplied from anyone who has ever witnessed a moving vehicle in the city will tell you that they operate within not only their own laws, but by their own laws of physics. Bicyclists, too, have more recently acquired a reputation for unlawful behavior, which we hear more about these days. This, by my count, is for two reasons: New Yorkers generally feel free to walk in that little bit of space right off the street, which we now know as bike lanes, and thanks to decades of experience, we’re used to the cars. An abundance of cyclists, though, is a change that many in the city are not welcoming. Because of city cycling’s relatively recent surge in popularity, bikers are on much thinner ice than motorists. If the city decides the bike lanes were not a good idea, it’s as simple as laying down black paint on top of green paint for them to vanish. It’s as simple as cops being told to ticket cyclists as fervently as they go after parking violators. The city grants people a right to bike, and this could unravel at any moment.

Because of this uneasy situation, there is a fight over the future of the bicycle in New York City. The relationship between cyclists and the rest of the city needs to improve to keep things from backsliding. Unlike NYMag, though, which only seems to care about directing their massive klieg lights on the few people at the center of the debate, I’m interested in focusing on the problems on the street. It’s important to note, though, that these problems are not just the fault of stubborn drivers and sensitive pedestrians. The cyclists are as guilty as the rest of the populace, and I’ll be the first to admit it. Welcome to a special outside edition of Four Fails and a FTW: Cycles and The City.

Not what you'd call Respecting The Bike Lane - Credit:

FAIL #1: Taking out the trash, on top of the bike lanes.

Aside from cyclists themselves, the green paint and white bicyclist silhouettes need to be the only thing in the bike lanes, and every day we continue to be far from that rational reality. Anything and everything winds up in the bike lanes. Pedestrians, who are used to their right of way, routinely disregard the lines. Trash, both in bag and litter form, has always gone wherever is most convenient for the person who wants to get that stinky leaking bag out of their hands. And as you’ll see later, sometimes, people will fill potholes in bike lanes with trash cans, making a bad problem even worse.

Every time someone becomes a cyclist their instinct is to ride inside the green zones, like a child with their first coloring book. Once they begin to run afoul of trash bags, pedestrians, and cabs, they begin to realize that nobody else is following the rules. After encountering enough road hazards, the new cyclist starts moving faster than the hand of the trouble making kid who’s started coloring on the walls once he’s realized nobody’s watching him. People bike on the sidewalk, where there are no bike lanes. People go the wrong way on one lane bike paths.

The Fix: “Fuck! It’s The Police!” If random enforcement of the laws about the bike lanes, involving tickets for both cabs and cyclists alike, began, the news would spread faster than a speeding bike messenger. If green lanes were actually safe, the majority of cyclists—in my opinion—would stay inside the lines, because they’d have less of an excuse to leave that territory, and the expectation of a fine that nobody wants to pay.

FAIL #2: Joggers are Pedestrians 

Look at the sign in this photo. You’d think most joggers, since they’re moving slower than the cyclists and the skaters, would be able to read it. But no, they don’t. Most of the Hudson River bike path is clogged with joggers choosing to go left, when this sign says go right. The lanes may have previously been more for the jogger than for the cyclist, or cyclists may have not been as prevalent, but obviously, times have changed. One of the worst cases of this problem is the jogger/bicyclist combination. I don’t know if people think that, because someone is training someone else,  they both should be ignored and given gold medals for decency, but these people travel in a row, taking up more than a third of the entire bike path, and since the cyclist is going slow enough for the jogger, they always make things difficult on those around them.

What’s worse than the above are the parents with jogging strollers. While your child may seem like a burden on your life, it is not a suitable replacement for a workout weight. I’ve seen one or two of these ridiculous parents every week, and not only for the sake of the bicyclists around them, but the sake of the children these parents are using as human shields, this needs to be shut down by the police.

The Fix: Again, if people could just respect the signs, I wouldn’t need to keep saying law enforcement is the answer, but when police enforce signs that tell people when and where they can park their cars, the signage that directs traffic between bike and running lanes needs to be enforced as well. And this is a real problem, the intermingling of cyclists and joggers. An errant turn of a jogger instantly led to a horribly bloody collision for one of my best friends, right in the middle of beautiful Central Park.

Cyclists can do their part in this situation by calling attention to this fact calmly. When passing an out of place jogger, I’ll tend to say, in a non-combative tone, “The sign says no joggers! Thank you!” Sure, it’s patronizing, but it’s the only way that cyclists can let this not entirely well advertised bit of information be heard. Cyclists, in general, need to develop a less snarky and aggressive tone, at least unless someone is really jeopardizing the safety of those around them. A rule that surviving this city was built upon reads: Yelling Is Encouraged When Someone Almost Runs Into You. Aside from those rather rare moments, though, this is a developing relationship, and civility should be encouraged.

Fail #3: All That Space on Your Right Isn’t Going to Use Itself

Not to put the fix before the fail, but sometimes I think cyclists should be required to sit in on Driver’s Ed classes. While I’ve already said that NYC drivers are insane, this requirement could teach prospective cyclists a lesson about passing. A lot of the time on the path, you’ll come across someone going at their own pace in the middle of the path, on top of the yellow division line in some cases. You can’t stay in the middle, ever. You need to move to the side. One of my biggest gripes about other cyclists are pairs of cyclists, who always tend to float to close to the middle of the road, becoming a nuisance for all. Their problematic use of space is part of why I refuse to ride with any friends. Even though cyclists and joggers both make this mistake, it is the roller skaters that are the prime offenders. Whenever I pass a roller skater, I’m forced to go well into the opposite lane, thanks to their inability to stay off to the side.

The Fix: Start From When They Lace Them Up:

My first instinct on how to teach roller skaters that they need to do a better job about moving to the right is to pass them on the right. The one or two times I’ve done this were both tight fits, and as such, it does not keep in with my running theme of concessions from cyclists. A real fix for this should happen with stores that sell both roller skates and bicycles. If these communities could be more connected to each other, the odds of improved relations on the road increase. This Fail is the one least likely to be fixed, but I think this needs to be brought up.

FAIL #4: We Do Not Have Enough Bike Lanes

I see this shirt throughout the streets of New York, and always on passing cyclists. I’m not demanding a green lane in every street, though. The growth and presence of bike lanes needs to be done in a more patterned way, so that everybody involved can become more used to cyclists, so that drivers can do a better job of predicting where lanes will be. You can’t always predict where bikers will be, but a better layout of bike lanes will make people more used to cyclists.

If this can be accomplished, the delivery guys and daredevil cyclists going at 30 mph down Second Avenue can be policed a lot more easily.

For The WIN:

Casey Neistat, half of the Neistat Brothers filmmaking duo, made the following video after he was arrested for biking outside the green lanes. This whole piece was meant to lead up to here, where we see how a bicyclist can rationalize why confining one’s self to the bike lane would be dangerous. If the city can make the green lanes mean something, and the rest of the community can smarten up a bit, then cyclists won’t have to make snarky videos where they intentionally crash into the dangers of the city.

•   •   •

Henry Casey, currently Editor-in-Chief of The Busy Signal, thanks you for your continued visits to our web page. He has content going up all the time on Twitter and Tumblr — while Facebook and Google+ accounts also exist. He recommends that you see the A Tribe Called Quest documentary Beats, Rhymes, and Life, if it is playing in your area. Additionally, Busy Signal Conversation Contributor Collin Orcutt will have art featured in an upcoming exhibition, CGN Vision, through August 7th, in NYC.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Jacqueline Moss permalink
    July 22, 2011

    I’ve found this whole battle very interesting, and I really liked your more nuanced take on it Henry. And as someone who grew up in a rather rural version of suburbia, then left for NYC, and then surrended and went back to rural suburbia, I think a lot of the conflict comes from lack of enforcement (which you cite) and the general attitude of a lot of New Yorkers (“I can do what I want, when I want, when I want, and you all can suck it!”). Part of the solution is, as you say, better enforcement all around for all of those who use the streets to get around. But people also need to adjust their attitudes. You live in a city, a very, very large and congested city. Not in your own personal traveling bubble.

    Funny thing is, even in Maine – where the largest city in the state has approximately 66,000 people – cyclists are a nuisance. I love biking, I think more people should bike and there should be more commuters who cycle. And there are tons of bike lanes and bike paths all around Southern Maine. But there is also a huge lack of enforcement of the laws. As someone who mostly gets around by car, cyclists drive me nuts. There aren’t a lot of highways here, but there are a lot of routes. Rt. 1 and Rt. 88 are especially popular with joggers, motorists, dogs, babies, and cyclists. These two heavily traveled routes are always busy, except maybe very late a night. And even though there are dedicated bike lanes on almost all of the said routes, the cyclists are never in them. They are always in the road. I understand why you want to ride that white line. But you are putting yourself and others in danger. One cyclist in the road is bad enough, but often they are in PACKS. And they like to ride two, three, or even four abreast. Which literally means there is no room for cars or anyone else really on the road. This makes me insane.

    I support cycling, but cyclists everywhere need to drop the sanctimonious attitude and realize that they too have to “share the road”.

    • Henry Casey permalink*
      July 22, 2011

      Thank you for the kind words! — Regarding enforcement – It’s when you get this congestion and multiple-abreast situation, though, that spacial relations make the policing of this very difficult. A very cynical side of myself wants to blame the multitudes of out of shape NYPD officers for why things got so bad to begin with, and today you have attitudes reinforced by years of experience and bad experiences. And, Jacqueline, what you bring up about cyclists in packs on the road competing for space with cars, etc., that’s what’s so great about the green lanes, except that they haven’t become more well established even here. If I was the kind of cyclist who had the dexterity and stupidity to operate a digital device with one hand while biking, I’d have photos of all the many ways that cars and people ignore the green lanes. Interesting to hear about the state of things in an area with even less enforcement, makes me enjoy what I’ve got a bit more.

  2. July 22, 2011

    well done, henry. i’ve been riding in the city for 8 years and I haven’t considered many of the perspectives and insights that you brought up. Thanks for putting this together.

    • Henry Casey permalink*
      July 22, 2011

      Thanks, Matt! And thank you for reading! See you around, man.

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