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Postscript: Operation Safe Cycle

August 27, 2014

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Margaret Badore at Treehugger asked for my thoughts on Operation Safe Cycle:

It may be too early to know if the enforcement effort will make any impact on the number of cyclist injuries this year. Gordon is doubtful that the average bike commuter will feel any different about their daily bike ride after Operation Safe Cycle. “The streets are going to be exactly the same and they will not have moved the dial with cyclist behavior,” he said. “The problem of scofflaw cycling isn’t going to be solved through periodic crackdowns, it’s going to be solved with infrastructure.”

Operation Safe Cycle officially ended yesterday yet – surprise! – my ride in today felt no safer than any other day. This being the last week before Labor Day, the streets certainly were quieter than normal, but I saw no shortage of “bad” behavior for all kinds of road users. Starting next Thursday, parents will begin clogging bike lanes with their cars as they drop their kids off at school, car services will be back up at full capacity as people return to work, and the streets will be filled with angry drivers who wish they were still on vacation rather than sitting in gridlock. A real Operation Safe Cycle might involve building better infrastructure to give all those drivers more attractive options.

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The Post Versus Reality

August 15, 2014

It’s almost the end of week one of the NYPD’s “Operation Safe Cycle” and the New York Post is very concerned about the efficacy of such a limited crackdown.

Our only problem with Operation Safe Cycle is that it’s a two-week pilot program. So at the end of the month, cyclists will feel free to go back to breaking the law — riding recklessly and endangering themselves and others.

Would Bratton do the same with other quality-of-life initiatives? We doubt it.

Lawless bikers require permanent reminders. Otherwise, the problem will just keep going round and round.

Emphasis mine.

So, would Commissioner Bratton do the same with other quality-of-life initiatives? You will not be shocked to learn that the Post’s rhetorical question doesn’t stand up to a basic Google search.

May 13, 2014:

Drivers, think twice before failing to yield to pedestrians or using your cellphone: The NYPD is on day one of a two-day crackdown on drivers who aren’t paying attention to the rules of the road.

May 20, 2014:

…the NYPD is starting a “48-Hour Speeding Enforcement Initiative” starting at midnight Tuesday through Wednesday.

That’s a grand total of four days spent cracking down on driver behavior that is known to cause death and grievous injury. And on just two of those days, the NYPD wrote over 5,000 tickets for failure to yield and cellphone use. Imagine what “permanent reminders” to lawless drivers would yield!

But, you know, bikes.

UPDATE: Jen Chung at Gothamist points me to a seven-day motorist crackdown, also in May of this year, “conducted in 21 selected precincts throughout the five boroughs.”

Clusterf*ck on Varick Street

July 25, 2014

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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