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Dawn of the Planet of the Longtails

July 14, 2014

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Bikelash is Dead, Long Live the Bikelash!

July 9, 2014
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A “biker terrorist” in training.

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.

“The pedestrians and cyclists are not killing the drivers.”

July 8, 2014

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.

Paint Ain’t

July 1, 2014
Chrystie Street is a major route to the Manhattan Bridge bike path. The bike lane fades quickly due to high automobile traffic, a sign of failure.

Chrystie Street is a major route to the Manhattan Bridge bike path. The bike lane fades quickly due to high automobile traffic, a sign that the bike lane isn’t a bike lane.

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.

Don’t bike on the sidewalk…

June 11, 2014

Given the recent debate surrounding Idaho stop lawsmy view is here — I wanted to take a look at another rule as it pertains to cyclists: biking on the sidewalk.

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.

You don’t want to act like Alec Baldwin, do you? (Image via PageSix.com/Splashnews)

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:

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Rush hour at Chrystie and Rivington.

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.

Pedestrians and cyclists can co-exist.

Pedestrians and cyclists can co-exist.

Consider another spot shared by cyclists and pedestrians, City Hall Park:

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The thermoplastic bike symbol.

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:

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Image via Greenpointers.com

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:

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Shared space on Allen Street even includes benches and chairs.

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.

Moms on Wheels

June 4, 2014

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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!

 

Cyclists and Red Lights: Actually, It’s Complicated

May 23, 2014

I knew it was coming.

The minute I finished reading Joseph Stromberg’s piece on Vox, “Why cyclists should be able to roll through stop signs and ride through red lights,” I had a feeling that a response would be published by someone somewhere — Felix Salmon? Slate? — and that it would have a somewhat tsk-tsk-sounding headline. “No they shouldn’t” or something like that. I had been waiting to weigh in on the subject of cyclists and red lights myself, in fact, until such a piece was written, because I knew it would frame the discussion in a typically binary fashion and I was hoping to stake out a more nuanced position.

Well, the response I was waiting for was just published on Grist.org. In a piece headlined “Why bikers should live by the same laws as everyone else,” Ben Adler says that Vox.com and anyone advocating for Idaho stop laws, at least in cities, has it wrong.

I had a lot of problems with this piece, starting with the title. Should bikers live by the same laws as everyone else? What does that even mean? First of all, which laws? The laws applying to drivers or the laws applying to pedestrians? Because the laws that apply to each of those groups are very different. (Pedestrians, for example, can’t walk on interstate highways, while drivers, at least in theory, aren’t supposed to drive on sidewalks.) Cyclists, being a third thing somewhere between pedestrians and drivers — but obviously much closer to the pedestrian side of the spectrum — need their own laws. Which was essentially what Stromberg argued at Vox.

Second, to live by the same laws as everyone else implies that everyone else follows the law. We all know that’s not the case. Here’s Strong Town’s Chuck Marohn, in one of the best pieces I’ve read about cyclists and the law:

“Why do cyclists deserve special treatment?” “Why should they have their own standard?” “This is a civilized world, after all.” “If you don’t like it, take a car.”

To say that I find this hypocritical and somewhat maddening is stating it lightly. First, drivers don’t follow traffic laws. Today on the way in I drove 64 mph in a 55 mph zone for about six miles. I set my cruise control at 64 because – and we all know this – the police generally tolerate a modest amount of speeding. In fact, a county sheriff was traveling in the opposite direction when I was speeding and didn’t stop me. He was probably driving 64mph too.

Two wrongs, of course, don’t make a right, and I don’t bring up Marohn’s example to say, “But drivers do it too!” Rather, it’s to point out that expecting cyclists — or anyone, for that matter — to make lawful decisions “in a system that treats us all like deviant idiots,” to quote Marohn again, is an almost childlike way of viewing the world.  We need better arguments than “But it’s the law!” As I’ve written before, it is possible for cyclists to technically break laws and make entirely rational decisions at the same time.

Adler has written some great pieces on Vision Zero for Grist, so he’s not coming at this story from a bike-hating motorist’s point of view. His perspective is that of a pedestrian. And that itself presents some problems because in the rest of the piece, without exactly saying so, he creates a false dichotomy between people on foot and people on bikes.

Advocates never put it in these terms, but Idaho stops essentially allow bikers to impose on pedestrians’ green lights and rights-of-way. Bikers would be prohibited from going if a pedestrian is in the intersection, but if a biker gets there first, a pedestrian would have to wait at the corner until the bike passes, possibly running out of time to cross. Do we really want to create a mad dash to be first at an intersection and claim right-of-way? As our population ages, and empty nesters return to cities, this would have a particularly negative effect on the elderly.

Advocates never put it in these terms because that’s not what Idaho stops do. People aren’t going to suddenly run to “claim right-of-way” as if they’re trying to get the last available taxi in a rainstorm. That’s a straw man.

If anything, the situation Adler describes is precisely what’s happening now, only with no law on the books to help choreograph the dance. As it currently stands, pedestrians have a lot of uncertainty at intersections, even if they get there first. “Will that cyclist stop? Will he at least yield? Will I get hit? If I wait for the cyclist to pass, will I still have the walk signal?” Law-abiding cyclists approach intersections with the same questions. “Will that pedestrian step off the curb? Will I be able to stop in time if he does? If I swerve will I wind up under the wheels of the bus that’s coming up behind me?” I’m not arguing that an Idaho stop law would be instantly accepted and observed overnight in New York City, but Adler’s specter of chaos if one were to be enacted rings hollow. Such chaos already exists.

Adler mistakenly views arguments in favor of rationalizing traffic laws for people on bikes as somehow punitive to people on foot, and applies some flimsy logic.

There is a larger point at issue: the mistaken focus on easing the movement of bicycles even at the expense of pedestrians. Biking is a good and important part of urban transportation. But, in any major city, there are vastly more trips made on foot than by bike. (Just look at the commuting mode share in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.) Many people — the elderly, the disabled, small children, shoppers carrying large items, the drunk, the desperately poor, people who need to wear business suits, people who hate getting sweaty — will always walk instead of bike. Their needs must be accommodated, because walking and public transit can be a backup option for bikers, but biking is not always an option for pedestrians. 

Never mind the “Some of my best friends are bike lanes” qualifier in the paragraph’s second sentence or dismissal of cycling as a serious transportation in the middle. (People in suits! Shoppers carrying large items! Small children! It’s always easy to dismiss cycling as illegitimate if one suggests that the city is filled with well-dressed people carrying microwaves and babies.) No one is arguing that planners or lawmakers should drop everything and immediately begin prioritizing cyclists over pedestrians. And while Adler is right that in cities like Boston, San Francisco, or New York “there are vastly more trips made on foot than by bike” it seems like a different standard than just “majority rules” should apply. Otherwise, if you want to walk in Houston or Dallas — or even in more car-dominated parts of Brooklyn or Queens — it can all come down to someone saying, “Walking is a good and important part of urban transportation, but there are vastly more trips made by car than on foot.” Good urban planning and smart laws can balance a lot of needs and uses.

Adler enlists cycling advocates to his side, writing that not even the biggest names in the bike advocacy world think Idaho stop laws are a good idea, even if they “don’t perceive any concern or threat on the part of pedestrians” from such laws, as Jeff Miller of the Alliance for Biking and Walking says. Here’s what Dorian Grilley, executive director at the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, has to say:

 “Bike Minnesota does not agree that bicyclists should be able to roll through stop signs. It would especially be a problem in cities. There is plenty of data out there that shows that bicyclists are regarded as scofflaws. That is a reputation BikeMN is working to change.”

Transportation Alternative’s Caroline Samponaro, a good friend and someone whom I truly respect, has a similar take:

“Signals, and people obeying them, is how we can create predictability and work together to make sure that everyone is safe. We think that everyone should obey the signals.”

But what are these advocates really saying? Are they saying that Idaho stop laws are dangerous? No! Grilley’s statement is the most revealing. He’s essentially saying that since cyclists suffer from a scofflaw perception there’s not a lot to be gained for advocacy organizations to lobby for Idaho stop laws. Who wants to spend that kind of political capital? Given that Americans tend to discuss cycling with an utter lack of nuance, I can’t say that I blame them. If the choice is between getting a few more good bike lanes or rolling through stop signs, I’ll take the former, please.

So what is the biggest mistake Adler makes in the piece? Omitting that the reason there’s such tension between cyclists and pedestrians in American cities is because they’re designed for cars!

Traffic lights and signs are how we organize urban movement, so that it can proceed safely.

Traffic lights and signs are how we organize urban movement in places where there are a lot of cars. Here’s Chuck Marohn again:

And there is the other rub; we are treating traffic regulations like they were given to Moses on Mount Sinai. If people actually understood the haphazard way traffic control devices were developed and the random way in which they are applied, they would not hold them in such majesty. Just recently I was at a meeting where it was decided that a stop sign should be put at an intersection solely because the clerk lived on the street and wanted the cars to drive more slowly. That kind of rigor in where to display what kind of sign is fairly common. Traffic control is voodoo science, at best, now reinforced by what have become societal norms (all auto-based). Some of it might work, but separating the good from the bad is borderline heretical.

“Separating the good from the bad.” That’s what brings me to the middle ground I had sought to stake out between Vox and Grist. A blanket Idaho stop law probably wouldn’t work in New York City, where we wouldn’t want to leave the choice to determine right-of-way at a busy Midtown intersection up to individuals. But our current laws that say that cyclists need to obey all traffic signals and signs don’t really work either. If it’s late at night, do I really need to stop at every intersection on Bergen Street, even if I can clearly see that no cars or pedestrians are coming?  With so many streets, intersections, and laws that don’t make sense for cyclists, is it any wonder that so many cyclists often behave as if they lack any sense?

What New York City needs is a surgical approach to Idaho stops. DOT should look at low- or no-conflict intersections and change the signage to allow cyclists to proceed after yielding to pedestrians and other traffic.

Take the intersection of Chystie and Rivington, for example:

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Cyclists heading north on Chrystie often do “run” the red light here. There are probably a lot of reasons for that, but chief among them would be because it’s relatively safe to do so. The odds of a car coming through Sara D. Roosevelt Park are virtually nil and pedestrian traffic, particularly during the morning rush hour, is fairly light. So can pedestrians and people on bikes negotiate this space safely using the basic idea of an Idaho stop? Sure. It happens every morning, at least when the cops aren’t out issuing easy tickets.

Or how about this intersection at Flushing Avenue and Cumberland Street in Brooklyn?

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This is another intersection with low pedestrian traffic that many cyclists roll through after looking for cars or trucks entering and exiting the Navy Yard. (It’s also on a stretch that’s another NYPD favorite for issuing tickets to cyclists.) What would be the problem if the signs were changed to allow cyclists to proceed carefully? Essentially the city would be legalizing what many already do here without any problems.  It’s not about “officially allowing bikes to steal a pedestrian’s right-of-way,” as Adler says of loosening restrictions on cyclists, but identifying the places where no theft would have to take place for an intersection to be more rational.

Walker Angell at Streets.mn, after observing a bunch of boys blowing through stop signs on their bikes, considered the long-term effects of what is nominally considered “lawbreaking.”

These kids, nearly all under about 14, have already learned something important—U.S. laws are not necessarily to be obeyed. This seed will grow in the coming years as they begin to drive and face the fear of obeying the speed limit on a highway with nearly every other car going 10 mph over, or of deciding whether to completely stop at the rightmost side of a very lonely T-intersection they go through every day.

And this all carries over to adulthood. Law breaking is no longer a line never to be crossed, but merely a bump on the road to self-absorption. Laws, particularly traffic and vice laws, become only suggestions, to be regarded so long as they don’t inconvenience us too much.

New York City, in designing intersections and creating laws that consider drivers first and cyclists and pedestrians as a distant second, is complicit in creating scofflaws. People who ordinarily wouldn’t think of breaking the law in fact do so every day because the laws that guide the system they must use to get to work, to school, or just around the block, don’t make any sense. Is that what we want?

Adler makes one last point that I think is important to address:

As Felix Salmon, an avid biker himself, once noted in a Reuters column, some of the world’s best cities for both biking and walking, such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, expect bikers to obey red lights and stop signs.

Amsterdam and Copenhagen don’t “expect” bikers to obey red lights. Quite the opposite. Dutch and Danish cyclists are better behaved because the infrastructure is designed to accommodate them! As Mikael Colville-Andersen writes:

Behaviour hasn’t changed for over 100 years – and won’t be changing anytime soon. Here’s my baseline: We can’t very well expect bicycle users to adhere to a traffic culture and traffic rules engineered to serve the automobile, now can we? It is like expecting badminton players to use the rules of squash.

Signals and streets in Copenhagen prioritize people on bikes and on foot, not in cars. In Copenhagen, for example, a “green wave” on Nørrebrogade allows cyclists pedaling at about 12 mph to go 2.5 kilometers without hitting a red. The street engineers the scofflaws right out of it. It’s safer for pedestrians, too, since cyclists are more predictable and automobile speeds are correspondingly slow. Compare that to a street where the lights are timed to accommodate cars going 20 to 30 mph; it typically means cyclists hit a light every two to three blocks, making complete fidelity to “the law” a great way to remove the efficiency from choosing a bicycle for transportation.

So what to do?

Chuck Marohn again:

We need to rethink our urban areas. They need to be redesigned around a new set of values, one that doesn’t seek to accommodate bikers and pedestrians within an auto-dominated environment but instead does the opposite: accommodates automobiles in an environment dominated by people.

The choice, as I hope I’ve made clear, isn’t that all cyclists should get to roll through all stop signs and traffic signals whenever they want. Nor is it that they need to follow every law in a system that wasn’t designed for them. One is anarchy, the other a weird kind of urban fascism.

 

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