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Who Shouldn’t Be a Jerk?

November 22, 2010

Today, Tom Perotta of the Wall Street Journal takes a look at Cycling’s New Rules of the Road.  Sure, there’s a quote from a taxi driver making a complaint about rogue cyclists, but this article must represent a media first, with not a single Frankenstein’s monster-like quote–Bike lanes baaaaaddd–from a politician or community board leader.  In fact, it’s a very positive, forward-looking take on the state of New York City cycling.

A couple of things to point out.  First, this bit about life on the Upper East Side:

In the 19th Precinct, on the Upper East Side, dangerous cycling is the chief quality of life complaint among residents, according to the NYPD.

Think about that for a second.  There are neighborhoods in New York where the number one quality of life complaint is that you can’t go outside without getting shot.  There are neighborhoods located next to factories and highways where just the simple act of breathing can lessen one’s lifespan.  There are housing complexes where the rats outnumber the residents three to one.  Some areas of New York draw hordes of Jersey Shore wannabes who use sidewalks for toilets after they’ve been thrown out of their last club.  And yet Upper East Siders, at least those who call into 311 or talk to local community boards, are most upset about…bicycles.  Congratulations, Upper East Side, you’ve won life’s lottery!

Then there was this sequence of paragraphs, which I found a tad confusing.

Biking in New York is safer today than during any time in the city’s history. As daily ridership has increased (some estimates claim it has almost doubled since 2005 to more than 200,000 daily riders), the yearly number of cycling fatalities and injuries has remained flat or declined, and the percentage of riders who are injured while riding has fallen dramatically.

This year, however, the city will see a slight increase in the number of cycling fatalities and accidents in its year-over-year numbers, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from the New York City Police Department.

There were 19 cyclist fatalities in the city through October 31, seven more than in all of 2009. In the same period, 3,505 bikers were injured in crashes with motor vehicles, more than last year’s total and up 20% compared to the first 10 months of last year. If the current rate of injuries continues, the percentage of daily riders who sustain injuries in 2010 will rise slightly.

On the one hand, as cycling has gone up injury and fatality rates have gone down.  On the other hand, cyclist fatalities and accidents are up slightly over last year.  But is that because there are more bikes on the road or because enforcement against cars has grown more lax?  Also worth noting is that the article cites statistics for bikers injured in crashes with motor vehicles, but there are no statistics for pedestrians or bikers injured by bikers, just one unfortunate story of a child hit in Park Slope.  Sounds more like a case of a jerk being a jerk, and not evidence of a city-wide plague.

Which brings me to the DOT’s Don’t Be a Jerk campaign. On the one hand, I agree that there are a lot of jerks on bikes.  It’s hard not to notice when a biker does something idiotic or illegal as he rides.  But noticing such behavior and focusing on it are two very different things.  Why is there so much of a focus on bad biking?

Reckless bikers stand out precisely because they are not cars.  Fifteen drivers could clog an intersection blocking the box trying to make an illegal left turn as they talk on their cellphones, but what would little old ladies on the Upper East Side notice?  The bike messenger weaving in between the cars.

It is a sad state of affairs, but we have so accepted that cars are part of the ether that we tend not to notice or the ways in which drivers act like jerks, or, more accurately, break the law.  They speed, run red lights, stop in crosswalks, make illegal U-turns, back up down one-way streets, fail to signal, cut across lanes to make turns, park on the sidewalk, double park, and stop in no standing zones.  And those are just the violations one can observe.  Add in unlicensed drivers, distracted drivers, and drunk drivers and you’re still just at the tip of the iceberg.

When people complain about jerky cyclists, they are typically talking about a handful of violations: Riding on the sidewalk, riding against traffic, and running red lights.  It’s not hard to find other examples of stupid behavior, but these three are guaranteed to be the chief complaints you’ll see on blogs and in newspaper editorials.  But the thing is they are easy to fix: Build infrastructure that encourages compliance.  On Prospect Park West, 46% of bikers rode on the sidewalk before the bike lane was installed.  After?  Four percent.

Is the threat posed by bikes so big it warrants a celebrity-filled PSA campaign?  My feeling is no.  Every dollar spent on a PSA telling cyclists to not be a jerk is a dollar that isn’t spent on bike lanes or other infrastructure that will actually change behavior and encourage more people to ride, allowing polite, law abiding cyclists to start outnumbering the jerks.  It’s also a dollar that isn’t spent on enforcing laws that prevent the far more deadly consequences of illegal and dangerous driving; while I can’t discount the fact that some cyclists are just assholes, there are a lot of bikers out there who break laws because it is sometimes safer for them to do so.

The people sitting on the sidelines right now debating whether or not to get on a bike and ride are not the messengers or Williamsburg hipsters who may be more inclined to salmon or break the law than others.  They are women, moms, kids, and older people who would bike if it just seemed safer out there.  Which is going to protect them more when they ride and help them follow the law?  A separated bike lane or a finger-waving Mario Batali?  NYC DOT, given the cost of an ad in the New York Times or on Channel 4, why don’t you build a bike lane instead?  The people inclined to break the law aren’t reading the Times or watching network TV anyway.

One Comment
  1. November 22, 2010 10:41 am

    Good stuff, thanks.

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