It’s said that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. It’s also the definition of New York City traffic.
As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, my office is located just above one of the most gridlocked intersections in Manhattan, if not the entire city: an oddly angled spot where 7th Avenue South becomes Varick Street and Clarkson turns into Carmine. This intersection is also located about eight blocks north of the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. And while that vital connector to New Jersey is actually named for Clifford Milburn Holland, the chief engineer on the Hudson River Tunnel Project, I like to think it’s a cruel joke, meant as a poke in the eye to all those who understand New York City’s shared heritage with the Netherlands and the vastly different approaches both places take to streets and automobiles. This isn’t Amsterdam, that’s for sure.
Each weekday, starting at around 4 PM — but sometimes as early as 3 or even 2 – the traffic funneling to the tunnel begins to back up. The streets soon grind to a halt, and intersections like the one just under my office become moats of steel and exhaust, impassable for all but the most intrepid of pedestrians. Anyone in a wheelchair or pushing a stroller is mostly out of luck and either has to take their chances in the narrow trenches between grills bumpers or detour a block or two out of their way to get safe crossing. Drivers, obviously not respecting signals and only interested in filling up any space that opens before them, don’t tend to care much that people may be crossing or that crosstown traffic also needs to get through. Emergency vehicles? Forget it.
The Hudson Square BID employs pedestrian safety managers at intersections along Varick Street, and they do an admirable job keeping the intersections clear, but their northern border is just one block below the 7th Avenue South/Varick/Clarkson/Carmine tangle. In my two-and-a-half years in this location, I’ve never seen an NYPD traffic enforcement agent assigned to this or any other intersection on 7th Avenue South. Community Board 2 is aware of the issue and has spoken to the NYPD about it, yet the situation continues. And you can see the consequences on a daily basis. Both of the above videos were shot within the last hour of this posting.
Mikael Colville-Andersen, in one of my favorite Copenhagenize posts, describes Denmark and the Netherlands as “the Galapagos Islands of modern Bicycle Culture.”
These two countries and the main city in each have evolved in each their own way over the past thirty or forty years. Many of the details are interesting anthropological observations that would probably be difficult to trace to the root.
In “very general” terms, Mikael describes the peculiar differences between bicycle riding in each country, from the Dutch preference for panniers and the Danish preference for front baskets to the different bikes used for hauling cargo in each location. These differences are small but noticeable, and any fan of livable streets who’s been to both countries can’t help but wonder when and how the two locations parted ways along the evolutionary trail.
But here we are in New York City, standing at the dawn of our own biking civilization, so to speak, and we have the opportunity to watch one unique species take the very first steps on an evolutionary path that may define it for generations. That species is the bicycling parent.
Carrying children on one’s bicycle is nothing new in New York City. People have been using things like the Topeak Baby Seat to carry very young kids for years. But something has happened as the city has grown increasingly safe and family friendly. Parents who want to continue bicycling as their families grow have to figure out the best bikes for carrying multiple kids, all the while doing the many things that parents do, from schlepping to school and soccer practice to grocery shopping and doctor’s appointments. If you want to carry a growing child or two and the supplies and provisions that go with them, the old Topeak seat just won’t cut it anymore. That was Phase 1 of New York’s evolution as a biking city.
Judging by what I’ve seen recently, Phase 2 has firmly begun. But rather than the Dutch bakfiets or the Danish cargo trike, the bike that’s taking hold among New York City parents seems to be the longtail.
The longtail, as its name suggests, has an extended rear “tail” or longer wheelbase than a conventional bicycle, allowing for a long rack and more than enough space to fit two or even three children and, depending on the model, enough groceries to feed a family for a week. Popular models include the Yuba Mundo, Xtracycle, and the Trek Transport. Dutch versions such as the WorkCycles Fr8 – which I ride with my kids – and various models by De Fietsfabriek can also be spotted with increased frequency, thanks in part to Rolling Orange in Cobble Hill and Adeline Adeline in Tribeca.
Like Mikael, I’m speaking in very general terms. One does see the occasional bakfiets here and there and I can recall seeing at least three cargo trikes around New York this summer. But longtails seem to be growing in number by the day. Just a few years ago one would have been hard-pressed to see two or three of these all year. But just this morning during my commute to work I saw three such bikes, likely fresh from summer camp drop-offs. Evolution on steroids, one might say.
So why have these bikes taken root here? Why have New York City parents largely chosen these models over the kind of kid-hauling bikes their Dutch and Danish brethren prefer?
First and foremost, it’s about the size. Lacking a large box in front, these bikes are lighter and easier to navigate through New York’s narrow, squeezed-by-cars bike lanes than a bakfiets. Dropping the kids off at school or camp and then heading to work is a piece of cake, whether it’s up and over a bridge or via a bike lane that’s frequently squeezed by motorists, such as Jay Street.
Then there’s the parking. The threat of theft being what it is, New Yorkers like to park their bikes inside if they can help it, and a heavy bakfiets or cargo trike isn’t exactly the kind of thing that makes it up a brownstone stoop or through an apartment hallway very easily. Not that longtails are made of carbon fiber, but they’re not impossible to lift up and down a set of stairs. And for people who do have to leave their bikes outside, these bikes are no wider than a conventional bike, making them pretty easy to lean against a railing without being too obtrusive. Until the city starts providing more on-street bike parking in residential areas — and making some of its secure in the form of bike cages or this Danish design — I don’t see how bakfiets or cargo trikes will ever have the chance to evolve into the mini van of choice for New York City parents.
So there you have it. Evolution in progress. And you were there at the beginning. Let’s check back in 10 or 20 years and see what’s happened.
Left to its own devices, the bikelash will sow the seeds of its own demise.
That sentiment, first articulated by former DOT policy director Jon Orcutt in 2012, has been echoing through my mind as I’ve read the reaction to columnist Courtland Milloy’s Rabinowitzian rant against “bicyclist bullies” in the Washington Post. Here’s what Orcutt had to say back then:
Last year’s media-fomented “bikelash” had the unintended effect of arousing public interest in bike lanes when many New Yorkers might otherwise have been indifferent, he said. When opinion polls consistently showed overwhelming support for bike infrastructure, said Orcutt, the negative stories disappeared.
Much of the discussion surrounding bicycling and safe streets takes place on niche blogs like mine or on the smart and informative WashCycle. We’re little fish in a little pond. Even Streetsblog, Greater Greater Washington, an BikePortland.org, which each have a readership and influence I can only dream of, still reach a relatively small sliver of the Internet pie. So, if there’s any value to Milloy’s call to arms against the “biker terrorists out to rule the road,” it’s that his odd collection of, let’s face it, sociopathic rantings have been published in a place where a ton of people will see them. (Whether the Post should have published a piece in which a writer recommends sticking a broomstick in cyclists’ wheels and diminishes the life of fellow human beings to $500 is another story, but here we are.)
If the Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz had written a thoughtful and reasoned take on bike share and the policies of the Bloomberg Administration, the most such an op-ed would have garnered might have been a few tweets and perhaps a link on a roundup of daily headlines. Instead, she starred in “Death By Bicycle,” launching the irrational hatred of bicycles into stratosphere and prompting Jon Stewart, who’s surely never heard of Streetsblog or Brooklyn Spoke, to tell his viewers, “They’re just fucking bikes!”
So while I think responding to Milloy’s open endorsement of violence is right and necessary, a point-by point rebuttal – a tactic I’ve been known to take – may be cathartic but perhaps beside the point. Unless, that is, it prompts Milloy to write not one but two follow-up columns of equal or greater insanity, as The New Yorker’s John Cassidy did in 2011. Then it’s totally worth it.
In “Moving Beyond Bikelash,” a presentation I do with Aaron Naparstek, we discuss various ways to combat the opposition that tends to arise over changing streets to serve more than just motorists. While each of us draws on examples from our specific areas of expertise, from new media and journalism to television production and humor, we ultimately arrive at one of the most important tools for resolving conflict: letting people talk.
On the person-to-person level it can really make a difference. A community member hates bike lanes and thinks they’re dangerous? Fine. Don’t shout them down. Let them talk for a minute. Eventually you might find what the real issue is, whether its a simple misunderstood fact or an outright a fear of the unknown, change, and gentrification. On the person-to-established-media-figure level, it can make an even bigger difference. It can cause people far beyond the orbit of livable streets advocates to sit up and listen, bringing attention to a cause that no amount of letter-writing or donations to advocacy organizations could ever hope to accomplish.
So when a cranky newspaper columnist — or local TV reporter — says that bike lanes are an instrument of terrorism, embrace the crazy! Let it go on for as long as it can. It’s the only way to make sure it ends quickly.
Responding to the sight of four NYPD officers ticketing cyclists on the West Side Greenway, John Massengale penned this blog entry on what it truly means to get to Vision Zero:
Eighty percent of the residents of Manhattan don’t own a car. Most of the more than 45 million tourists who visited Manhattan last year didn’t bring a car with them. But even after all the positive changes on Manhattan streets during the Bloomberg administration, we still have auto-centric policies that only benefit a small number of people dominating the design of the public realm. The car is still king, and as long as it is, we will not get to the zero traffic deaths that Mayor DeBlasio has promised us.
Massengale writes that NYC’s early victories on the road to Vision Zero pale in comparison with what’s happening in other world capitals.
Paris recently announced that with the exception of a few streets, all Parisian streets will have 30 kilometer per hour and 20 kilometer per hour speed limits—our equivalents would be 20 and 12 miles per hour. New York has taken the major and important step of changing the city speed limit to 25 mph, but that is probably just the first step in a process that will eventually make us more like Paris. That’s because a person hit by a car going 25 mph is still 10 times as likely to die as pedestrian hit by a vehicle going 15 mph. And, the driver going 15 miles per hour actually sees almost twice as much as a driver going just 25. Plus, the driver going more slowly also has more time to react, giving the slower scenario a triple advantage over the higher speed limit for saving lives.
The way to make places like the cycle track in the Greenway safe is to think about them differently than we have up until now. Instead of forcing everyone on the sidewalks and tracks to stop and wait during the long red-light cycle required for the left-turn process on the adjacent Joe DiMaggio Highway, the bicycle track and the pedestrian walk should give the advantage to the greatest number of people—the pedestrians and cyclists. The small number of drivers who want to cross there should understand that when they cross they must go slowly enough that they won’t hit or hurt anyone. Experience in Europe shows that when cars and cyclists move at pedestrian speed, everyone can safely negotiate their way without accidents.
Until we have a fundamental reckoning with the place and purpose of automobile use in the densest parts of New York City, more people will die. Vision Zero, while existing in a political sphere, ultimately has to be moved beyond politics.
What does it mean when painted bike lanes fade? Scott Shaffer at Streets.MN has some thoughts:
It’s not just the bare pavement that’s the problem. It’s the etiology of the faded paint that destroys the bike lane. (Etiology means the study of causes. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, essentially.) A bike facility with faded paint can still function. The paint has faded on park trails and the Midtown Greenway, but these bike facilities still work great. What I’m talking about it when the paint is worn away by a torrent of car tires, which not only removes the paint, but more importantly it weakens the belief that the pavement is dedicated to bicyclists. The street is saying, “Cars drive here. This is not a dedicated space for bikes. Ceci n’est pas une bike lane.”
A bike lane isn’t just a physical thing — it’s a social construct. Like money, it only matters because we all act like it does. Bike lanes serve their purpose if and only if street-users agree that these striped strips of pavement are dedicated for people on bicycles. Not for parking, not for snow storage, not for walking, not for corner-cutting cars, but for bikes. The fading of the paint, and the cause of the fading, erodes this foundation. It erases confidence in the bike lane, not just the paint.
The paint on Prospect Park West is in need of a touch-up, but the service it provides to cyclists hasn’t been diminished in the slightest. On the other hand, I can think of many examples on my regular commute where my “confidence in the bike lane” has eroded along with the paint: Smith Street, Chrystie Street, and parts of Dean and Bergen Street, for example. In the case of Chrystie Street, merely replacing the paint on such a fast-moving street will never be satisfactory; anyone who’s ridden it regularly for the last few years know that it will only be a matter of time before it’s gone again. As Shaffer says, “Simply replacing the paint won’t replenish the confidence.” Only some level of physical separation, whether its plastic delineators, jersey barriers, a simple curb, grade separation, or row of parked cars, tells drivers that some space, including space for people on bikes, is sacred.
First, the requisite admonition, one that I hope will absolve me of the sin of nuance I’m about to commit in this post:
Don’t bike on the sidewalk.
This rule is printed on the handlebars of every Citibike and was part of the 2011 DOT public service campaign, “Don’t be a Jerk.” It’s simple, direct, and, in most situations, worth following. “I don’t care that you’re only going half a block. Walk your bike, buddy.”
But there are some problems with such sidewalk absolutism that no PSA or badgering about the rules can fix. First, most of the city’s bicycle parking is located on sidewalks. Many Citibike stations are there, too. In such cases, telling cyclists not to bike on the sidewalk is about as effective as telling drivers to get out of their vehicles to push them into parking garages.
Second, the city’s bicycle network, while better than it used to be, still leaves a lot to be desired. On streets where bicycle lanes don’t exist — and even on streets where they do — no one should be surprised when people on bikes choose the possibility of pissing off a pedestrian over potentially falling under the wheels of a bus. Infrastructure and real-time perceptions of danger, not televised ads or printed lists of rules, tell people what to do. For example, before the Prospect Park West bike lane was installed, almost half of all cyclists rode on the sidewalk. After it was installed, only 3% did. (I’ve written before about the scofflaw myth and street designs that actively encourage people on bikes to make technically illegal, yet highly rational choices.)
But there’s perhaps one even bigger problem: retrofitting cities for cycling means that people on bikes are frequently encouraged by the powers that be to do the very thing that the powers that be tell them never to do.
Consider this spot:
Cyclists traveling West on Rivington Street are directed by official signage and pavement markings to cut through Sara D. Roosevelt Park. This requires crossing the sidewalk at Rivington and Forsyth, riding through a shared space in the park, and crossing the sidewalk along Chrystie Street to continue on to the Bowery. (There’s also a Citibike station in the park.)
While it might be nice if cyclists could queue up for the light in a way that didn’t block north/south sidewalk traffic, no one freaks out about it.
Consider another spot shared by cyclists and pedestrians, City Hall Park:
To get to the Brooklyn Bridge from Warren Street, cyclists have to ride through a shared space between City Hall and the Tweed Courthouse and then on the sidewalk to get across Centre Street. It’s probably not all peace, love, and understanding in a space that’s typically teeming with tourists and downtown workers, but Crashstat.org doesn’t show any ped/bike crashes here.
Then there’s one of Brooklyn’s most popular cycling routes, which until very recently was set up like this:
Kent Ave, before the new configuration, required northbound cyclists to take the sidewalk. And while there was marked space that divided pedestrians and cyclists into separate channels, it wasn’t always clear who should go where. Even though this area is highly trafficked by Orthodox Jewish families, who have a (somewhat unfair) reputation in the tabloids as being uniformly anti-bike, the design generated zero stories in the Brooklyn Paper or New York Post.
I can think of lots of other places where design encourages people on bikes to lawfully share the sidewalk with pedestrians. Here’s Allen Street, which features multiple crossings where bike and foot traffic co-exists peacefully:
When I put the call out on Twitter asking for locations where cyclists and pedestrians share space, I got a torrent of responses from people all over the city. Shared ped/bike space can be found on the Hudson River Greenway and Riverside Park, the East River Greenway and Esplanade, Sands Street, Grand Army Plaza where the Prospect Park West bike lane ends, the bike path through Herald Square, Ralph Demarco Park in Astoria, the Willis Avenue Bridge, paths on Randall’s Island, the Myrtle Avenue Promenade through MetroTech, Van Cortlandt Park, and many more. To the best of anyone’s knowledge there isn’t a high rate of injuries or fatalities in any of those locations.
Why do these spaces work?
Because there are no cars!
When one removes cars from the equation — along with things like traffic lights, signs, and giant pavement markings designed to be seen by people operating motor vehicles at high speeds — people on foot and people on bikes are more able to safely negotiate shared space. And that’s when you see that the “war” between pedestrians and cyclists elsewhere is really just a bifurcation that occurs as a result of ignoring bull in the china shop. You know why pedestrians and cyclists on the Brooklyn Bridge hate each other? Because the cars get all the space!
That’s also not to say that we need to remove cars from every inch of the city. Nor is this post an argument in favor of biking on the sidewalk. But as long as the rules remain inconsistent from place to place, cyclists will make choices that don’t always jibe with the narrowest application of the rules. More protected lanes, slower traffic speeds, and streets that prioritize people over automobiles would go a long way toward deflating the problems that sometimes arise when a cyclist chooses the sidewalk over the street. (And when a pedestrian chooses the bike lane over the sidewalk, as Bike Snob recently observed.)
It should be noted that children age 12 and younger are legally permitted to ride on the sidewalk. But that law only makes sense in relation to our dangerous streets! I’ve recently begun allowing my daughter to ride on the Prospect Park West Bike lane. We have to use some caution, but the stakes are rather low. About as low as they are on a sidewalk.
This Saturday, WE Bike is hosting a great event to encourage more moms (and dads) to get out there and bike with their kids. I’ll be there with my WorkCycles Fr8 and my kids.
Moms on Wheels is dedicated to creating a safe and encouraging space for women with young kids to learn about the various attachments, seats, and trailers that exist, as well as safety procedures and street smarts unique to biking with kids. Best of all, Moms on Wheels connects mothers and families with an interest in biking, creating a support network that makes biking with kids less intimidating! DADS ARE WELCOME TOO.
Moms on Wheels will be hosting a Summer Kick-Off on June 7th in Carroll Park from 10am-2pm. This FUN AND FREE EVENT is open to the whole family! You will be able to test drive a full range of child bike seats, trailers, cargo bikes, and kids’ bikes, and almost all of the gear is also part of a raffle to raise money for WE Bike NYC’s educational programs. You can also talk to expert biking moms, get safety info, decorate your bike/scooter/stroller, visit the temporary tattoo station, sign up for mom/kid rides and workshops, try out our kids’ obstacle course, eat snacks, and enter to win any of the following AMAZING PRIZES:-Yuba Mundo Cargo Bike-Zigo Leader X2 Carrier bike-7 different kinds of balance bikes-6 different kinds of bike seats-4 different trailers-A range of snazzy women’s biking accessories and fun kids’ bike accessories
Want to buy raffle tickets in advance? Click here! You don’t have to be at the event at the time the raffle is announced to win, as long as you can pick up your prize within 24 hours!
Rain Date: Sunday June 8th, Same time, same place!